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DIVAs Weed Them out or Nurture Them? Five Best Practices


Are you familiar with the Navier–Stokes equations? During my engineering degree, when we studied fluid mechanics, these set of mathematical expressions exhibited my understanding capacity. Yes I passed the exam at the end of the semester; still, I never could grasp the profound mathematical meaning. Alex, a good friend of mine can, he is one of those people who devour complex math for breakfast. When he understands, he usually makes sure you know he does, he will sometimes behave in truly asocial ways, and he will eat tons of garlic, yet deep inside, his intentions are good. Alex is a true DIVA.

The last QCon San Francisco featured engineering culture as a full day track. It was interesting and definitely worthwhile sitting through the day. The second presenter was Rob Cromwell Co-Founder and VP, Engineering at Inkling. In his talk he introduced the concept of a DIVA – an acronym for: Difficult, Infallible, Victim and Arrogant; referring to insufferable geniuses.

They are probably not someone you’d like on your team. They are not preforming according to the acceptable social etiquette. They will prove you wrong in front of everybody and they will be right, they will leave a meeting half way through saying that we are all stupid and wasting their time, they will eat garlic laden food over our keyboard while arrogantly explaining why our code sucks. Basically they are the epicenter of dysfunctional teams. So let’s get those DIVAs out and never hire them to begin with! Right?

Well, here lies the problem.

They are really good, as the Rob himself admitted; one of his DIVAs was able to fix 5 release stopping bugs in 30 minutes, after the team was stuck for two months. Boy, I wish I had a DIVA in my team.

And this is the place that leaders must step in. It is their role to make sure that the organization preserves and nurtures the DIVAs. Hiring practices that leave the DIVAs out are a sure first step to a tech company’s downfall.

Barcelona football club (actually they are playing soccer) had the same problem several years back. They had a team full of DIVAs (sometime also known as Primadonas). The all-stars club just didn’t mesh and was failing to deliver results. Do you think the coach replaced his stars with mediocre players? Think again! He exhibited true leadership by giving direction, personally handling conflicts and creating an implicit team charter of acceptable behaviors.

The DIVAs are what separates exceptional performing technology companies from the rest. Yes, a company can be good at what it’s doing and survive; however the DIVAs, the a-social geniuses, provide the spark of creativity. Especially in high tech, we want to have those in our teams. True leaps in innovation tend to spring from individuals with, sometimes, non-conforming patterns. They might eat garlic for breakfast, or sleep for two days and also during your presentation, otherwise they might be rude and non-fun people. However, they are creative, and they deliver. I will have a preforming DIVA in my team over 20 developers that churn out mediocre code.

In another session we have also heard of intense hiring processes in which possible recruits undergo 17 interviews. Statistically, this it the way to hire the average! We weed out the possible stars in favor of ‘team players’. Here is a wake-up call; there is no way a tech company that aims for the average recruit, will prosper. Actually, the technique of numerous interviews originated at leading management consultancies. They however, have been searching for MBA graduates that can stay up late, meet with clients, be presentable, and agree with the senior partner (and eat lots of Pizza – so maybe this is what they have in common with developers). While MBA candidates need to be credible and likeable, brilliant technologists need to be just that, brilliant. Counterintuitively, numerous interviews reduce the chance of finding them.

It is your role to give guidance, coach, and harmonize. Actually, the mere act of labeling a certain person as a DIVA is counterproductive. Labeling in general isn’t a very good thing to do J It limits the degree of freedom in possible courses of action. It accentuates conflicts rather attenuates them. If we label a certain behavior as DIVA we are actively increasing the possible team conflict. As leaders we can change the environment to accommodate some behaviors, yet persist on common rules based on our team’s charter. We need those DIVAs… sorry geniuses J

PS – Alex ended up marrying a social worker – so he is on the right path.

To help Rob and all the other leaders and managers who are anxious with coaching a great technical employee who has some (or many) interpersonal and social behavioral issues, I compiled best practices for handling the DIVAs. These are naturally relevant for any feedback session, and while the steps are extremely logical, I find few managers and leaders who follow them.

Here are the Five Best Practices to nurture and retain the DIVAs in our organization:

  • Learn to observe behaviors since only behaviors count! In each and every influence and leadership workshop I facilitate I hear the same comment about handling tough personalities in the team. I reply that personalities don’t exist, I never met one, and if you do, please call me and introduce me to he or she. Point is, we talk a lot about personalities, yet philosophically speaking they don’t really exist. What’s more, using the term: personality, limits the ability to change behaviors. Truly, it is behaviors we wish to impact. Effective feedback entails observing behaviors and providing immediate coaching when unruly behavior is observed.
  • Frame outcome of observed behavior! Each and every behavior has an outcome. When providing feedback it is crucial to describe to your genius DIVA, the outcome that emerges from the specific behavior. This requires that you spend time in formulating the outcomes. It seems easy, and yet many times, our own judgments stand in the way of actually seeing the outcome of the behavior.
  • Define impact of outcome! Probably the most important step is creating a meaningful, relevant and tangible impact of the outcome. Whereas the outcomes are quite clear when you describe the behavior, impacts can be elusive. The impacts are what makes YOU the leader, or the boss if you prefer, since you are able to articulate the bigger picture of the outcomes. Many times people and especially DIVAs will be oblivious to the impacts since they are observing the environment from their subjective situation. It will be difficult for them to observe the impacts. Your role is to create a logical sequence from behavior to outcome, to impact. Discuss these impacts with your DIVA, you’ll be surprised how effective it is.
  • Follow the: Requesting action cycle of feedback. The full feedback cycle is:
    • Explain the context of the feedback.
    • Share the behavior, outcome and impact information.
    • Ask the DIVA to give their perception of the specific incident.
    • Seek consensus on the improvement required.
    • Discuss alternative courses of action.
    • Agree on an action plan.

The past can’t be altered (though our perception of it usually can, and does change), the future can be impacted, sometimes; we are free to choose (freedom of choice? well probably free to an extent – however that is already philosophical drivel so I’ll leave it at that).

  • Recognize our tendency to judge others’ faults and learn to give credit! According to research – we blame our faults on the environment; we blame others’ blunders on their personality. Yep, this is funny. If I am late to a meeting it is because of the traffic, or the car breaking down, or just because the alarm on my mobile malfunctioned. When you are late to the same meeting it is because you are lazy, negligent and you really don’t care about the team at all. It is fascinating. Actually in many couple interactions it is the cause of conflict. One sees his or her faults as stemming from the environment and the other blunders as from a fault in their personality. Mediation is about recognizing the other’s point of view. Actually, learning how to give leeway and approbation of others is crucial in progressing to effective and impacting feedback.

Remember: Behavior – Outcome – Impact.

Below is a simple example, contact me for more ideas and support on how to use effective feedback cycles, or just to debate on the existence of personalities.

  • Behavior: you didn’t attend any of the User Acceptance Testing bug reviews meetings over the past three months.
  • Outcome: you have not qualified to support our efforts on the ongoing release.
  • Impact: our team capability is weakened, we were not able to deliver according to the defined cadence and the integration efforts have been compromised.

The main challenge of the above approach is that it requires YOU to change! It demands that you as a manager and a leader move out of your comfort zone of being judgmental of so called personalities. It demands that you take the risk to genuinely interact with a person who might be ‘difficult’ to handle. I urge you to take the first step.

And last, here is a short exercise that I enjoy performing in my workshops, it illustrates how easy it is to judge. Write on a paper a list of characteristics of a person in your team. See how natural and normal it is for you. Now, describe at least four behaviors which attest and confirm the specific characteristic. Next, list the outcome of the behaviors and the resulting impact. By the way, if you have children, especially teenagers; this is a great tool to support change. Good luck!

According to Wikipedia -

In physics, the Navier–Stokes equations [navˈjeː stəʊks], named after Claude-Louis Navier and George Gabriel Stokes, describe the motion of fluid substances. These equations arise from applying Newton's second law to fluid motion, together with the assumption that the stress in the fluid is the sum of a diffusing viscous term (proportional to the gradient of velocity) and a pressure term—hence describing viscous flow.

About the Author

Michael Nir - President of Sapir Consulting, PMP, Scaled Agile consultant, author of Agile Decisions - has been helping clients overcome business challenges and achieve their potential for over 15 years. He is passionate about Gestalt theory and practice, which complements his engineering studies (M.Sc. and B.Sc.) and contributes to his understanding of individual and team dynamics in business. Michael authored 11 Bestsellers in the fields of Influencing, Agile, Teams, and Leadership. His experience includes significant know-how in the telecoms, hi-tech, software development, R&D environments and petrochemical & infrastructure industries. He develops creative and innovative solutions in Agile project and product management, process improvement, leadership, and team building programs.

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