Three Reasons You Should Fire the Prima Donna January 27 2010

Primadonna Over my ten years as an executive coach, I’ve come across situations where one of my clients feels like they’re between a rock and a hard place because they have someone on their team who produces great results but alienates everyone around them. You know the type. It’s what we’ve come to call the prima donna. According to Wikipedia, the term comes from the world of Italian opera where the prima donna is the “first lady” – usually the leading soprano in the company with a reputation for arrogance, ego and irritability that makes them a real pain to deal with. These days the term has become gender neutral. Males can be prima donnas too. (American Idol’s Simon Cowell is the first male example that comes to mind.)

The prima donna dilemma has been on my radar screen a few times in the last year.  These situations usually have some common characteristics. The prima donna is talented in his domain and selectively builds relationships with a few key people who can help him accomplish what he’s trying to do. Meanwhile, he treats his teammates poorly and, as he puts more and more points on the board, starts making demands of the boss that have the whiff of extortion. You probably have seen how this plays out.  “If I don’t get the promotion, the raise, the big account, the glamorous assignment or whatever, I’ll take my services elsewhere and you’ll be left high and dry.”  He’ll usually make this move a few weeks or days before a critical meeting with a customer or in the midst of an important project where he’s  a player. Every time he gets what he wants it becomes fuel for a cycle of escalating demands down the road.

So, if you’re a leader with a prima donna on your team who keeps playing this game, what do you do?  It’s simple. Bite the bullet and fire them. Here are three reasons why you should:

1.    You’ll get more from the rest of your team. Prima donnas are productivity and morale killers.  When they’re playing their game, everyone around them is miserable, resentful and spending most of their energy griping about the prima donna. Take the diva (or divo as the case may be) out of the picture and everyone else is able to get on with the real work. As a leader, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by how much more creative the rest of your team is when they get to breathe some of the oxygen the prima donna was sucking out of the room.

2.    You’ll send the right message.  While it feels a little strange to quote Karl Marx in a leadership blog, curing a prima donna situation is one in which the good of the many outweigh the good of the few.  By getting rid of the prima donna, you send the message that the health and welfare of the team is more important than the ego needs of any one individual. Most people are motivated by being a part of something that’s bigger than themselves. You can’t create the conditions for that to happen when one person is demanding all of the spotlight.

3.    You’ll save yourself headaches in the future.  If you’ve had a prima donna on your team, you know that once the pattern of “give me more” is established, it rarely ends. As tough as it can be to let go of someone who is getting results at a critical time, you’ve got to do it and look at it as an investment in the long term success of your team. The analogy I make is to removing a band aid from your arm. You know that the adhesive backing on the band aid is going to pull some hairs out of your arm when you remove it.  You can just rip it off or peel it off bit by bit. Either way, it’s going to hurt. You might as well rip it off and get it over with. It’s the same thing with firing someone who’s established a history of being a long term source of heartburn and headaches. Get it over with.

OK, all of you leaders out there, let’s hear your stories on how you’ve handled the prima donna situations in your career.  What have you learned that the rest of us can benefit from?  What have I overlooked with my advice here?

6 Responses to “Three Reasons You Should Fire the Prima Donna”

  1. This might be your best post, yet! How many times I've witnessed and endured the prima donna factor in my career! Your points on why the prima donna should be fired are totally on target. Unfortunately, the reality is that so often that prima donna has been coddled and his/her egregious actions swept under the rug (or at least downplayed), so even when the manager has the moment of clarity on firing the employee, his/her performance appraisals do not equal those of one who should be fired. In the corporate world, those HR rules must be followed. So what do you do then? I know what usually happens … the person is let go in the next downsizing.

    Shirley

  2. Scott, I could not agree more. I have inherited employees who enjoyed the Prima Donna status. I first took steps to minimize the loss of their skill sets and then terminated them. Fortunately, I was in an at-will situation and there were no protected class issues.

    There is no question, Prima Donnas are destructive to the long-term success of organizations, especially when they are in management and their abusive nature is visited on their direct reports.

  3. Vinay Kumar says:

    Hey Scott,

    Great post. I must admit that I earlier in my life, I was one of those Prima Donna's you refer to. While I wasn't demanding in the sense you speak of, I had the feeling "my way or the highway".

    When I then moved from being a subject matter expert to team lead, it was tough, both on me and my team. Everytime someone didn't do something my way or as "perfectly", I would take it back. It was demoralizing to the team and my work load just got heavier and heavier.

    It took me a long time to learn that my way isn't the only way and to let go. Once I realize that, and overcame my own underlying fears, everything improved, including my own quality of life and work became more joyful for me and my colleagues.

    So I agree. Speaking as a former Prima Donna, either they change their ways, or they gotta go. Recalling the damage I caused to many early in my career, by keeping them, it's more damaging in the long run.

  4. Agree with the article and all the comments, and yet, there is some underlying drive, confidence, and determination to prima donnas (PD's) that remains somewhat admirable.

    When I was 24, I worked in an office with a person that was very close to being a PD. Someone was complaining about him to our boss, saying, "He seems to think his job is the most important one around here." My boss replied, "I wish EVERYONE thought their job was the most important one around here." It really struck me at the time, a reframe that I found intriguing and have not forgotten.

    Work – life – is a balance between Self and Other. Sometimes the line between prima-donna, and someone who is healthily expressing personal power, accountability, and the desire for just rewards is a really gray one. The key is for leaders to be able to see and appreciate the difference – and to be able to recognize which at-risk PDs are coachable, saveable, and possible lifelong assets in the rough.

  5. Rick says:

    Scott,
    Thank you and I couldn’t agree more. Coincidentally another leadership coaching site/blog/podcast that I subscribe to talks about the same thing in their latest post.

    http://www.manager-tools.com/2010/01/how-manage-a

    This one deals with how to deal with an arrogant producer and dovetails nicely with this most recent submission.

  6. Lucy says:

    I was led to this post by your recent remarks about the Olbermann firing on Govexec.com. I appreciate the insight into PD (prima donna) behavior. Do you have advice for Team Players when the boss will not manage the PD? Our boss has received consistent and widespread feedback about the impact of PD behavior on morale & productivity, yet he refuses to respond. We are coping as best we can, but it is not a healthy or professional situation.

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