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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 20-Sep-06


Wednesday 20-September-06

Prima donnas, teenagers and transitions 

I work in organizational change and meet up with all kinds of resistance, some subtle and some less so. Recently I was in a meeting where one woman was resisting change in an unsubtle way. She is intelligent and hard-working, but deeply resents any intrusion into her sphere. She dominated much of the meeting, despite being one of the least senior people there. Some of her arguments were sound, some were flawed and some were purely emotional. She alternated in mood from anger to near-tears. She made veiled personal attacks on most people there and generally did her own case few favors.

I recognized the pattern from two other places. When I worked in software engineering, I knew a number of 'prima donnas'. These were smart engineers who knew just how wonderful they were and who considered social niceties as being for people who couldn't hack it. Rude brusqueness was thus used to signal intelligence: the smarter you were, the ruder you could be. This rudeness was used both to get what they wanted and to repel any attempts to change what they did or how they did it.

Another and perhaps related position is in the struggling transitional realm of the teenager, where children become all-knowing and parents become contemptibly stupid. I'm in this phase with my seventeen-year-old son now although, fingers crossed, I think I can see light at the end of the tunnel. A simple measure of his position is in his use (or threat) of emotional outbursts to get what he wants or resist advice, rather than engaging in rational discussion.

This similarity begs the question: Is prima donna petulance related to teenage arrogance? Are the tantrums of some subject experts connected back to earlier issues? I suspect so. We go through life via various stages, and failure to fully navigate the transitional periods can leave us with hang-ups that cause continuing problems. This is a key principle in psychoanalysis, where the mishaps and misunderstandings in infant development are shown to cause issues that follow us for the rest of our lives. Likewise, an incomplete transition from hormonal teenage childhood to empathic, rational adulthood can result in an ongoing and self-centred intolerance of others.

With my son, I try to be patient and understanding, holding up a mirror in support of his becoming a fully-functioning adult. With the woman in work, I likewise am not playing her game and use her legitimization of 'straight talking' to play a straight bat, assertively and without embellishment telling the truth that I see. It's still not plain sailing, as truth causes more storms, but we are making headway.

Your comments

How are you doing ? I am very happy received your answer . And first of all , please accept my apology for I made a stupid mistake . I wrongly spelled your English name . I feel very sorry about that . Hope you don't mind .

Second of all , thanks for your encouragement . I will try my best to learn English every minutes ...

Thirdly , I would like to mention about your today's blog . I don't know this phrase "Prima donnas" mean . But I don't think the woman's behavior you mentioned is proper . Esp during the meeting . On the other hand , as we are both female, to some extent  I can understand her . You know, she is a woman, and sometimes, she would do that kind of things when she have to .

Honest to you , I was attracted by one of my classmates . I swear ,I never mean to offend her . But ,Until now , I have no idea why she was trying make fun at me in front of our male teachers . I hate that. But I can bear . Because I also know that just because I can speak English , she can't .
The last one I would like to say you really have a deep insight into the life. No matter what kind of work you do, you had a keen observation towards work and life . Of course, I also believe you can handle the gap between you and your son . Both of us should know that\'s normal. And remember when we were young, we did believe we know everything , didn't we ?

Ok , so much for today , Good luck !

-- Emma

Dave replies:
Hello Emma. Don't worry about names. 'Prima Donna' actually means a female opera star, but is often used to mean somebody who is vain and temperamental, always full of their own importance. Observing life is interesting. So is observing yourself!

Teenagers and Prima Donnas share some characteristics but are actually much different. Teenagers are establishing boundaries. A psychologist friend has told me that a turbulent adolescence is a necessary precursor to a well adjusted adult. Be happy about the turbulence.

An alternative explanation is that teenagers and very old people tend to be obnoxious because they love us dearly and they want to make their going away soon easier for us. That thought let me tolerate my teenagers.

And lastly, for boys, my daughter, a PhD candidate in psychology, tells me that there is a small area in the brain that examines current activity and estimates future outcomes from that activity. For boys it doesn't even form until they are about 18. Thus the ready-fire-aim problem. When you ask, why did you do that and they say, I don't know, they are telling the truth.

The adult prima donnas have just not had anyone hit them back hard enough yet.

-- Don Shaughnessy

Dave replies:
Good comments, Don, and solidly consoling. Thanks also for the information about the male brain. I've got one myself and am still trying to figure it out.

Can you offer any advice and experience on how to deal with Prima Donnas in the IT Workplace? In particular those who seem recalcitrant or inflexible in how they work or avoid challenges to their 'expertise'?

-- Colin

Dave replies:
Tricky. I was a bit of one myself once, but then I got older and, I hope, wiser. The Prima Donna lives mostly in their own head and finds it difficult seeing things from other viewpoints. Influencing them often requires lots of ego-stroking -- be impressed, ask their advice, etc. You can also challenge them, but be prepared for a duel. They are largely driven by peer opinion, especially those who they respect most, so you can get to them by this route. As a general method, try using Socratic questioning.


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