Human Resources News & Insights

The most irritating personality in the workplace

If there’s one species of employee managers dread dealing with, it’s the prima donna. Here’s a look at what makes these people tick — and how they can be stopped.

Prima donnas are likely the most irritating people in the workforce.

They preen, they posture, they bully, they make outrageous demands. And much of the time, those demands are met.

The hardest part is, they’re often the company’s top performers.

Of course they are. How else could anybody justify keeping them around for so long, alienating staff and creating chronic headaches?

Some examples of the breed

Prima donnas come in all shapes, sizes, personality types and degrees of quirkiness.

A sample:

  • Joe (or Josephine) Cool. These folks are urbane, confident, knowledgeable – and never miss a chance to point it out to co-workers or superiors.
  • Vincent (or Vivian) Van Gogh. Soooo creative, these people can’t possibly be expected to follow the rules of the drones that surround them.
  • The Founding Father (or Mother). These are the folks who’ve been around forever – through the good times and the bad. They’re the main repository of institutional memory. Problem is, they think they’ve paid their dues – and don’t have to produce like they used to.
  • Conan (or Connie) the Barbarian. The office bully. The living, breathing rebuttal to the idea that when employees are treated with respect, they’re more productive. Sure, everybody in the department is miserable. But the results speak for themselves, right?

Personality traits

Regardless of which category they fall into, all prima donnas have two things in common: They’re not team players and they’re obsessed with themselves.

And almost universally, they’re nowhere near as self-confident as they want people to think.

Nine times out of 10, the corporate shrinks say, under that bluster lies an unusually weak ego.

Therein lies a blueprint for dealing with these folks.

Two-phase plan

Phase I: It’s a team issue. This is the tough love part of the process. Managers must make it clear that cooperating with co-workers and being part of a collegial atmosphere isn’t an optional exercise. It’s required.

That means every employee – even the highest performer – is expected to treat colleagues with courtesy and respect.

What incentive do prima donnas have to follow the team guidelines?

Some companies make it part of the compensation package. When a change in behavior means money in the pocket, prima donnas tend to pay attention to the rules.

Phase II: Prima donnas need to feed their egos.

That’s a double-edged sword. Giant egos can, no question, be destructive – but they can also be steered toward a positive outcome.

Example: Some companies co-opt prima donnas by making them key players in mentoring programs, where they can spout off about their accomplishments while teaching the business to younger workers.

Others find success by assigning the prima donna an important new initiative – such as a key market research project or a special campaign to land a crucial customer – something that won’t require a lot of interaction with co-workers.

The final decision

Are they worth keeping? No question, prima donnas are often valuable to companies. Start-ups especially benefit from the high-powered energy that prima donnas can bring to the table.

But there are times that these employees are simply more trouble than they’re worth. And then management has a critical decision to make.

There’s an old saying that goes, “The cemetery is full of indispensable people.” That sort of puts it in perspective.

Often, jettisoning the top-performing prima donna is a lot less painful than companies fear it’s going to be. Others step up to fill the vacuum, and morale gets a boost.

Adapted from the PBP Executive Report, The 7 Most Disruptive Workplace Issues — and How to Handle Them.  For further information, go here.

Print Friendly

Subscribe Today

Get the latest and greatest Human Resources news and insights delivered to your inbox.


  1. Good article! I have a co-employee that’s just like that and yes, she is a top performer. She’s nice when she wants to be and she snaps when she’s not just in the mood. I was the youngest in the workplace and was always an easy target for her since she assumes that because I have been working with her for almost 3 years now, that she knows everything I was thinking by just looking on my face. (What can I say? She’s a Psychic!) Never a day goes by without me receiving a sarcasm even on the simplest issue. One time I let her get on my nerves and I ended up taking a sick leave. Now when she tries to put me down, I just shrugged my shoulders, scratch off those nasty remarks and carry on doing the tasks I am being paid for.

  2. This is a great article on personality traits that can cause conflict in the workplace. The most important point is that any personality type can exhibit these qualities and, even more important, how you handle different personality types may have a big impact on how you best resolve conflicts.

    It’s important to know what you’re up against, when you see personality conflicts arise. Better yet, get to know your employees and coworkers and understand how those personalities impact others in the workplace, to head off conflict. If you have a prima donna in your midst and you cannot place them in a role where their personality will not adversely affect coworkers, try pairing them off with complementing personalities or more tolerant coworkers, who will keep their demands and egos in check.

    The productivity of a problematic employee doesn’t always outweigh the inconvenience of working with them, which is why hiring for personality — or at least knowing what you are getting into — by using personality assessment tests in the interview process, is often a critical means to ensure employee happiness and retention.

  3. “The founding mother” is typical of most offices where you have a few remaining workers, stubborn as heck and refuse to listen to anything and the worst hypocrites ever!
    It doesn’t help if that person is close with the owner, obviously, and the owner is basically the same in personality.

    “Joe Cool” isn’t as bad but it Does DEPEND on the person and the situation.

    Almost all businesses have the off-the-books rules about the Alpha chain and behaviors.
    The PROBLEMS are that the PROBLEMS KEEP REPEATING and rarely solved.
    THIS is a SOCIAL problem as people do Not want to cause problems even though the problems Already exist and will continue into the future and NO one wants to ‘fix’ things!
    Then you see the employees leave the company for obvious reasons and it’s NOT the Employees’ ‘fault’ which most people blame.

    Witnessed Too many things that border on Fraud but No one wants to address it esp. the owners, who caused many of it. The little things people do can add up over time. Business Ethics is an Oxymoron!

    Any wonder why many workplaces are bad esp. those where workers literally watch their backs daily.

    The behavior cycle starts with management!
    Lead a good example and office life ‘should’ be better.

    Hiring an experienced person vs inexperienced person who’s friendlier?
    Tough call! An experienced person may Not be a Prima donna but could be a ‘Joe Cool’ type BECAUSE s/he finds out that the work SUX because the company is Very Inefficient and has ways to Improve stuff. Problem is… the Existing workers feel ‘threatened’ and would rather NOT work an experienced person who can help make work ‘Better’.
    What a bunch of hypocrites!

  4. Better to avoid this issue take Personality Test for Employment. i think it might be helpful to pick out the right candidate for that particular designation.

Speak Your Mind