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When your office has an out-of-control Diva

By Joan Lloyd

Dear Joan:

I have an interesting situation in my department.  My issue involves a coworker in another area of the department – while her work impacts my operational area directly, I am the manager now responsible and accountable for this operational area, having joined the department two months ago.  One of the first things several others (including my boss) told me after joining the team is that this employee is an office diva…she can be moody, tends to make mountains from molehills, will often take on more than she can handle, frequently without asking, and is a person I need to watch out for – she holds a grudge and has had office conflicts with nearly everyone in the department.  She is not my subordinate. 

She overstepped boundaries recently, deleting a large number of access requests in the system I oversee without consulting anyone.  As a result, this violated internal operational processes, created a huge amount of work for another department, and negatively impacted customer service (their requests were deleted and had to be started over).  I had a meeting the next day with the other department to smooth ruffled feathers and ensure them it would not happen again.  I spoke to her about it and explained that her actions had a negative impact on customer service and created more work for another department.  I asked her to consult with me directly when it comes to access requests as this is my area of direct responsibility and accountability.  I emphasized that the decision to delete requests from another department’s files was not hers to make, and the action of deleting these requests was not an assigned routine task of hers.  I followed up with an email. 

A day or two later, over the weekend, she began emailing me using work email asking for information to complete a task that I normally perform.  I happened to be checking email (ours is a software production environment so I have to keep an eye on things) and saw her message.  I responded that I would take care of it Monday morning after I got in.  She began work on this task without my direction or request, repeatedly emailing me asking for information.  I did not respond further to her requests because it was clear that my message was being ignored; the statement that I would take care of it Monday was not getting through. 

My boss and I were nearly finished with the task in question when this employee emails me, indicating she had partially completed the task.  This employee suggested in her email that perhaps I was confused about the process and was not getting the support I needed.  I talked to my boss about the need to put my foot down with this employee (not my subordinate) because she doesn’t seem to want to take direction…she is used to having her way.  I have the perception that this employee is attempting to bully me, undermine my credibility and make me look bad by overstepping boundaries, taking on tasks not assigned to her and suggesting others don’t know what they are doing. 

I’d like to step into an office with her and her manager and draw the line in the sand so it is crystal clear, but would prefer not suffer the wrath of her grudge-holding and temper as a result.  I have better things to do with my time and energy than focus on what I perceive to be an insecure, self-focused diva.  I have a job to do and not much tolerance or respect for folks that bully others around with tempers, grudge-holding, or other underhanded, two-faced actions.  What do you think?

Answer:

The reason she is a Diva is because people around her have allowed it. Her boss and others probably don’t want to be the brunt of her dramas when she doesn’t get her way. Since you seem willing to stand up to her inappropriate behavior, you need a plan that will accomplish your goal without creating a political drama of your own.

Calling a meeting where you draw a line in the sand with her and her manager is a political mistake. It would embarrass her manager and make him or her feel scolded in front of the employee. It would create an enemy—and you need an ally. Instead, ask for a private meeting with her manager and calmly explain the issue and what you are planning to do in the future. Ask for her manager’s support and assistance.

Make sure you don’t overstep your authority with this manager (since I believe that you are peers). Your goal is to accomplish three things:

  1. You don’t have the authority to tell her boss what to do but you can give her boss a heads up about what you are going to do in the future. For instance, you may want to use the weekend incident as an example and show her boss the email you wrote to her. Explain that you will continue to meet with her and clarify roles and responsibilities on your own—but if she continues to overstep her boundaries you will get her boss involved. Get an agreement from her manager about who is responsible for various responsibilities, so you are on firm footing when you corral her.
  2. Speak about facts and use examples but don’t use accusatory, judging words such as “Diva,” “bully”, “undermine my credibility”. These words are likely to be repeated to her, or may cause her boss to become defensive. Just stick to neutral words about the work.
  3. Position yourself as a partner with her boss and try to come up with a plan that includes both of you. Since this Diva has operated without consequences, her boss is probably weak and may need your assistance and encouragement to confront this situation.

Before you begin this process, inform your own manager and make sure you have his support. Since he is well-aware of the problem he will sympathize but you need more than that. You need his commitment that he’ll back you if she tries to get you into political trouble.