Coping With the Co-Worker You Hate

The Prima Donna in the Office

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.

Looking for career advice? Click here to send Michelle your questions and they might end up as a topic for her next column.

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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.

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