Prima Donnas and the Workplace (By Pepper de Callier)

The term prima donna was originally used in opera companies to designate the lead female singer in an opera.  Over time, though, the term became a pejorative used to describe someone of either sex who was regarded as egotistical, unreasonable, irritable, and with a rather high opinion of themselves that was not shared by others.  Further, the term often is used to signify someone who, though temperamental, is essential and non-expendable.

I’m not a psychiatrist, so I’m not going to speculate if it’s poor parenting, a bad or non-existent relationship or a deep-seated insecurity that creates prima donnas, but I am qualified to comment on them as they relate to the workplace.  There is an excellent paper titled ‘One for All’ or ‘One for One’? The Trade-off between Talent and Disruptive Behavior, which was published last year by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.  I highly recommend this paper, which is available on-line, for anyone seeking more information on this topic.   It contains insights from three Wharton professors: Lawrence Hrebiniak, Peter Cappelli, Thomas Dunfee, and Linda Richardson and Katherine Nelson, who are Philadelphia based consultants.

Not addressing the bad behavior of a prima donna who is arrogant or abusive to colleagues or demands special treatment is tantamount to lobbing a grenade into a conference room because resentment will ferment among other members of the team and it will eventually—sometimes quickly—undermine the performance of the entire team, according to Katherine Nelson. 

Linda Richardson adds that the earlier someone in authority catches this behavior and addresses it through coaching or counseling the more likely that the organization will keep its stars and create win-wins for all involved.  She goes on to explain that the thinking about prima donnas is changing.  They might bring in lots of revenue, clients, notoriety and all the wonderful things businesses dream of having, but the cost of keeping them around is more than just hard dollars.  It is morale, public opinion, the bad example they set for others as well as their impact on the value system of the organization as a whole.  This is pretty strong stuff. 

The paper concludes by equating prima donnas with junk bonds: The potential return is high, but so is the risk.  By now you’re probably thinking, “Pepper, what a downer all this is!  I thought you were supposed to have a positive attitude!  What’s going on with you?”  “Don’t give up on me yet!”, I say to you. “Keep reading.”

I have a confession to make.  I love prima donnas.  But, a certain type of prima donna: the reformed prima donna.  This is the prima donna who has taken the time to step back and see the larger picture and is truly interested in increasing the value they add to an organization.  Yeah, it’s great to feel indispensable, but it’s even better to feel indispensable and know that the whole team is pulling for you and that they would do anything to help you be even more successful.

Let’s face it.  Prima donnas are usually very talented people.  They just haven’t experienced someone who cared enough about them as human beings to pull them aside and say something like, “Hey, Katka, we love you and we realize that you are one really super salesperson.  We want to give you even more support and encouragement, but we need your help on something.  There are other people on our team who, while not as visible as you, are still very valuable to the process in their own way.  Like all of us, they need a little acknowledgement and a kind word from time to time and to feel like they are a valued member of the team.  In other words to be treated with the dignity and respect that means so much to all of us.  It would be particularly meaningful if they got that recognition from you.  How about it?  Can you help out with this?”

If you’re managing a prima donna, or someone who is becoming one, I hope you will care enough about them and your other team members to pull them aside and tell them you care—you care about their future and the future of your other team members.

Reformed prima donnas cannot only be truly inspiring to an organization, but the reformation is like turbo-charging their careers.  Remember, in today’s world, it’s not what you do that people value the most.  It’s how you do it that adds greatness to whatever the achievement is and identifies you as a true leader.

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at

Follow Pepper on YouTube: A new inspirational video message is posted every Monday - Common Sense Wisdom: Thoughts to Live By. 

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