The 5 Laws of Working with Creative Prima Donnas

You’ve seen the type:

They’re those designers, writers and marketing consultants who have their own ideas about how everything should be done.

Oh, sure, they listen to your instructions, but you can tell they secretly think you’re an idiot. If you insist on them doing things your way, they get upset and threaten to walk out on you.

Sometimes you want to throw them all out a window, right?

I can sympathize. Over the years, I’ve had to work with my share of creative prima donnas. It’s frustrating. You’ve seen the great results they’re capable of, but dealing with their arguments and eye rolling may seem like it’s not worth it.

I’ve also worked on some amazing creative teams that produced jaw-dropping work, even though there were some prima donnas on board. Through it all, I learned a powerful lesson: you can’t treat creative prima donnas the same as you do “regular” employees.

No, you don’t have to put up with tantrums. No, you don’t have to let them do everything their way. No, you don’t have to accept whatever work they feel is “best” for your company.

But there are some rules you should follow.

It took me years to learn them, and now that I have, working with “creative prima donnas” isn’t nearly as tough as it used to be. If you do it right, it can be a real pleasure.

Let’s take a look:

1. Work with the Smartest People You Can Find

If you’re putting together a team, don’t be afraid to be the dumbest person in the room. As a matter of fact, that’s a pretty good goal to keep in mind.

Here’s why:

Smart people aren’t just good at coming up with brilliant ideas. They’re good at explaining them, debating them, and also seeing other people’s points of view.

In my experience, most of the freelancers who are the hardest to work with aren’t geniuses. They are the people who willfully refuse to think. They have an opinion, but they don’t have anything to back it up, and so when you try to discuss their ideas in more depth, they just get mad.

Truly brilliant people don’t do this. Put half a dozen of them in a room, and sure, you’ll have some disagreements. Chances are though, they’ll be high-level, well-thought-out disagreements, and if everyone sticks with it, they can probably come to a consensus.

You don’t have to feel threatened by it. In fact, one way to know you’re on the right track is when you have half a dozen million people all debating about the right way to go.

The trick is, you also have to give them the freedom to have that debate.

2. Give Them the Freedom to Suck (at First)

What’s Rule Number One we all learned about brainstorming? “No idea is too ridiculous,” right?

There’s a reason for that rule.

Group members want to feel like they can say anything when it’s time to generate ideas. No notion should be too far out, and no idea too crazy.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve participated in brainstorming sessions where someone blurted out a crazy idea, and someone else followed the thread until it led to the idea we all decided to implement.

Occasionally getting a dumb idea out of the way serves to clear our neural pathways so that a really great idea can come bursting forth. And sometimes one stupid notion becomes the inspiration for an innovative, groundbreaking plan.

This kind of thinking can only happen in an environment where all ideas are welcome, so avoid shooting down ideas when they bubble to the surface, no matter who they come from or how outrageous they sound.

3. Give the Group the Power to Decide

If you’ve handled the brainstorming right, you end up with a long list of concepts to explore. Some are junk, but others may be diamonds in the rough.

It may be tempting to have the most senior member of the group decide where to take the ideas you’ve generated. Don’t do it.

Once you’ve gathered a good group of concepts, get everyone together and prioritize the contributions. Decide as a group what’s useable and what’s not.

Sure, it’ll probably take some time. Sure, you’ll probably have some heated arguments. Sure, you’ll want to say, “I’m the expert here. Do what I say.”

But if you’ll trust the group, and commit to coming to a consensus, you’ll always be better off. Your end product will be stronger because of the range of ideas you’ve brought together.

4. Share the Red Pen

Finalizing a project always involves refining and perfecting it. This is where the red correction pen comes into play.

One of the first things I do with a new design client is give them a few of my favorite brand of red pens. I tell them that I expect they’ll need to make changes to the projects we work on, and I welcome their contributions.

The red pen makes it easier for me to see what they’d like to change, and read the notes they scribble to me.

I sometimes send the corrected work back to them with my own mark ups. I make their changes and suggest others. Design, at its best, is a collaborative process. This kind of back-and-forth refinement is a great way to perfect your ideas.

5. Treat Them like What They Are: Valuable

It’s important for people on your team, no matter how small a role they play, to feel like they can contribute to all stages of your project: idea generation; product creation and refinement.

Cultivating an environment where team members feel free to contribute, even if you have a small business, and even if those team members are temporary or freelance workers, will always get you a stronger final product.

It’s no fun to be stuck on the tracks with a project leader who’s about to run you over. Don’t be that person.

What do you do to encourage your team members to contribute? What have I left out? I’d like to hear from you in the comments.

About the author: Pamela Wilson helps small businesses grow with great design at Big Brand System.

  1. Great tips. I will be having my first experience with working on a personal project with a designer and these tips will come in handy.

  2. Alex, here’s hoping you won’t have to deal with a prima donna! Good luck.

  3. What do I do if I’m the prima donna and I have to learn to tolerate myself?

    ;)

    Good stuff, actually. Creative people need breathing room to do their best. You cannot expect to hire them to be creative and then be a stick in the mud about their process.

  4. I’m laughing, Loren. That’s some refreshing honesty! I’m a big believer in breathing room, too.

  5. I think the danger in working with prima donnas is, when they get critical and cranky – as they always do – to imagine it’s somehow your fault! When you accept that they are bound to kick ass about something at somepoint – that that is just how they are – you can put them more into perspective and try to understand from them what’s really going on.

    Interesting post, Pamela!

  6. I guess if some creatives come over as Prima Donnas it’s a great reminder for us of how passionate and engaged they are about what they’re working on. If they were sitting back with their arms folded sighing “whatever!” I’d be more worried. Great post though, with some useful food for thought for both sides of the divide.

  7. Great article, Pamela!

    This really isn’t exclusive to prima donnas or creative types. I don’t work with a lot of designers, but I do work with a lot of product managers and leaders. It’s the same story there. People are always more invested in outcomes they feel they own. Thanks for a well articulated and digestible article.

  8. A big tip that’s not mentioned here — don’t let people dig in their heels too much. Once it starts (someone defending “their” side against attackers) then their thinking degrades.

    Instead, keep discussion focused on pragmatic choices (NOT general principles), separate ideas from their originator ASAP, always leave open the possibility of any idea coming back later, and don’t hesitate to change the subject temporarily if a discussion seems to be going from thoughtful debate to pitched battle.

    I know this one pretty well, because I’ve gotten into these kinds of discussions before — where at some point (possibly after the meeting…) I realize that I was putting a lot of effort into a debate where the pragmatic cost of doing it the “wrong” way was negligible. It’s always helpful if someone in the room can actively bring discussion back into real-life terms frequently — i.e., realistically, what’s the probable cost during development, deployment, scaling, etc. to going with choice A vs. choice B. In many, many cases, the answer is “probably no cost, and if we have a problem we can make changes THEN based on the actual situation.” …And poof, you have consensus. :)

  9. Thanks for these thoughtful comments, everyone. It’s very flattering to write a post like this and get feedback that demonstrates that you’ve made people think!

  10. What about working for prima donna bosses?

    I cut marketing videos for a business that was run jointly by a couple who both felt if there were just more hours in the day that they both could run it all. Very little delegation. No regard for deadlines. And embarrassingly arbitrary. They were a funnel in the workflow with backlogs of projects they didn’t have time to review. Unhappy with the lack of productivity but blind to their role, my work fizzled out.

    I’ve worked for prima donnas much more often than with. Making all good ideas somehow always be their good ideas is an art to be practiced regularly. That’s why bathing was invented.

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