How Disruptive is the Prima Donna to the Team?

Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) is considered by many to be one of the greatest female opera singers of all time (if not the greatest). She was a true diva – from the Italian for “goddess”; the very embodiment of a prima donna – a “leading lady”.

Yet Sutherland “was the most self-effacing of prima donnas: totally unpretentious, always uncomfortable with what she called the ‘hoo hah’ of acclaim and firmly resistant to the label of operatic goddess … always infinitely obliging to the armies of autograph hunters who besieged the stage door when a performance was over … loved for her embodiment of all the national virtues – stoicism, humility, good humor and sheer ordinariness … by all accounts, a delight to work with … [she] never complained about the inconveniences of life on tour; never wasted energy on tantrums; never criticized another singer or took advantage of being a star.”[1]

So perhaps it is unfortunate that we in IT have come to associate the label prima donna with a completely different personality type; the “person who thinks she or he is better than everyone else and who does not work well as part of a team or group.”[2]

Ouch. Have you ever had to work with someone like that?

Sutherland possessed a key quality that separated her from those who fall under that second definition of prima donna – the quality of humility. Quite simply, “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people.”[3]

How important can humility, or humbleness be in an IT professional? Important enough that Lazlo Bock, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations identifies humility as one of five key hiring attributes for any job with the company – particularly, “ … the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.”[4]

“[The] people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time … [without] humility, you are unable to learn.”[5]

But what if you don’t work for Google, and come to find that you have a prima donna in your midst?

A corporate blogger for Microsoft suggests five ways to deal with the prima donna:[6]

  • Give the prima donna the extra attention that he or she demands – within reason
  • Find out what rewards will motivate the prima donna
  • Build a fence – either to isolate, or to force the prima donna to work with the team, depending on circumstances
  • Find out where the prima donna’s heart is – what is he or she really trying to accomplish (and be prepared for the possibility that it may be your failure!)
  • Make the prima donna accountable

And be prepared for the possibility that none of these will work.

If you’ve invested sufficient time and effort into trying to get your prima donna to change, without results, it may be time to simply cut your losses, and tell him to take his performance to some other stage.


Jim Tyson – Word to the Wise

I am an IT Senior Executive www.linkedin.com/in/jimtyson1/ with over 30+ years of experience. I have a passion for human nature and Information Technology – working to understand the relationships between both to create productive environments.

Please share your comments and thoughts below and tweet them to @JimT_SMDI .


[1] The Telegraph, Obituaries, October 11, 2010, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/music-obituaries/8056995/Dame-Joan-Sutherland-OM.html

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prima%20donna

[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/humility

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/opinion/sunday/friedman-how-to-get-a-job-at-google.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] http://www.microsoft.com/business/en-us/resources/management/leadership-training/5-ways-to-manage-the-prima-donna.aspx

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Corinne Stubbs

Awesome blog, Jim. I really enjoyed the five ways (courtesy of a Microsoft blogger) to deal with a prima donna. Do you have any suggestions as to how to diplomatically make a prima donna work more with the team?