Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
We rely upon skilled, able and talented individuals to assist in the successful delivery projects and improve businesses. They are gifted in their niche areas of expertise and without their stellar performances, where would we be? They are akin to the Prima Donna of an operatic performance and they are respected for their superior skills and ability. But when respect turns to reverence the lesser mortals around them may flail in the wake of the rising star. Such reverence may well inflate egos and a “Prima Donna” in the derogatory sense of the term may well emerge. As their egos grow their belief in their own abilities increases and they begin to ignore reality, make facts fit their needs, and take refuge in an ivory tower from where they may look down from on-high with their heads shrouded in the clouds of sanctimony.
Those Prima Donnas who are promoted on the basis of their specific skills and past success and for whom high hopes are raised may not become a blessing in disguise but rather a poisoned chalice. The risks to the success of a project or business, and the adverse effect on other people as a consequence of such promotions should not be underestimated.
The “Prima Donna”
Outside of being a female operatic lead a ‘Prima Donna’ is characterised by professional arrogance which may be characterised by intolerable behavior and temper-tantrums. But far from being rejected the behavior is accepted through placation and toleration. The individual’s skills are seen as essential and cannot be lost at any cost. Their expertise is, apparently, worth the price of a little mollycoddling.
Those who possess this expertise can, in effect, be ‘heroes’ and can make a difference between success and failure. A real hero understands that they stepped in where others were reluctant to tread; they also know that one shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels. If a ‘hero’ does expect to be treated with deference forever, then a Prima Donna may well be in the making and their once true heroics may degenerate into amateur dramatics.
These individuals can be conceited and self-opinionated but may be managed (we are told) by openly appreciating their ideas, praising their effort and putting them in situation or position that suits them. However, as they often blame others for their failings, they must also be held accountable for their work and actions. If such accountability is shunned it may be best to let the ‘ego’ seek greener pastures where they may impress another audience.
But, if an embryonic Prima Donna exhibits the traits of leadership and management that an organisation may well require then a promotion may well be in the offing. However, their functional skills could well mask underlying dysfunctional traits which are then only realised when the person is promoted and the Peter Principle has well and truly kicked in.
Peter Principle Promotions
Success in previous jobs is a generally accepted principle for promotion but the discrete abilities that a senior position may require are overshadowed by past success and reputation – this is the Peter Principle in action. A promotee can continue to be elevated until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent and incompetence results. Unfortunately, the promoters often feel obliged to protect their proteges rather than admit their mistake and mitigate matters.
The promotee’s incompetence may not be seen directly but the dearly promoted may well realise that they are stretched. But rather than inward reflection on any personal shortcomings and planning for betterment they cast their ‘incompetence’ onto others in acts of self-preservation. However, a decline in performance of the work under their charge will tell the eventual truth and will be the real indicator of incompetence…but at what cost?
If the signs of their incompetence occurs, then subordinates are challenged openly before any witch trial convenes. Alternatively, rumour-mongering and casting aspersions is another means of self-preservation until such time that the Peter Principle is validated and incompetence is proven. But what happens when a Prima Donna evades exposure and eventually ‘runs the show’ controlling their principals, peers and plebeians alike?
Prima Donnas tend to focus on their own areas of expertise and avoid areas unknown to them; in doing so they create their ivory tower to elevate themselves above such matters. These ‘unknowns’ are ignored even though gaps appear in the systems and processes required for organizational operation. Savvy subordinates quickly realise that the ‘boss’ may be kept happy by focusing on pet processes. Gaps, rather than being plugged, are ignored. A culture of kowtowing and ‘good news reporting’ ensues and the Prima Donna is cocooned in their ivory tower of self-belief; nobody dares say ‘nay’ and the captive audience can only applaud.
Staff are judged based on compliance with pet processes rather than doing what’s best and an inordinate amount of effort is spent keeping their leader happy. Happiness is construed as not delivering bad news or alternative views; messengers tend to be shot so silence and passive listening prevail. ‘Brainstorming’ becomes a solitary function where the Prima Donna makes pronouncements rather than seeking opinions and considering alternatives. Any contrary views are shot down and the ivory tower is protected by an entourage of ‘yes men’ who form an inner sanctum with a view to self-preservation and not rocking the boat.
Pronouncements from the ivory tower are cast in tablets of stone; rules are imposed with draconian severity and blind obedience is compulsory. With initiative stifled any intelligent disobedience and speaking up is frowned upon and ostracisation results. Micro-managerial control over operations may be successful, but the end result can well be failure. The message from on high is one of ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ and ‘if it’s not my way it’s the highway’.
Conclusions Prima Donnas exist and they can, and do, provide necessary skills and act heroically when delivering success to projects and business ventures. Oftentimes they are promoted based upon these merits rather than the abilities required but such promotions carry the risk of potential failure of the individual and organisation alike.
When promoted a Prima Donna may retreat into the safety of an ivory tower and focus on their own beliefs and restricted abilities. In so doing they distance themselves from reality and fail to see the big picture that they should be seeing. They focus on their own self-interests and the vision that should be provided from this strategic apex is lost in myopic egotism.
With a Prima Donna at the helm and dictating from their ivory tower an inward-looking toxic environment can result. A ‘heads down’ culture develops and there is a fear of challenging the status quo or speaking up. However, the outside world looks at the performance of the organisation as a whole rather than the shenanigans of the Prima Donna. At the end of the day, and despite any excuses, an organisation’s balance sheet and the turnover of its staff will tell the bitter truth; unfortunately this truth will be at a financial, morale and ethical cost.
Malcolm Peart is an UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.