The Prima Donna Syndrome

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I was tutoring a course at Alwyck Housing when the receptionist interrupted the session to tell me that I needed to contact my office urgently. I asked her to reply on my behalf that I would do so in the break but she insisted that it was an emergency that required an immediate response.

At the time my mother was critically ill, so I excused myself from the session, rushed downstairs to the office and called base. I was told that a trainer had insisted that I be called out of the session as a matter of great urgency and call him, which I then did.

When the trainer answered the phone he explained that he had arrived at the training venue that day and that all the parking spaces had been taken. This meant that he had to park a block away which was unacceptable to him.

Another trainer called me one day; absolutely furious. “I thought that you were an organisation committed to equality and I am disgusted that when I arrived at the venue today there were just two black people in the group. I will not work for your tokenistic agency again” (Like I had control who organisations employed!)

A trainer who constantly hassled us for more work and refused our offers on each occasion explained that, “I do not get out of bed for less than 600 per day”.

On another occasion, a trainer turned up to our office in the West End of London. We were very pleased to see him until we realised hat he was in the middle of a training course and had come to the office to photocopy his handouts, leaving the group to train themselves for an hour and a half.

On yet another occasion we had a phone call from a training manager very concerned that the trainer had ‘disappeared’ from the venue. They had sent out a search party who eventually discovered him sunbathing on the beach ten minutes walk away whilst the group were working on a rather long case study.

There are countless other stories very similar to the above that I could relate. What they all have in common interestingly enough is that they had all trained with us for approximately two years. There really does seem to be a time frame pattern which I refer to as the Prima Donna syndrome.

Who it affects

Most trainers are vulnerable, however those most at risk tend to be those with less experience of working independently.


Some people have an earlier onset and others a little later, however two years does appear to be the incubation period.

Pattern of development

There is a very typical pathway:

Phase 1: Foreplay

Enormous enthusiasm at interview; loudly proclaimed expression of altruistic motives and passion for serving to improve the lot of the less fortunate. Expression of a strong desire and need to work with an ethical agency; standards and mutuality overrides any monetary consideration.

Phase 2: Honeymoon

Frequent contact with the agency, a willingness to take on challenging and demanding work. Enthusiasm to contribute to the developing ethos.

Phase 3: Not tonight dear

Less contact, less input, difficulties in communication, first signs of resistance to implementation of standards.

Phase 4: Frigid

“I am too busy” to take on any work that requires preparation, reply to e mails or phone calls, spell check, and deliver work on time etc.

First signs of money madness.

Phase 5: Delusion

I am irreplaceable

People will unconditionally engage with me

Organisations have unlimited budgets

I can set my own standards and indeed change these at whim

I know just about everything and do not need to develop, be supervised, and take advice

Clients will keep on purchasing the same old stuff I trot out over and over

No matter what I deliver learners will and indeed should adore and hero worship me

I am beyond constructive criticism and can’t get it wrong; it is always the group’s, the office’s, the world’s fault if something goes wrong

Phase 6: The Cold War

Anger at level charged for expenses, distance to travel, requests for information or anything else for that matter.

Passive aggressive behaviour; usually comprising of finding a fellow sufferer and exchanging symptoms.

Considerable energy invested in resenting the agency

Suspension of contact

Obsessive preoccupation with finding ways of working independently but keeping up appearances of involvement during the process of disengagement so that the rent gets paid.

Phase 7: Death throws

Manipulation of circumstances to provoke stomping off or getting ‘fired’ to justify own action and blame the agency for the breakdown.

Phase 8:  Bereavement

This involves lying on a slab in the training mortuary having discovered that the ‘world is not my oyster’. Desperate attempt to reengage on he grounds of having been previously stressed and out of control.


Sadly there is no treatment beyond stage 3. The Syndrome needs to run its course


  • Regular Supervision
  • Frequent referral to original terms of engagement
  • Attendance at team days
  • Giving as well as receiving
  • Tiptoeing out of the comfort zone
  • Eye on the ball-keeping in touch with professional developments
  • Reminders about what this is all about; beyond fees
  • Constant reminders of how blessed we are to be able to do what we do
  • Awareness that there are thousands of people waiting to ‘step into dead mens’ shoes