Inspire, develop & celebrate creativity

How To Handle and Lead Prima Donnas

Prima Donnas in the mist, and how to harness their wild and untamed passion.

Prima donnas are not all bad; many of them us are extremely talented, take initiative and are hard workers, to name just a few of our many qualities. However, you will need to know how to bring out the best and minimise the worst if you are to gain the full benefits of all that prima donnas have to offer.

Understanding the Prima Donna

Prima Donnas often come across as strong willed, intense and unwilling to compromise. They have strong opinions regarding how a project should be done and who should (and should not) be on the team. However, the root causes of these issues are not necessarily bad.


Prima Donna Intersection. Venn Diagram

One reason why prima donnas are so demanding is that they have a great deal of skill and experience in their field. They are truly experts at what they do – and they know it. They will often notice small mistakes and slip-ups that others fail to see. They resent if someone on the team is not as dedicated as they are.

Talent are an loathsome thing to be short of. Be wary not to mistake an asshole for a prima donna and vice versa. If your team selection makes you ineligible to put the prima in ‘prima donna’ go for passionless performance, go for pro.

Understanding the “Call”

Being a prima donna I consider my job a life’s calling:

  • It is not a job, it is a mission. A higher purpose.
  • What we do gives us meaning; in fact, it is an integral part of our identity.
  • Good is never good enough. Prima donnas are continually trying to improve in their work and get as close to perfection as possible.
  • It is worthwhile to make personal and/or professional sacrifices to ensure the work is done right.
  • Emotions can run wild and deep.

Prima donnas are not necessarily workaholics, although many are. However, they are driven in their work and there is no way that a boss will be able to destroy a prima donna’s desire to fulfil his or her calling in the way that he or she best sees fit. Strive to channel this creative energy in ways that will best benefit the project. Channelling the energy, as opposed to stifling it, is the only way to make the most of a professional relationship with a prima donna.

Work-induced Euphoria Sparks a Hunger for the “High”

Prima donnas are happiest when they see their goals being reached. It is hard to describe the feeling as anything other than a high. This “high” is hard to attain but prima donnas do reach it from time to time. When they do, they are happy, fulfilled and usually easier to deal with than at other times.

There are two main factors that must come together for a prima donna to reach a “high”. One factor is that a final product or end result of a project must meet or exceed his or her expectations. The second factor is that the project or product must show significant, tangible, positive results.

The results do not necessarily have to involve a lot of monetary gain coming in from the project; in fact, there are plenty of prima donnas to be found doing humanitarian work from tree huggers to fund raisers. The philanthropic prima donnas gets the greatest pleasure from saving lives and/or making tangible improvements to a particular area. History are peppered with reformers and change agents.

Priming Passion

One of the best things a boss can do is to find out what makes a prima donna work well and then meet these needs. A prima donna who gets into the zone with his or her work will be very productive, happy and have a positive, responsive attitude.

What works well with one person may not work well with another, so it pays to do a bit of experimentation to see which work circumstances, projects and people a prima donna can handle best. The effort is more than worth it as a productive prima donna can do amazing work.

Avoiding Causes of Frustration

A boss who gets to know a prima donna will soon discover what makes a prima donna get angry, frustrated and out of sorts. It may be the office furniture, a certain colleague, the weather, a malfunctioning computer or what have you. In some cases there may be nothing a boss can do; he or she will simply have to weather the storm. However, in other instances a boss can take simple yet effective measures to avoid certain “frustration triggers” that will put a prima donna in a sour mood. Don’t let friction become frustration.

Provide Leadership

It is easy to make the mistake of allowing a prima donna too much freedom. In my experience, by leading prima donnas and being one, I have learned that at times we actually need more management attention than the average employee.

The best way to lead is to set goals and let the prima donna have a strong influence on how to best reach them. Do a revision early on. Unleash their talents then step safely aside and enjoy the spectacle.

One of the best way to get great work from a prima donna is to hold him or her to a high standard of excellence and let the prima donna know that their work is watched. Give instant feedback when a project is not up to snuff. Managers who take this approach will earn the respect of leading prima donnas who want to perform at a high level. Take a laid back approach to quality and you will lose a prima donna’s respect.

If you need to confront a prima donna do so without personal insults or labels. It is important to target what is wrong, not who is wrong. Do your best to keep personal feelings out of their critiques. (Read:  Dealing With Smart People Having Dumb Ideas)

Working with a prima donna is often exciting, rewarding, and never easy. However, such individuals have much to offer in the way of talent and creativity.

Managers do not have to be perfect to handle a prima donna; they simply need to have a high standard of excellence, be enthusiastic in their work and willing to adapt.