Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Divas vs. team players

Around the time that I started this job, someone on the internet had this advice for new faculty: if you act like a diva, you'll get treated like a diva.

In its original context, this advice was meant in a strictly limited way: the author was encouraging new faculty not to feel obligated always to be "team players" if that meant never saying no, never having time for their own research, and taking on burdensome service assignments while their other colleagues always seemed too busy to do their fair share. Those who act like divas by prioritizing their own needs and insisting on the value of their own work, argued the advice-giver, are usually accorded more respect--and their needs, time, and scholarship assumed to be more consequential.

I think of this advice often; in fact, I thought of it today when I had to send someone a cold, bluff-calling email: no, you're the one who dropped the ball; I will not make this ridiculous sacrifice because you didn't have your shit together--and in fact, if you can't come up with a better solution, I'll just withdraw from this thing that benefits me not at all but that you're depending on me to do.


But as good as this advice is in some contexts, it cuts another way, too. If you act like a diva--that is, like an unstable, impossible-to-please, crazy person--people will treat you like one: they'll say whatever they have to say to make you stop throwing things, and then vow never to work with you again. And unless your value to them or the institution is so high as to make you irreplaceable, they pretty much won't.

We're all familiar with the professor who swears he'll quit his job! if some minor thing happens or doesn't happen--or who tells you he'll never forgive you! if you vote a certain way in a department meeting, or teach a class he considers his exclusive property, or whatever. And in my experience, those people are not taken seriously. They're ridiculous, because their demands are out of all proportion to what they're bringing to the negotiating table. (You'll quit? Yes, please! You'll never speak to me again? Wait--is that a promise?)

The key to being a successful diva, I think, is actually to be a good team player. If it's clear that you value the mission of the place as a whole, and want it to succeed, and if you're pulling your weight on a departmental or institutional level, you can throw the occasional fit or make the occasional big demand when (and this is key!) you're genuinely being disrespected or not having your essential needs met.

And, of course, when you can live with the consequences. A diva doesn't say she's going to walk if she's not prepared to walk.


Comrade Physioprof said...

Very wise post. The dramatic ineffectual screamers who monopolize meeting time have no influence on what actually happens. The effectual doers actually make things happen.

meg said...

I need diva lessons.

Further deponent sayeth not in a public forum.

Ianqui said...

Unfortunately, I find that as much as we all deride the divas, there are very few consequences for them because they are simply too egotistical to notice that they're disliked by their colleagues. If people would confront the divas about their childish and unhelpful behavior, maybe we'd get somewhere--but probably not, because they'd just get defensive and totally refuse to see the other possible side. So in my experience, divas just make things very unpleasant but fail to feel any consequences themselves. If only I didn't care what other people think of me, I'd totally become a full-time diva.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think the most important thing I'll take away from this post is the "team diva" concept.

Catty said...

There's actually an "I" in team diva.

Flavia said...

Ianqui: yeah, that's a potential problem--as is the fact that some of those on the more egotistical/irrational end of the diva spectrum get away without doing much work (service, dissertation/thesis advisement, etc.) because no one wants to work with them. That seems unfair. On the other hand, if they're effectively cut out of the decision-making process because no one takes them seriously, that's not a bad result.

The worst kind of diva (not a type I have personal experience with, thank goodness, but one that many of my friends in other departments seem to be saddled with) is the self-important ass whose senior colleagues have bought into and fully validate his self-importance. That is, someone whose research agenda isn't actually very impressive, but who has convinced others that he's the Star of the Department and should get preferential treatment. I suspect this kind of diva thrives most at less fancy institutions, where there's no real check on the diva's claims about himself: they want a Grand Man or a Golden Boy, so they talk themselves into believing he's it.

EngLitProf said...

Flavia, you are right to say that the worst kind of diva is the prima donna whose voice is good enough for a regional opera company but who triumphs because she sounds vaguely like Maria Callas (that is, she squawks on the high notes in “Casta Diva”). At first you think people are playing along with this person’s delusion, and then you realize that they have cultivated it! This is one problem I don’t know how to deal with, and I’m glad my own department no longer has anyone like this. I suppose the only way to fight this kind of madness is to attack from above—the dean, or a chair who has been hired from outside.

life_of_a_fool said...

Yes, it's the latter type of diva that you (Flavia) mention in the comments that is the worst. I barely recognize the initial type because, in my department, they have talked their way into ineffectualness. But, until very recently, I have had the misfortune of working with the self-important ass whose self importance is reinforced by key senior people.

Jack said...

Flavia, you are *totally* a team diva.

Anonymous said...

There is a diva in our department. She always gets what she wants, and never has to sully her hands with things like interacting with undergrads. I wish she'd retire!

Flavia said...


If it's a team you're on, I'll diva all day & all night. You know it's true.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask about the gender of this: in my place, there are lots of primo dons, fewer prima donnas.
Just saying.

Which is why I'm anonymous :)

Flavia said...


You'll notice that I used the masculine pronoun whenever I used a gender-specific one. That wasn't accidental.

The bad-divas certainly are not exclusively masculine--but vastly more of the stories I hear involve men, rather than women, acting like the irrational, emotive, & self-absorbed female diva of stereotype.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I like the phrase "prima donnie," myself. It gives the requisite Osmond-family vibe.

"He can sing AND dance! He's gonna be a big big star! He's a little bit rock and roll but not, you know, too much."

Anonymous said...

Spot on about the importance of being a good (and visibly good) team player. You can say "no" or make special requests when and only when you've built up a reservoir of good will. And dept-meeting blowhards deserve to have their bluffs called. Nobody is irreplaceable.

Much as I enjoy the oxymoron in "team diva," I'm not sure I'd put it that way to new faculty. What's valuable in the original "act like a diva" advice is "protect your time and don't let yourself get stepped on." Fine. But any hint of "I'm special" divaness in a new colleague who hasn't yet filled up that good-will reservoir will be resented, rightly or wrongly. It comes naturally to junior scholars to think "as long as I'm doing good work, who cares if I alienate that tiresome stick of dead wood who hasn't published since 1992." But that attitude has dangers of which new PhDs are often incompletely aware. And if in fact you are performing above departmental norms research-wise ( a much smaller category than those who think they are) you need to do more to prove yourself a good team player, not less. Fair or not, that's how it is--and not only in academia, I imagine.

Cheers, TG