dr carl robinson

The Currency of Success - Interpersonal Intelligence™

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Dealing with a Prima Donna Employee

Jane Carter is the CEO of a 150-person, 5-year-old technology company that has been growing at a 20% rate each year. About one year ago, they recruited John, a star sales guy, to work for Bob, V.P. of Sales. John is a true rainmaker. He has boosted sales numbers and the whole company knows and loves him for it.

Unfortunately, as his numbers have increased, so has his cockiness. In fact, he has been outright condescending and abusive to anyone he thinks is not performing as well as he thinks they should or, in the case of administrative support, if they don’t respond to his demands. Recently, he was easily overheard yelling at a customer service staff member. Alan, V.P. of Customer Service, had complained to Bob about John and has had enough. He wants Bob to fire John. Bob is equally upset with John but knows firing him isn’t that simple. Bob realizes he needs to discuss this with Jane before taking any action. He meets with Jane, reviews what’s happening, outlines a couple possible solutions and asks her for advice.

This is an all too familiar occurrence. Most executives have had to deal with more than one “John” in their careers. Bob and Jane are caught in a classic bind; they don’t want to get rid of him (you don’t kill the goose who is laying all those golden eggs), but they know that he’s having a negative impact on morale and behaving in a way that is not consistent with their stated corporate values. They realize that, although his sales numbers are exceptional, the bottom line could well be damaged by low morale. They know that it costs about 10 times as much to bring in new business than it does to retain existing business. Thus, if John’s behavior increases employee turnover, especially in customer service, his actions could endanger existing business that would more than offset his high sales numbers.

High-performing employees won’t put up with John just to help the company grow; they know they are in demand and will leave to find greener pastures. As a result of holding on to John, you could lose your best employees and be left with lower performers. Not a recipe for ongoing success.

How to handle prima donnas in the workplace

While every organization is different, my suggestion for dealing with people like John is to determine if their behavior is a long-standing, unchangeable trait or if these behaviors can be changed with effort. Most importantly, this step will buy you some time with disgruntled employees and possibly help you make contingency arrangements, e.g., begin a confidential search for a replacement.

To execute this plan, Jane and Bob both must bring John in to discuss the situation to drive the point home and to show solidarity.

Confronting a difficult employee

Once Bob and Jane have John in the office, Bob should lead the discussion, since he is John’s direct superior. The conversation should go something like this:

“John, you clearly are a terrific sales person. We love your numbers and want you to continue being successful. However, there is a big problem. We’ve had too many complaints from other employees about how you are treating them. Most recently, for example, you were easily overheard yelling at Susie. That type of behavior is not consistent with our core values and cannot continue. There are other ways to deal with problems than by yelling at and berating people.”

Then, it’s important for Jane and Bob to discuss with John. This includes asking him, “Is this description of your behavior a surprise? How do you think it should be handled?” How John responds will help them decide what to do.

Response A: He may be overly defensive, make up excuses for why he does what he does and say something like, “If they would only do their jobs better, I wouldn’t have to yell at them.” In this case, it’s highly unlikely he will change, even under threat of being fired.

Response B: If he owns up to his behavior and asks to be given the chance to make changes, then it’s possible that he may change. However, in my experience, he will need help, because he probably doesn’t have sufficient emotional dexterity, self-control or alternative behavior strategies to behave in a more effective manner. He will need to learn how to handle his emotions and how to develop new interpersonal skills.

Deciphering employee responses to decide on a plan

With Response A, you will need to either move John out of the company or, if you have no ready replacement, create a place where he will have less contact with others and where he can do what he does best – sell. This may require a change in the organization’s structure. You’ll probably need to give him his own administrative assistant – one with a thick skin – and pay him or her dearly to put up with John. Bob will need to meet with John on a regular basis to keep him focused and in the loop, while separating him from everyone else as much as possible. The rest of the organization will understand why you’ve done this and be mollified – for the short-term. However, this tactic may undermine your core values because you are, in effect, condoning his behavior. My guess is that he will, within a year, move to another company. In the meantime, you’ve bought yourself some time to begin a confidential search to recruit a replacement.

For Response B, you will need to clearly define what type of behavior you expect and set a time frame for improvement with periodic status checks. There has to be follow-up and accountability. Also, generally, if an individual has offended others, he will need to apologize in some manner or the offended parties will not give him a chance to regain their support and trust. Understandably, apologizing is the hardest step for any executive, but it is absolutely necessary. He will also need to ask for their support while he learns new skills. In my experience, most people want to be supportive because we all know we could be in their shoes and progress benefits everyone – especially with a sales star like John.

Supporting new behaviors

John, with Response B, will also need some developmental coaching to learn new strategies, keep him accountable and provide him with the necessary emotional support. He needs someone to both push him and cheer him on. Changing and learning new behaviors takes time; a minimum of six months, usually longer. But keep in mind that you can’t be naïve. While you are supporting John in his development, you should develop contingency plans just in case he doesn’t progress – or decides to leave when the going gets tough.

If Response B works, you’ve spent a modest amount of money on coaching, but much less than it would cost to recruit a replacement. In addition, he will appreciate working for you even more because you helped him over a major hurdle and helped him acquire new skills that will help him be even more successful in the future. If John pulls this off well, he will also be modeling for the organization that everyone has room to grow and that it’s OK to admit you’re not perfect.

Lastly, you will reaffirm for the organization that your company values are real and that you are willing to invest in developing people. People stay with companies, not because of how much they are paid, but because of how much the company helps them grow.


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