Discover more from Admired Leadership Field Notes
Managing a Prima Donna
Some colleagues think so highly of themselves that it’s a wonder their feet stay on the ground.
In extreme cases, a colleague who has an obsession with their own self-worth will quickly get rejected by the team and depart thinking everyone was blind to their greatness. In more mild versions, a team member with an inflated sense of self is merely temperamental and hard to manage. We call such a colleague a Prima Donna.
Prima Donna is a derogatory term that originates from the Italian Opera. It is a label placed on singers who are extravagantly flamboyant, incredibly demanding, and excessively vain. In the workplace, we reserve the term to describe those difficult colleagues who have an oversized view of their skills and contribution. This makes them hard to stomach, and even harder to manage.
What makes the Prima Donna so difficult to lead and manage is their exaggerated view of their own performance. Because they believe they are the star of the show and invaluable, Prima Donnas don’t take feedback well. They are overly sensitive to any criticism or feedback regarding just about anything, but especially about their performance.
If this picture is not bad enough, it is common for leaders to placate the self-centered ego of the Prima Donna so as to avoid their whining and carrying on. With each positive review of their performance, they become even more unwilling to accept anything but praise and adulation. As long as they add value to the team, leaders learn to turn a blind eye and accept the idea that it is better to tolerate the Prima Donna than to suffer through their bad-tempered reactions to criticism or to lose them.
In most cases, this is a workable strategy; that is, until a new leader takes over the team. Prima Donnas are especially problematic for new team leaders.
When someone has been told, sometimes for years, that they are the top performer, they are unprepared for a different view. And they certainly are not prepared to hear it from someone who has yet to experience their greatness. The new leader faces the same dilemma as the previous manager, with one important exception. They have no earthly reason to evaluate anyone less objectively than they deserve, much less to coddle them. Prima Donnas get the same treatment as everyone else. Fireworks usually result after each exchange.
Good leaders don’t protect anyone from feedback and constructive criticism. No team member is indispensable and, thereby, above the candid reviews of colleagues, leaders, and peers.
Prima Donnas become who they are precisely because others fear the backlash of telling them the truth. They are good, but not above getting better. The sooner the Prima Donna is confronted with a healthy dose of reality, the faster they lose their inflated self-importance and begin to behave like everyone else. Good leaders new and old are required to give every team member their candid assessment. There are no Prima Donnas on high performing teams.