Sane strategies for managing the primadonna in your life

Michael Reichert, an owner, cofounder, and vice-president of ESI Communications Inc., a 12-year-old, $21-million Minneapolis-based provider of phones and Internet services, has the kind of personnel problem a lot of managers might love to have. He's got a young salesman who's driven, dauntless, and phenomenally productive; by all relevant measures, a star.

The trouble is, the guy knows it. And he's been driving his coworkers at the roughly 100-employee company nuts with temper tantrums, rude behavior, and other displays of his gargantuan self-esteem. Things have gotten bad enough that several staffers have come to the boss to complain. Reichert says, "They say, 'He's so demanding'; 'He's such a jerk'; 'He's condescending." Meanwhile, the salesman has developed a complaint of his own: many of his colleagues, fed up with him, have started to tune him out.

Almost every business has at least one person like this. Arguably, start-ups and growing companies actually need them: the supremely self-assured stars, the people with all the answers, the prima donnas. They make some of the most productive, imaginative, and effective employees. But their huge thirst for acclaim and autonomy, while driving them to excel, can also spark needless intramural tensions, depressing morale and killing productivity. They are the kinds of people you don't want to fire, even if you would occasionally like to strangle them. How do you drag your superstar back down to earth?

The problem of the office prima donna can take lots of different forms, ranging from the raging egomaniac to more subtle passive-aggressive types to people best described as "quirky." The one thing all prima donnas possess to varying degrees is a tendency to put themselves ahead of the team. The worst among them disrupt meetings, won't report to superiors, bully subordinates, and generally make life miserable for anyone who has to work with them. Not surprisingly, there is no one-size-fits-all method for managing them effectively. Joe McKinney, president of McKinney Lumber Inc., in Muscle Shoals, Ala., who has dealt with his share of egomaniacs, cracks, "Let's talk about world peace or something we can solve."

Still, according to a random sampling of executives at growing companies, there are some ways to identify and deal with prima donnas.

Avoid hiring them. If you've already got a "legend in his own mind" stalking the halls of your company, this may sound a bit like shutting the barn door after the horse is gone. But experienced managers who have learned the hard way say the best method for handling oversized egos is simply avoiding them in the first place. Marie Clapper, president and publisher of Clapper Communications Co., in Des Plaines, Ill., says that spending 20 years at the helm of a 50-employee specialty publishing business has taught her to weed out people who won't fit into the company's determinedly open, team-spirited culture. One giveaway she's discovered is identifying recruits who are uncomfortable with the company's "no locked doors" policy. Anybody who feels strongly about having the only key to his or her office, she says, isn't likely to fit in.

Likewise David Pitassi, founder of Drypers Corp., a Houston-based manufacturer of off-brand disposable diapers, says a question he's found useful in identifying prima donnas during interviews is to ask for examples of their having succeeded as a member of a team. Pitassi says he worries if the recruit can't think of a good answer or responds instead with a strong individual achievement. According to Pitassi, enthusiasm and a cooperative attitude are higher qualifications than mere talent any day of the week. "I'll take a team of average players working together over a team of superstars going in different directions," he says.

Put your cards on the table. Managers agree that one key to handling prima donnas is confronting them early and candidly and in as unthreatening a way as possible. Often the real problem behind their behavior turns out to be something other than merely a swelled head.

For instance, Richard Sturm, CEO of Industrial Publishing Inc., a Eugene, Oreg., printing business now in the process of launching a national operation, says he had trouble getting a longtime manager to change some of the procedures that had worked in the past but weren't part of the new national strategy. Sturm says that after he'd carefully explained to the executive what he wanted her to do, she would agree and then go back to her old practices. Finally, he forced a confrontation. Sturm found out that instead of thinking she was too smart to take orders from him, the manager believed that in his rush to do things his way, he was neglecting her ideas. "She felt that I wasn't listening to her," Sturm says, "and I probably wasn't." Sturm says once that was out in the open, he became optimistic that he and the manager would be able to work together rather than at cross-purposes. "If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said this person was going to be terminated," he says.

Michael Rosenberg, president of Horizon Foods Inc., a Long Island, N.Y., frozen-foods distributor, also says that opening up lines of communication is crucial. He says a healthy sense of one's importance is vital to star performers, particularly among the national staff of salespeople he oversees. "Would you rather deal with someone who has confidence or someone with 'I'm a loser' written all over his forehead?" he asks. But he concedes that an excessive winning attitude can easily become a problem. "I just got off the phone with a guy who's going to open a new territory for us in Texas, who's going to be great for us, but his strength is his weakness." Meaning? "He's a tough guy. He doesn't take any shit from anybody." A good quality when a salesperson is wrangling with competitors; bad when he or she is dealing with customers and colleagues.

Rosenberg says a key first step in getting through to such people is demonstrating that you and they are on the same side. The process is sometimes best initiated outside the office. "I like to try to make friends with these people," he says. "I take them fishing. I have them over to my house, and I have my house set up for that purpose. I have my kids play with their kids. I have my wife spend time with their wives." Once a rapport is established, Rosenberg says, he tries to lay prima donna behavior out as a problem to be solved jointly rather than a personality flaw the employee must fix on his or her own. To that end, when problems come up, he literally swaps chairs with the employee and asks him or her to pretend to be the boss for a minute. "If you were in my shoes, how would you handle this?" he asks.

Find the button. While honesty is usually the best policy, some managers find that subterfuge and indirection work even better. Drypers' Dave Pitassi, for instance, admits to having given some prima donnas in his employ "enough rope to hang themselves." Then they either learn from their mistakes or move out of the company.

Other managers say short-circuiting prima donna behavior involves a little amateur psychology. As Industrial Publishing's Richard Sturm says, "Everybody's got a button." The trick is identifying it.

For example, William Porter, president of McMullen Argus Publishing Inc., a $60-million publishing company based in Placentia, Calif., rides herd on the editors of 27 specialty automotive magazines. Writers and editors, he says, are a notoriously temperamental bunch. "They all think they're Ernest Hemingway." One particularly bad case, Porter says, was the editor of a magazine specializing in European cars who neglected the nuts-and-bolts kind of service stories Porter says readers want, in favor of more elegantly written pieces. "Don't just write about coming down the Alps in a beautiful BMW," Porter gripes. "You've got to tell readers how to buy them, how to fix them." That approach didn't interest the editor, who dismissed Porter's prodding and suggestions for stories, not to mention his periodic reminders that the company published other magazines with smaller circulations whose ad sales were generating 50% more revenues.

Eventually, Porter says, he decided to employ a little one-upmanship. Instead of just ordering his editor to produce a fact-laden piece about a new sports car, Porter tried an indirect method, using information he had gleaned from his ad-sales staff. "When BMW came out with a new roadster, I got some advance word on it, and I said to the editor, 'You know, we should do something about that new BMW." Then, to the amazement of his editor, Porter launched into a detailed monologue about the car's specifications and features. Porter says, "He checked it out and thought, 'Jesus, that guy knows what he's doing." Porter got the kind of results he wanted without having to butt heads with his subordinate.

The ultimate question to ask yourself about prima donna employees is, Are they worth the grief they're causing you? While often it can be hard to tell, sometimes the sheer bulk of administrative work a big ego can generate for a boss and for coworkers makes the decision easy. "Weigh the paper," Drypers' Dave Pitassi suggests, "weigh the E-mails."

Pitassi says if the headaches consistently exceed the benefits, you should not hesitate to fire a prima donna employee, no matter how talented. Pitassi remembers firing a manager because he refused to get in line behind strategic decisions even after a consensus had been reached among other managers. "The irony," Pitassi says, "was that I probably agreed more with him," and he adds that if the man ever came to him looking for start-up capital, Pitassi would back him in a minute. Nonetheless, the friction the employee created inside the company far outweighed the strength of his ideas, Pitassi says, and both the company and the employee were ultimately well rid of each other.

Other prima donnas, however, are less disruptive, and the best among them can be worth whatever it takes to accommodate them. Six years ago Matthew Maier launched Maier Marketing Synergy Inc., in Minneapolis, a $5-million, 15-employee marketing company serving food-industry clients. The talented creative director he hired came complete with his own set of quirks, the largest being that he insisted on working out of his home, coming to the office only for the occasional client meeting. "He's sort of a reclusive guy anyway, and he just wanted to stay in his basement and do his work. So he worked for two years in his house, and I started an agency with a creative director off-site," Maier says. Since then, the creative director has moved into an office at the company's headquarters, but Maier says his hours are totally unpredictable. The arrangement has sometimes proved awkward, but the quality of the creative director's work has made it worthwhile.

As for ESI's Michael Reichert, he's hopeful he'll be able to gently persuade his star salesman to learn to say "thank you" and "please" to his coworkers. Reichert says perhaps a breakfast meeting out of the office--or even a round of golf--will provide the right nonthreatening atmosphere for such a chat. Reichert, after all, admits to being sympathetic to aggressive salespeople with big egos.

"I am one--with one," he says.

This is the highly productive star who can't stop reminding everyone how great he is. Inconsiderate to subordinates, overbearing with colleagues, he is deeply, passionately, and hopelessly in love with himself. And while he's a big producer, he's not remotely as magnificent as the image he sees in the mirror.

This prima donna's motto is "Strength through weakness." She's the kind of person who'll say, "Yes, yes, yes," when asked to do something, and then never produce. Intelligent and able, she's strangely unable to get anything done without a tremendous amount of hand-holding on your part and anxious dithering on hers. She may have serious personal "issues" best sorted out in psychotherapy.

His work is creative, ambitious, and original. It's also late, expensive, and disorganized. No budget or timetable may be allowed to hinder the subtle workings of his genius, and neither may considerations like company policy or the human needs of his coworkers. You put up with his pretentions only because his ideas are so good.

He's been with the company since day one, and he's worked with you through all the lean times. You've always loved him like a brother. The problem: he thinks he's paid his dues and that his long tenure exempts him from the rules. He comes in when he feels like it, leaves when he feels like it, works when he feels like it. Everybody speaks warmly of him, but it's been a long time since anyone used the word productive in doing so.

You'd fire her in a second if you didn't rely on her so much. Everybody's afraid of her, and her temper tantrums and screaming fits are the stuff of company legend. She's a living rebuttal to all your noble talk about treating employees with respect. The only trouble is that her little Stalin act produces great results. When the people around her aren't quaking in fear, they're working like beavers. If you give her a pink slip, you might find yourself taking your bows in bankruptcy court.

Handling Good Ol' Charlie

Many experts think there might be something about your organization that provokes prima donna behavior. The psychological roots of prima donna behavior can be deep and complicated. Pierre Mornell, a Mill Valley, Calif., corporate psychiatrist, says, "Underneath every big ego is a weak ego. They're very, very fragile." Even so, Mornell says, the ability to alter the drives and needs of such wounded bullies is way beyond the skills of most managers--or most people, for that matter. Short of a major life crisis like illness or a death in the family, he says, people who are overbearing jerks today will likely be overbearing jerks tomorrow.

Other management experts, though, say there are some organizational causes of prima donna problems in growing businesses that you can do something about.

Swelled heads often come to the surface in a business that's making the transition from being a scrappy start-up to a more settled managerial culture. Often the hard-charging big producers who thrive early on turn out to be aggravating morale problems down the road. Unfortunately, says William Cockrum, professor of entrepreneurial finance at the John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA, "there's no way to know at the beginning who's going to be able to make the transition and who isn't." Lawrence Steinmetz, president of High Yield Management Inc., a Boulder, Colo., consulting firm, calls those who don't make the transition examples of the "good ol' Charlie syndrome. This is the guy who's been around since day one, and he built or dang-near built the company himself. Now he feels he deserves special consideration."

What can you do about him?

Treat him like everybody else. Under no circumstances, management experts say, should you grant your prima donna a dispensation from the rules everybody else has to follow--no matter how indispensable you think he or she is. Steinmetz says, "The cemetery is full of indispensable people, and once you start thinking that way about someone, you create all kinds of problems: morale problems and potential legal problems."

Steinmetz adds that if you've made the mistake of letting your prima donna get away with something you wouldn't tolerate from anyone else, the only solution is to tell him or her in no uncertain terms that the free ride is over. Steinmetz says most employees will choose to toe the line rather than quit. Those that leave, he says, are doing you a favor.

Figure out what you're doing wrong. Prima donna behavior can also be a result not of bad attitudes or big cultural shifts in a company but of specific instances of bad management. Alfie Kohn, a Massachusetts consultant and the author of Punished by Rewards and other books, goes so far as to say, "In the overwhelming majority of cases, problems attributed to attitudes of subordinates are really problems of management. Some people may be dismissed as hard to handle or prima donnas when they're just more vocal about participating in decisions, and rightly so." For example, Kohn says, if you have a rule to which you need to make exceptions in order to accommodate your stars, it's probably a bad rule, and one you shouldn't have at all--for anyone.

Make sure the problem isn't in the eye of the beholder. Finally, sometimes managers see problems where there are none. Cockrum of UCLA says that what may seem like prima donna behavior sometimes stems from "the single-biggest mistake managers make": expecting their subordinates to think and act like them. Entrepreneurs without a lot of management experience sometimes see differences in style or opinion as problems of attitude.

Cockrum says the simple yet very difficult secret to avoiding that mistake is for CEOs to manage people as individuals, not as mere carbon copies of whoever the boss thinks he or she is. Cockrum concedes that it's not easy to identify the motivational needs of different people. But, he adds, "that's what management is."

Peter Carbonara is a writer based in Boston.

Resources: From our CEOs and experts you may have gotten more ideas about how to handle your prima donnas than you can use. But if you want to read more, here are some suggestions: Tough-Minded Management: A Guide for Managers Who Are Too Nice for Their Own Good, by Gareth S. Gardiner (Fawcett/Ballentine, 800-733-3000, 1993, $10); Dinosaur Brains: Dealing with All Those Impossible People at Work, by Albert J. Bernstein and Sydney Craft Rozen (Ballentine Books, 800-733-3000, 1996, $11); and Dealing with People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, by Rick Kirschner and Rick Brinkman (McGraw-Hill, 800-722-4726, 1994, $12.95). Kirschner and Brinkman also have an audiotape and a video, both called How to Deal with Difficult People, which are available through RnR Productions (800-556-9996).

And finally, The A-to-Z Book of Managing People, by Victoria Kaplan and Robert Kunreuther (Berkley Books, 800-631-8571, 1996, $14), has some good and brief advice in the "K" section under Know-It-Alls. The book also has a useful bibliography of further readings.

CLAPPER COMMUNICATIONS, Marie Clapper, 2400 Devon, Suite 375, Des Plaines, IL 60018-4618;

WILLIAM COCKRUM, John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management, University of California at Los Angeles, 110 Westwood Plaza, Room C305, P.O. Box 951481, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1481; 310-206-6334

ESI COMMUNICATIONS, Michael Reichert, 5959 Baker Rd., Minnetonka, MN 55345; 612-930-4400

HIGH YIELD MANAGEMENT, Lawrence Steinmetz, 3333 Iris Ave., Boulder, CO 80301; 303-442-8115

HORIZON FOODS, Michael Rosenberg, 111 Express St., Plainview, NY 11803; 516-937-1550

INDUSTRIAL PUBLISHING, Richard Sturm, 2895 Chad Dr., Eugene, OR 97408; 541-342-1201

ALFIE KOHN, 242 School St., Belmont, MA 02178; 617-489-6300

MAIER MARKETING SYNERGY, Matthew Maier, 181 Cheshire Ln., Suite 100, Minneapolis, MN 55441; 612-449-4386

MCKINNEY LUMBER, Joe McKinney, P.O. Box 3689, Muscle Shoals, AL 35662; 205-383-7995

MCMULLEN ARGUS PUBLISHING, William Porter, 774 S. Placentia Ave., Placentia, CA 92670; 714-572-2255

PIERRE MORNELL, 1 Park Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941; 415-383-1155

DAVID PITASSI, Drypers, 801 S.E. Assembly Ave., Vancouver, WA 98661; 360-693-6688