Coping With the Co-Worker You Hate

The Prima Donna in the Office/ABC News
Experts say office prima donnas are sometimes the product of a childhood filled with undeserved praise.

We've all worked with employees who think they walk on water.

Their idea of collaboration is you doing most of the work and them taking most of the credit. If and when they do decide to lift a finger, they throw a category 5 tantrum if anyone tries to change so much as a comma. And no matter how shoddy a job they do, they expect management to shower them with more praise, perks and pay than anyone else in the office.

A journalist I'll call "Maia" told me about a self-entitled colleague she endured for a year at a past gig.

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"Her job was to answer phones and do editorial assistant stuff, and where she could fit it in, she got to do stories," Maia said.

Only Maia's coworker didn't like the administrative part of her job and began taking long lunches, excessive breaks and liberties with quitting time.

"Because she was leaving early, her work was landing in my lap," said Maia, who'd been hired as a reporter on a trial basis and was working hard to impress the boss into offering her a full-time position. "It wasn't in my job description to cover for her, but someone had to so I did."

Suffice it to say Maia's eye-rolling soon gave way to stress, resentment and unpaid overtime.

But Maia got off easy. Some office divas have a loose relationship with the truth and live to badmouth you to management. Others are all too happy to steal your clients and sabotage your projects.

What's Behind Those Great Expectations

So how do you avoid getting railroaded by such self-appointed royalty? What should you do if you find yourself managing a prima donna? And what the heck makes people act this way in the first place?

"The self-esteem movement that began in the 70s and carried into the 80s has a lot to do with the prima donnas we're seeing now," said Paul Harvey, assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire and co-author of a new study on self-entitled workers published in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Yes, every generation has its self-important sorts. But thanks to the steady diet of praise parents and teachers spoon-fed kids born in the 80s and early 90s, Generation Y is teeming with them, Harvey said.

And unfortunately, the "I am special, I am special" mentality has extended into the workplace.

"If you tell someone they're special long enough, they're going to start believing it. And if you reward and praise people for not doing anything, they're not going to do anything," said Harvey, who was inspired to research prima donnas in the workplace after seeing his students' expectations of praise become "more and more unrealistic" over the past few years.

How Managers Can Bring Divas Down to Earth

That's not to say all Gen Y workers are monsters who can't learn to play nice with others.

They just have a different work style from their Generation X and Boomer counterparts, who tend to be more self-sufficient, said management expert Bruce Tulgan, whose latest book is "Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y."

"While an older, more experienced person may be used to a 'sink or swim' environment, Generation Y workers think, 'Don't waste my time. Tell me what to do,'" Tulgan said. "Of course, they crave freedom. But they crave freedom within structure and boundaries."

As a result, supervisors need to manage Gen Y workers differently.

"If you think they have unrealistic expectations, you have to tell them what you expect from day one," Tulgan said. "Don't try to emulate Google. Try to emulate the U.S. Marine Corps."

Give younger workers extensive training, complete with checklists, worksheets and schedules, he explained. Also tell them "how you keep score," and give them self-monitoring tools they can use to track their performance, too.

Constant feedback is also essential, said Harvey. But, he said, rather than giving young workers one whopping assessment at their annual review, gently prod them along with bite-sized directives throughout the year ("You have to do this, not that").

Sound like a lot of work? Perhaps.

But, as Tulgan puts it, "The costs of not managing Generation Y in a high-level way are very steep."

Misguided workers could take the wrong track on projects for weeks, low performers could go undetected for months and high performers could leave for a position that offers more feedback, he said.

In short, "You could spend all your time in crisis mode," Tulgan added.

How Co-workers Can Keep Prima Donnas in Check

But what if you're not the boss? What if the office prima donna sits in the cubicle next to you?

"In terms of the things coming out of their mouth, deal with it," said Tulgan. "The good news is the company's paying you to be here."

If, however, a colleague of any age is sabotaging your projects or saddling you with their own responsibilities, it's time to get proactive.

"Document your own work every step of the way," including goals set, deadlines met and time spent on each project, Tulgan said.

"Don't worry about other people; worry about yourself. Make sure you're managing your relationships with your supervisors and that you're talking about goals and expectations with them."

That's what Maia, the reporter with the loafer co-worker, did. She kept her head down and kept management impressed. And when performance reviews rolled around, Maia caught an unexpected break:

Apparently, the overambitious, underachieving thorn in Maia's side wanted a new job and she wanted it now.

"She told me she thought she should be promoted to the same position I had and that she should get a raise," Maia said.

So Maia did what any self-respecting co-worker who's been taken advantage of would do: She stepped out of the way and let that prima donna run right off the corporate cliff.

"I told her she should definitely go make the demands she was describing to me," Maia said.

And so the diva did.

"The disconnects between her reality and everyone else's came out," Maia said.

By the end of the month, the prima donna was cleaning out her desk.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.