Phil Simon


How to Manage Divas

How do you manage high-maintenance folks?
May | 16 | 2010

May | 16 | 2010


I’m a bit of a sports nut. Ever since I was a kid, I played, watched, and to varying degrees obsessed over different sports. Even to this day, I watch SportsCenter just about every morning. It’s a nice escape from the daily grind.

These days, the folks in Briston, CT stories are bringing us a full menu of Tiger Woods’ travails, PEDs, and the NBA playoffs. These stories are dominating the headlines. And, of course, there’s the annual Brett Favre saga, distilled into one question: Will he play next year or won’t he?

At the risk of playing amateur shrink, it seems to me that each year Favre is honestly conflicted. He sees the pros and cons of playing vs. retiring and genuinely has a difficult time deciding what to do. What’s more, to his credit, Favre seems to have a sense of humor about his shtick, as evinced by this recent Sears’ commercial.

At the same time, though, I’ve felt a bit sorry for Favre’s last three employers: the Packers, the Jets, and the Vikings. They have had to put up with his annual rite of passage, making staffing decisions (via free agency and the draft) based on one huge unknown: Will their quarterback show up for mini camp?

While I can’t claim to have ever managed a professional sports team (fantasy sports don’t count), I was thinking about the most effective ways of managing a diva.

Short-term: Admit that you need divas

We’ve all seen organizations beholden to key employees at specific times. I’ve watched companies scramble to keep a high performer who has received an offer to go across the street. Many factors result in an employee having a unique set of skills essential to the continued success of an organization. I’m not talking about an administrative assistant or HR person who knows where the bodies are buried. Rather, there are often operational, marketing, sales, R&D, or business development folks without whom a company may not be able to survive.

While policies are procedures are important, sometimes rules need to be broken and exceptions need to be made. For example, having worked in HR during the early part of my career, sometimes compensation “adjustments” were necessary apart from the annual review cycle. Organizational policies should allow for the requisite flexibility to deal with exceptional circumstances; rigid conformity to standard operating procedures ultimately does more harm than good.

Near-term: Plan for backup

As a friend of mine used to say, the burnt hand teaches best. Appeasing a diva with a promotion and/or raise might stop the bleeding, but it may not significantly reduce organizational risk. What’s more, some employees’ demands just can’t be met.

Sometimes rules need to be broken and exceptions need to be made.

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Are there other “high potential” employees in need of “stretch” roles? GE made this practice common and, to my knowledge, still uses it today.
  • If budgets are tight and hiring “bench strength” is not an option, do you have a list of targets outside of the organization in the event that the diva leaves?

Far too often, HR departments, hiring managers, and organizations take an exclusively reactive approach to recruiting. They wait until someone gives notice (or not) before starting the process of replacing a key departure. Assess the risks associated with essential positions and use social networks such as LinkedIn to monitor the availability of viable candidates as contingencies. Be prepared to act quickly when the “right’ candidate has been identified.

Long-term: Change the culture

Often, people are too quick to look at divas in isolation. They’ll make often incorrect assumption that the diva is a pain in the ass for exclusively internal reasons. Bad childhood, maybe?  While that might be the case on an individual level, take a look at the culture that may very well enable diva-like behavior. Consider the following questions:

  • Are employees in a company or department so overworked that they can’t collaborate and share knowledge?
  • Is the environment simply not conducive to working well together and cross-pollination?
  • Does the organization’s performance management system reward the right type of behaviors or simply results?
  • Does the organization routinely reward “game winning drives” because of lack of proper planning and risk management?

This one’s the toughest. To some extent, people have always been out for themselves, but things have changed. We’re no longer in the 1950s, those halcyon days in which employees and employers exhibited strong degrees of loyalty to each other. That social contract has eroded over the last twenty years to the point at which more and more employees are asking, “What’s in it for me?” I just don’t see that changing anytime soon. Realize this and plan accordingly.


How do you deal with divas? I’m sure that you have stories.

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  1. Jim Harris

    Who you calling a diva?

    And where the hell is the bottled water that I asked for like 5 minutes ago? How freaking long does it take to walk into the kitchen and fetch me a freaking bottled water? Aquafina? I told you I don’t drink that crap. SmartWater, I drink SmartWater — it’s in my !@#$%^&* contract for !@#$%^&* sake — I’m calling my agent, where the hell is my !@#$%^&* cell phone?

    And what do you mean fantasy sports don’t count as having managed a professional sports team? I gotta go watch Sports Center so that I can plan my weekly lineup for fantasy baseball.

    (duh-nuh-nuh, duh-nuh-nuh)


    On a more serious note, I have recently read two great books that provide perspective on some of the points you raise. Linchpin by Seth Godin explains how to identify (and become one of the) invaluable resources within the organization (definitely not the same thing as a diva), and Drive by Daniel Pink, which explains how to properly motivate (as well as compensate) every member (and not just the linchpins) of the organization.

  2. Jill Wanless

    Excellent post Phil!  It could also be said that sometimes even the Diva is allowed (encouraged) to leave due to the fact that they know where the bodies are buried. Heaven forbid THAT should get out…
    I really like your comments around changing the culture. Especially “Does the organization’s performance management system reward the right type of behaviors…..”  Too many measures focused on results drive human behavior towards the delivery date no matter how it is achieved (a main cause of poor data quality). Performance that is measured on collaboration, information sharing and establishing partnerships reduce the risks associated with managing the ‘Diva’s’ and increases the knowledge transfer within the organization. It is also especially important for the organization’s leadership to explicitly define what those behaviors are, and lead by example. 🙂

  3. Corinna

    Managing Divas also means that the organization must own up to setting the “stage” for Divadom. Allowing bad behaviour because someone is indispensible makes everyone else feel like “they are not worthy” and then you have the beginning of a morale problem.

    I think it is important to have the Divas invested in your success as a manager and the success of the organization. For that, I would appeal to their vanity, pride, sense of adventure. I would grant greater freedom to create, less hands on management, and less need for boring meetings and presentations. I do like to match Divas with other talented folks, sometimes as mentors – and I include it in their performance review. This drives home the teamwork concept and interdependence needed to succeed.
    Then it becomes easier to work with others. Don’t forget that the majority of work…is done by solid performers who would never have thought to ask for bottled water until the Diva came on board.

  4. Julie Hunt

    Hi Phil,
    Thanks for this post – your last paragraph nails it. 
    My view is that no one is truly “indispensible” but divas are good at making it look that way and apparently companies want to believe (‘perception is everything…’).  I’ve worked in companies where the “diva” left and guess what: the world didn’t end, the company did fine, and other great contributors finally had some space to be heard.


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