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The Diva: Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

This series of articles explores some of the most common behavior profiles that persistently generate toxic conflict and provides tips on how to respond to each.

In Creative vs. Toxic Conflict at Work, and the toxic workplace behavior profile for The Submarine, I discussed one of the key features that distinguishes toxic conflict from creative conflict.

Creative conflict is rooted in the dynamics between people. In creative conflict, the motives and goals of group members are typically healthy and focused on a sincere desire to solve concrete external problems and challenges.

Toxic conflict is typically rooted in the personalities of individual people. While creative conflict is rooted in an external problem, toxic conflict is rooted in the problematic behavior of one or more individuals.

Thankfully, most of the behavior that generates toxic conflict is common and predictable. This means that you can plan ahead for behaviors that are certain to recur.

Think of these "Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile" articles as your top-secret files on how to prepare and respond strategically to the most disruptive and toxic behaviors in your workplace.

Code Name: The Diva

Motto: Enough about me, let's talk more about me.

Favorite Song: Shiny - Tamatoa the Crab

Favorite Movie: The Devil Wears Prada

Behavior: Oh, Diva... if the world only recognized how awesome and fabulous you are. Always. Everyday. Right now. You're brilliant. You're charming. You know just what to say and how to say it. You just don't know when to stop.

We typically have a love/hate relationship with the Divas in our life. Like Tamatoa the Crab in the song link above they are, in a word, shiny. And we like shiny things.

Frequently, the Diva is shiny because they have skills and talents that legitimately warrant praise and attention. However, the Diva uses those skills to garner ever more praise and attention – not to serve others per se. This is what sets the Diva apart from your run-of-the-mill attention hog or bore.

The Diva doesn’t just like attention. The Diva needs and craves the attention of the team. The more the better. Their self-worth is dependent on it.

Think of Hollywood. This industry contains some amazing artists. It is also the highest concentration of attention-addicts in the world. The addiction to endless streams of attention even leads some to hope that, because they are good at one thing, perhaps they can be good at everything!

Case Study 1: Sean Penn's new artsy novel. Yikes! Love your acting, but Faulkner you are not, my son.

Case Study 2: A Sylvester Stallone modernist painting, perhaps?

The obvious exception to these artistic abominations is of course, David Hasselhoff – or as his friends call him, the Hoff. After four monumental seasons as the method-acting phenomenon behind the TV-show Knight Rider, he also managed to compose the most impactful musical work of 2006.

As we can see from Sean, Sylvester, and even the Hoff, the Diva doesn't know their limits, when to quit, or how to turn it off.

Divas in the workplace drain creative energy from the team and misuse their real talents for selfish ends.

While they frequently garner admiration, they also breed passivity and dependence as teams become more focused on meeting the Diva's need for praise and attention rather than achieving results.

The good news is that this behavior is also draining for the Diva. It is an enormous amount of work to keep the spotlight on oneself at all times. Even if unconsciously, they spend more time than you can possibly imagine planning and engineering their next attention fix. They also live in fear of the day when the bright lights will go off.

Do Not: Don’t publicly shame the Diva on purpose. I know you want to. You fantasize about it. You dream about it. The Diva is just so full of themselves. If you could just cut them down to size in the next meeting…

But this will go badly. Go snatch a bottle from the hand of a committed drunk mid-swig. See what happens. Not pretty.

Attention is the Diva’s drug. Forcibly tear it away from them and they will lash out. Intensely. And that’s not particularly helpful to anyone.

Do: That being said, you should confront their behavior. Do so privately or in a small group at first.

This conversation should be planned and strategic. It’s not typically fruitful to have these exchanges on the spur of the moment. You want this discussion to happen when the Diva is not performing or in the spotlight.

Ask pointed questions that encourage strategic reflection without passing blanket judgements.

For instance, say something like:

"I noticed that you did most of the talking in the last meeting. What is that like for you? Did think about pausing for questions, or so other could contribute? What stopped you? What were you thinking about at the time? How could you make more space for other people in your meetings?"

To be fair to the Diva, much of their attention seeking behavior is habitual and instinctive. Interrupt that cycle by suggesting specific actions that they can intentionally plan to carry out with others.

Don't let the Diva act on instinct. Make sure they develop and follow a plan to share the spotlight. In particular, the Diva needs to practice giving, listening, and publicly appreciating the contributions of others.

Some examples might be:

  • At the next team meeting, after you introduce the topic, schedule at least 15 minutes of brainstorming and sharing – and do not speak. Tell the group you will just be listening.

  • Even better... At the next team meeting, ask another team member to introduce the topic and another to close the meeting. Tell the group you will just be listening.

  • Don't open or close a meeting for the next week. Help prepare other team members to do this.

  • Give advice to three colleagues this week without talking about yourself in the process (harder than it sounds).

Tell the Diva that you value their real talents and be specific. This praise is deserved and should not be withheld out of spite. Also, schedule regular short meetings with the Diva to see how the above is going – and praise them for honest efforts.

Help the Diva substitute occasional, legitimate, and deeply meaningful feedback for the shallow stream of constant attention to which they've become accustomed.

Humility check: We all crave attention and the admiration of peers on some level. If you are honest, you can likely relate to some of the Diva's behavior.

You might even be the office Diva.

After all, Divas are over-represented in leadership positions. Role-model the behavior you expect from others by establishing some accountability with a trusted colleague or supervisor. Make some plans with them as discussed above. Admit it and talk about it. Process it with your team.

Seriously, if you're the Diva, it's not like it's a secret. : )

Over time, you will make more quality space for other people on your team to shine.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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