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Following on from discussions related to Jacob G's question Encouraging a culture of punctuality and some related discussion in the site chat, I'd like to ask a closely related question:

I've worked with some superstar technical talent in my career, and a small minority of them have been "Prima Donna Programmers" - believing that they are better than the rest of the company, not understanding or caring that their work habits are affecting other teams, etc.

How can workers like this be made to understand the "big picture" and better integrated with the rest of the company? Are there any time/resource management or motivational techniques that can be applied, or are we left with the hard choice between "Deal with them the way they are" and "Dictate new terms, then fire them if they don't comply"?

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How can workers like this be made to understand the "big picture"? --- You can't make anyone understand something. The saying goes, "I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you." –  L_7337 Mar 17 at 16:05
    
@L_7337 Most adults are capable of understanding a great deal when it's properly explained (and there are some great techniques for that in the answers). Sadly the only effective solution to someone who is really too dense (or too deliberately obtuse) to get that there's a "big picture" that they're supposed to be contributing to is often getting rid of the affected individual. –  voretaq7 Mar 17 at 18:48
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6 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

This is one of those dangerous personality types; dangerous, because they aren't likely to change. When hiring (or being hired yourself), stay away.

The reality is people aren't likely to change anything. People learn, but they don't change their personality. If a person is not open to learning by nature, there isn't much you can do.

But is the choice really, "deal with them the way they are" or "dictate new terms/fire them if they don't comply"? Maybe, but the second isn't really an option at all — successful teams are built on trust and rules/ultimatums don't get you very far with trust. I would go for a third option, if you have the power to make this happen:

Make it clear that what makes an individual successful is making the team successful.

Prima donnas have no place in such an environment. A person gets to be a prima donna by being rewarded (in some way) for being the smartest person.* Make sure that doesn't happen and that everyone else is aligned in making the team succeed, and the prima donna will either need to follow or they will stand out for not helping accomplish (or even impeding) the team's goals.

Likewise, the team's goal is to make the company successful. If not, the team itself is a prima donna. If lack of alignment around company mission/vision (or lack of company vision altogether) is a problem for you, I recommend the Entreleadership podcast series, particularly episode 2 (interview with Tony Hsieh of Zappos), 10 (team unity with Tony Dungy) and the Jim Collins episodes. I'd copy down some of the advice but the topic is too big and I could not do the interviews themselves justice.


* Some people are rewarded by their own personal feeling of superiority when they put others down. These people are the most unlikely to change. They will probably need to go.

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I agree with everything you've said, except I think what makes an individual successful is making the whole company successful -- More often than not the folks I've worked with are OK with their immediate team, but lose perspective / don't care when something from outside their little corner of the company is the business driver. Any tips on helping them get a "whole company" perspective, for example if you're dealing with a while team of prima donnas? –  voretaq7 Apr 12 '12 at 22:33
    
Good point, thanks. I've added a note to that effect. –  NickC Apr 12 '12 at 22:41
    
-1: you have just given the gist of a dystopian, conformist, environment where mediocrity is rewarded and getting ahead is discouraged. it is scary that you got as many upvotes as you did –  amphibient Dec 7 '12 at 16:01
    
@foampile It's possible that either you and I have interpreted the situation in the question differently, or I have not explained my answer in a way that makes sense to you. If you knew me, you'd know that I can't stand groupthink and in no way think mediocrity should be rewarded or getting ahead is discouraged. Specifically, I was responding to "not understanding or caring that their work habits are affecting other teams". Perhaps if you could expand your complaints with my answer, I could fix it in such a way that we might agree more? –  NickC Dec 7 '12 at 21:29
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First, you have to figure out if you are a process oriented company or a results oriented company.

In a process-oriented company, there are neither heroes nor stars. How you do your work is more important. Coming to work on time, getting the right cover sheet stapled to your TPS report and things like that. There are no favorites, nor stars, in a process-oriented company, and this is the kind of company who will deliberately fire anyone found to be indispensable, or who deviates from the policy manual. A common example of a process-oriented company is a fast food franchise: the goal is for every burger to be the same at every store in the country. If you make a better burger, you'll lose your franchise with them. There is a huge impedance mismatch between the typical software developer and a process-oriented company.

In a results-oriented company, stars and heroes are very common. What you get done is more important than how you got it done. When someone complains "waah, Bob is a prima donna!", the answer in a results-oriented company is along the lines of "Bob gets his product shipped on time, on spec and on budget. What have you done lately?"

It is possible to transform a results-oriented person to fit into a process-oriented company (and vice versa), but the transformation is hard and requires a lot of work that most modern people are unwilling to do (since there is no magic button one could press to do it).

not understanding or caring that their work habits are affecting other teams

For this issue, one of the more relevant technique that can work with neurotypicals is to try to establish a sense of rapport between the guilty party and their affected victims and then maneuver the person into a sense of guilt. This is not going to work on someone who is a little more aspergery than typical for our profession: inability to empathize is one of the traits of aspergers. Keep in mind that if it weren't for aspergers, there would be no Silicon Valley.

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I found myself working for a "process-oriented company" as you describe above once. I quit within a week. If I were in that situation again I'm sure that I would either quit or kill myself: Companies like that are soul-suckers. –  voretaq7 Apr 14 '12 at 5:19
    
This is a brilliant answer! I especially love There is a huge impedance mismatch between the typical software developer and a process-oriented company –  amphibient Dec 7 '12 at 16:11
    
Go ASPIE !!! it's a blessing, not a disorder –  amphibient Dec 7 '12 at 16:13
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The way I look at it there are two kinds of prima donnas, those who genuinely are superstars and those who are developers with an inflated idea of their own value and an attitude problem.

Let's start with the second case as that is the easiest to deal with. Fire them and replace them with someone who will have a decent attitude. If they aren't providing anything special, your whole team is better off without them. They are like a cancer at the heart of your organization.

The guy who is genuinely a superstar is harder. If you really, really need his skills, you may have to accomodate his arrogance. Then the trick is to make the others see why they don't get the same anount of flex. There is always resentment if one person seems to get better treatment than others. You really need to make the rest of team understand. If you don't really really need those superstar skills, then you and he may be happier if he moves on. You may still need to talk to him and let him know he is causing a problem with the rest of the company and that he needs to work with you some to fix it.

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What I find works, with employees just as with children, is right in the title of your question: expectations. There are people out there who, as you say, just don't get certain aspects of the workplace. Telling them explicitly what you expect from them can work wonders.

  • I expect that you will get the work assigned to you done
  • I expect that you will not interrupt high-priority work others are doing, to ask them to help you complete lower-priority work
  • I expect that you will report problems and blockages to me before the all hands status meeting
  • I expect that you will allow time every day to pause your own high priority work and help others who are having problems or issues
  • I expect that you will update your work items yourself and not presume that verbal status updates in a meeting will cause others to update them for you

Believe me, a person doesn't have to be a technical superstar to exhibit prima donna behaviours. It's just that they're the only ones who get away with it. When technically great people come and tell you they didn't get their pri 1 tasks done because a "help vampire" coworker bullied them into helping/doing-it-for-me with a set of pri 3 tasks, then the smug "I got all my tasks done this week" smile of said coworker doesn't last long. You can fire them, and your company will be fine. You can certainly discipline them without worrying you will lose them as a result. Things are different when it's your superstar. I know what it feels like to hold back when someone is clearly being wrong, because you think you need their skills.

If you have big picture needs that are not being met, whether it's communication, "overhead and paperwork", supporting coworkers, supporting your process, whatever, a boss needs to set expectations with everyone that they have to do it. It may seem crazy to fire a good developer for not doing timesheets. But in some companies, it's crazy to bill less than you could, or to be unable to manage and estimate, because someone won't provide information the company needs.

I come from a place of "Chris doesn't realize these things are important here" and so the first few times, it's private and it comes with an explanation. "Chris, I want to bill [a client] today so the money will be here in time for payroll, and I have no idea how long you spent. Get me those numbers right away please." If I'm always having to do that, then it becomes "Chris, I'm billing next week and I don't want to have to ask you to drop everything and get me my numbers. Please catch up your timesheets today." Eventually it becomes public, say at a status meeting "and next week is billing, everyone up to date on timesheets? Really? Chris, yours were 2 weeks behind when I checked just before I came in here. Make it right this afternoon, please." This reiterates your values to everyone and makes it clear where you stand on things. "Chris" will either start doing the damn timesheets like everyone else, or leave, or be fired. I don't threaten to fire people in status meetings, and I don't go to public shaming as step 1, but after a while this isn't about not knowing I care about timesheets (or work items, or documentation, or whatever else Chris is too good for), it's about not knowing I consider it a condition of employment.

[Note: I chose Chris because it's a gender neutral name. But I just remembered I used to employ a Chris. He was no prima donna and not only didn't do the things I mention in this example, he didn't allow them from others either. Just in case anyone ever draws some kind of connection. Just needed a gender neutral name.]

I have put up with crap in my time, partly from conflict avoidance and partly because "the rest of his work is so good" and I've come to realize that the impact on the rest of the firm of prima donna behaviour can outweigh the good they do. Either let everyone behave that way (maybe the timesheets are pointless after all), or get the prima donna in line.

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Have you considered the possibility that the prima donna workers may in fact be the way they are because it is their drive and personality that made them that way. Extremely successful people don't get where they are by being average, mediocre, falling in with the crowd, and just blindly doing what others want them to do.

Take Steve Jobs for example. If you worked with him, you probably would have felt that he was a prima donna. Everything had to be his way and everything had to be perfect. In one example, he actually told the engineers of one of the first Mac computers that the circuit boards inside the machine weren't beautiful enough.

In the end, he made a lasting, positive impact on the world, and we might attribute this to his eccentricity, stubbornness, and persistence.

Creative people, entrepreneurs, developers, designers, writers, painters, musicians, chefs, and many other people who do creative work, tend to be more eccentric. The greater the contributions, the more eccentric the person may be.

We even had a moderator on the Mathematics site who, according to meta posters, was a genius. Yet he couldn't get along and follow simple rules of the site.

While this was an extreme case, it highlights the fact that some of the most gifted and talented people in our society will sometimes do things that others may not agree with.

Therefore, you can weed out all of these gems out of your organization and replace them with a manufactured series of mediocre automatons who will blindly follow orders, or you can embrace the people who set high expectations for themselves and who bestow greatness upon the world. These same people will also expect a lot in return and make no allowances for anything they don't believe in.

These people wouldn't have achieved the things they've achieved if they just blindly followed the flock or given into the whims of what others considered to be "the rules."

This Apple Commercial from the Think Different Campaign may inspire you to rethink how you deal with these so-called prima donnas. If you look carefully enough, you may discover that these people are a lot more than what you see on the surface.

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Many of the prima donnas I've worked with have been excellent from a pure skills standpoint - unfortunately if we can't get those skills to mesh with the company in a way that makes us money we're not getting any value out of them... –  voretaq7 Apr 13 '12 at 20:50
    
@voretaq7 - Then the main question is whether or not those people don't mesh with the company because of a bad attitude, or is there some underlying control issue in the company culture? Check out this question about enforcing punctuality. The op admits to being a new team lead, and I wonder if there isn't perhaps some kind of control or power issues that are getting in the way. Smart people don't like to work in a culture of command/control. If we want to be great, sometimes we have to let people just be different. That's what makes them great. –  jmort253 Apr 13 '12 at 23:34
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Not to hijack, but I consider myself a smart person. I recognize the value in making small sacrifices to improve the overall company culture. My issue is not one of control, it's one of improving departmental PR to make us more efficient not only as a dev team but as a company. Small sacrifice, huge gain, no impact on individual greatness, large positive impact on departmental greatness. –  Jacob G Apr 14 '12 at 1:10
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@jmort253 - FWIW, I have actually been managing technical teams for about 10 years now. This particular circumstance was the first time I came in as a Lead rather than a senior dev soon promoted to a Lead. Trust me, I totally approached this with kid gloves and didn't change anything until I got a good feel as to the history and current trajectory of the team. We're at a tipping though where things need to improve and they aren't. –  Jacob G Apr 14 '12 at 3:00
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Just because Steve Jobs was a prime example of a primadonna does not mean every primadonna is a hidden Steve Jobs. –  Owe Jessen Apr 17 '12 at 17:08
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I personally don't like the idea of labelling anyone as having a "difficult" personality, just because they have a different set of responses and motivations to those of their line manager or the corporate culture that require more effort to work with constructively. Especially when they are smarter than you.

The main challenges I have found with the "hero(ine) programmer" tend to be grouped three areas:

The first is the key person risk that they represent. Their combined skills set is likely to be irreplacable, and their desire for high productivity levels means that they can become frustrated with mentoring or training junior staff. This creates an issue of scalability, where the team cannot easily grow.

The second challenge is simply their skill level. When they stroll in and solve a technical issue in seconds that a junior staff member has been struggling with for days the impact on the junior staff can be shattering. They can feel they will never be able to catch up.

Finally, there is the issue of communication. The same drive that makes then highly productive can - but not always - result in a blunt and directive communication style, which can often create issues in the wider company.

These are broad generalisations, and may not fit every "hero" or "heroine" - more critically from time to time all of your team may exhibit these to a greater or lesser extent.

The main things I'd suggest are:

- no perks! If the "hero" needs something like flexibility in working hours, apply it to the whole team. This is easy for me because in NZ if I don't treat all staff equally then I can find myself on the wrong end of a legal employee dispute.

- fight the power: Work hard to protect your whole team from "organisational rain" and defend key areas like working hours or dress code as far as you can with senior management in the name of productivity and flight risk. When you can't win a battle, let them know, and apologise. Be honest and open, but let them know its a deal breaker.

- address communication issues immediately! if they overstep a mark, or you find yourself on the end of a thirty minute discussion from HR about how they upset the office sustainability commitee, then let them know as soon as is practical. Not in a conforntational or hostile way, but just let them know they upset someone, and part of your day has been lost to repairing the situation. Suggest alternative commication styles that could allow them to be more efficient and effective.

- ask for their help Consult with them on the key areas, especially regarding development of staff, reduction of key man risk, and process. Invite them to suggest solutions to these things. Include them in recruitment processes.

I suspect that all highly productive and innovative teams require a few people with hero tendancies; while it is an excellent idea to recruit in part for team fit over genius, managing smart and creative people is a balancing act.

I have had to manage the exit of one staff member where their actions were so disruptive to the rest of the team that their personal productivity wasn't worth it, but I've managed to retain a few, and stop them head-butting all the time.

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