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.