Managing Prima Donnas

by Patrick J. McKenna

The care and feeding of prima donnas: what to do when your top performer is a royal pain.

We all know the type. According to the monthly financial print-outs, this professional is everything any firm should expect to pay dearly to recruit. He is the first to arrive at the office every morning, usually with a new client matter in hand, puts in a stunning amount of billable time, and ensures that services are always delivered to the client's satisfaction.

Only small problem is that your firm may already be paying dearly simply to retain this professional.

Men and women of high achievement, sometimes brilliant, stubbornly insist on having their own way, often contemptuous of others. In many cases, absolutely no one else wants to work with this individual. This high performer is the one that is always relentlessly demanding of junior professionals and support staff. They continually ask them to drop everything they are doing; work on grueling assignments with little supervision, assistance, or feedback; and always expect that their client work should get top priority. They interrogate other professionals, criticize the work product, threaten to have staff fired, and behave as though no one is ever capable of meeting their obsessive standards.

This is also, all too often, the individual who makes it his mission to be obnoxious, arrogant, coarse and rude to everyone around him. They irritate, criticize, bruise, blunder, push, ridicule, deflate, intimidate and otherwise generally make pains of themselves. They seem to mind everyone else. s business but their own, and believes that holding internal firm matters in confidence means that you should whisper when telling others. They frequently interrupt the conversations that they weren't even involved in, and acts as though they were the acknowledged expert in all matters.

Difficult professionals come in all shapes and sizes: they are complainers, loners, backstabbers, rebels, and tyrants. They can push anyone to the limits and they can be pathetically irritating.

Almost every practice leader is faced with some professional who either has an attitude problem or is very difficult to work with. The negative effects of tolerating this behavior can be especially harmful as firms struggle to provide a congenial atmosphere that will foster the retention of their younger talent. So the ability to manage these oh-so-talented, but oh-so-annoying individuals is critical. Let's face it, top performers are not always the easiest professionals to lead. Why? Because they are creative, talented, and fiercely competitive.

Thus do prima donnas madden and gladden firm management simultaneously. You need them, but they needle you...and everyone else you depend upon.

Nonetheless, there are sensible ways to deal with difficult people. Handling them requires understanding and patience. One must be aware that they have attitude problems and need to be treated accordingly.


If you sometimes find it easier to simply ignore problem behavior, you are not alone because these discussions can be particularly sensitive. Most practice leaders tend to avoid them. Still others bemoan the individual's lack of motivation and their need to have someone talk to the person about shaping up, adjusting attitudes, straightening out personality quirks, and getting things to fall in line.

Admittedly, professionals are fiercely independent both in their technical and personal style. The line between individual expression and problem behavior can be a fine one, and requires managerial sensitivity.

Your main concern should be with behavior, not personality. Feedback that comments on general personality traits is destructive. The individual will only become defensive and subsequently turn off. If it is behavior change that you're after, point out the specific actions in question.

If you ignore problem behavior, others in your practice group may not ignore the fact that you are letting standards be lowered and acquiescing to the idiosyncrasies of one individual -- albeit a star performer. It may only be a matter of time before you have a major problem instead of one isolated case.

To decide if you have a behavior problem on your hands ask yourself the what if question. What if everyone disrupted practice group meetings? What if everyone expressed their anger toward junior professionals in front of clients?

Confronting behavior problems requires an approach that places the responsibility squarely on the prima donna's shoulders where it belongs and without damaging either the individual's self-esteem or your ongoing working relationship.

Here are a few key steps to take that have been proven from experience to help resolve these problems:


1. Describe actual situations that demonstrate the behavior you are concerned about.

If you are dealing with a professional who is being difficult, you must act quickly once you sense a problem. It has been proven that the sooner you react to disruptive behavior, the more likely you are to affect that behavior. You have to tell your colleague what specific behavior needs to change. The task requires enforcing tough standards of behavior.

Your goal here is to get very specific. Try to be as objective as possible. Specific examples, by way of something you have observed first hand or a situation that has been brought to your attention, will help the individual understand where the problems lie and serve as evidence that you are not just hallucinating or jumping to conclusions. In instances where the situation of concern was brought to your attention, you may need to calmly confirm with the individual the specifics of the situation.

2. Explain why it concerns you and express your desire for change.

Prima donnas usually have one thing in common: they respond well to candor. Don't be timid. Sometimes professionals need a mirror held up to them because they don't know how they are being perceived. You want to come away from this discussion with your colleague completely understanding that you are concerned enough to want a change in behavior.

Remember, you are concerned with behavior, not personality. Feedback that comments on general personality traits is destructive. Comments like, You have a tendency to offend others with your colorful language get better results than those that state, You're self-centred and inconsiderate. You must convey that this problem must be solved for the good of the practice group, not just to have your colleague toe the line. You are looking for a solution, not a showdown, and if this individual really understands why you're concerned, he or she will be more willing to commit to a solution.

3. Actively seek out and listen to the individual's reasons for this behavior.

You can't solve the problem if you don. t know why this individual is being difficult. Maybe he is being aggressive with everyone because he thinks that his clients value that characteristic. Maybe that is his interpersonal style with all of his relationships. Perhaps she has deficient training in communications skills, or there are factors outside of the office that are causing this behavior. You have got to listen to find out.

Describe what you saw as he stepped on some other professional's toes. Ask her how she thought others felt when she said or did what you described. Ask him if he always gets the results he wanted.

Because you are guiding a process through which the eventual solution to the problem must rest with the individual, you should get your colleague to start thinking about the reasons for their behavior. Sometimes just having the issue brought to their attention and having someone to talk to will allow the individual to analyze the problem and propose remedial action.

Don't get side-tracked in endless discussions. Ignore the prima donna who wants to philosophize, defend, debate or rant. Ask him if he thinks he should change his behavior or not.

4. Inform the individual how improving their behavior will improve their professional career.

Experience shows that if you place this situation in the context of career development, your colleague is more likely to be responsive. It is important to let the prima donna know what's in it for them if they change their behavior, how they will be more valuable to the firm, acquire more respect from their colleagues and how it may even affect their clients. Point out how they run the danger of alienating those whose cooperation they would benefit from. If you come across as being critical, you may get a grudging acknowledgment, but you are not likely to achieve observable or long-term behavior change.

5. Ask for the individual's ideas and commitment to solving the problem.

For any solution to have a chance of success, your colleague must fully accept that the problem is theirs, and not yours or anyone else's; and there must be a commitment to solving it. Any solution you may arbitrarily attempt to impose will seldom inspire the needed commitment. By asking for your colleagues input, you are placing the responsibility exactly where it belongs -- with the individual who needs to solve their problem.

Set small, realistic goals. Micro changes in behavior can be big victories. Change is achieved step by step. That compromise is not necessarily bad. Perfection is not always attainable.

6. Offer your encouragement and support.

While you can be sympathetic and you should display genuine concern, the important thing is to let the individual know that you are not being judgmental and have only their best interests at heart. If, in discussing the problem, you see a workable solution that the individual doesn't come up with, then do suggest it. In some instances, such as with acute stress, qualified professional assistance may be required. You can offer your support by way of finding out where to get the best qualified help, but your colleague must make the first move.

7. Agree on an action plan and set date to discuss progress.

You have to have the staying power to go back to you colleague time and again to make sure that they are on track. If this prima donna needs training or professional counseling, you make sure they get it. If he needs to improve his listening skills, you make sure that you provide the necessary one-on-one coaching to ensure that he keeps asking questions and learns how to active listen in order to draw other people out.

This step confirms your serious intention to see change. By setting an actual time and date you establish the parameters within which the problem behavior must be rectified. It may be helpful to have this individual feedback to you exactly what steps they are committing themselves to take.

For very difficult and challenging situations you may want to consider having someone else present for your discussions, ideally someone that this prima donna regards with some respect. Depending on the situation, you may also want to draft a memorandum either during or following the meeting.


Top performers usually get special treatment. If someone's performance is higher than the norm, their abrasive behaviors are usually tolerated. In most cases, practice leaders will go to great lengths to accommodate star performers. However, that same patience does not always extend to the mediocre, or those whose performance has dropped off. A prima donna with mediocre numbers is more likely to be treated roughly than a star producer with an attitude.

Practice leaders seem to operate as though you tell them what is expected and if they don't like it, they can leave. But talented professionals are rare, so you are willing to invest huge amounts of time in making sure they are happy.

Such double standards are short-sighted, particularly as professionals are increasingly being asked to work in practice teams. It can be very disruptive to a group when one professional is being difficult, and indulging that individual can foster resentment.

Bad attitudes shouldn't be tolerated in anyone. At some point, even a star performer with attitude isn't worth the effort. If you have to constantly sit down to deal with some prima donnas difficulties, it takes precious time away from helping the team work more effectively.

Copyright 1998. Patrick J. McKenna



Every practice leader has to deal with professionals who complain, throw fits, and in general, think the rules don't apply to them. If you think the prima donnas in your firm are worth nurturing, how do you handle them? Here are some examples to inspire your thoughts:

  • Fred Kiel, Founding Director, KRW International, Inc. (executive coaching firm)

One senior partner had an ego big enough to blot out the sun. During meetings, he would delight in picking his peers apart, making them look stupid. The current managing partner wanted to find out why he was acting in such a self-destructive way. So we interviewed dozens of his peers, juniors, support staff, as well as his wife, other family members and childhood friends. It turned out that he was small for his age in high school. He found then that the best way to compete was through intellectual achievement. He was arrested emotionally. He was a 14-year-old still using high school tactics. We spent two solid days with him revealing the truth that we learned about him. After that he was able to talk about his fears that were driving these competitive behaviors. He became much more humble.

  • Bill Westbrook, President and Creative Director, Fallon McElligott (advertising agency)

I had one professional who was insufferable. A very good writer, but nobody liked working around him. He gave the distinct impression that he was better than you were. I went to him and said, 'You know, you've got a lot of talent. I think you can do an awful lot in our firm, but you have to drop this attitude of pompousness. I'll give you two choices: 1) Stay like you are, but you won't be able to work here, or, 2) If you do want to work here, you need to go to [anatomical term deleted] school. That's our term for programs that deal with people who don't get along with others. The firm will pay for it. When you come back, you've got to apply what you've learned.' He attended the seminars, and it worked out great.

  • David Flaschen, President and Chief Executive, Thomson Financial Services

Give me a strong-ego who is a star performer anytime. If I cannot provide effective leadership to that kind of talent, I should be shown the door, not them.

  • Artie Isaac, President, Young Isaac, Inc. (advertising agency)

We have a guy who eats a roll of paper towels a month. I mean, literally, he chews on them. He had been here a few months, and he came in and said, Is there any way we could get Bounty paper towels? And I'm like, What? And he says, They taste a lot better. So I got Bounty. He's been a real producer, so we're going to buy Bounty for him.

  • Ewa Piwowar, Director of Privatization, Powszechny Bank Kredytowy S.A., Warsaw, Poland

I have a difficult professional on my team. He constantly complains that he isn't paid enough. Not only is he divisive, but I put up with it because he is brilliant. But I also give him magazine articles about energy vampires. That's our term for difficult people, whose behavior sucks energy out of everybody else. I think he guesses what I am trying to do, and then things change for a short time. But his personality is so strong that his ego comes back. So I give him yet another vampire article.