Dealing With Divas

by Peggy Gregor, AFAA, ACE on Sep 01, 2007

How to make your “superstar” realize that EVERYONE is a superstar.

Regardless of their locale, schedule or member profile, group exercise programs share one thing in common: the diva factor. The "diva" instructor is one of the most difficult to manage. She presents herself as "untouchable" and doesn't see the big picture. She refuses to uphold the mission of the program or club and is far from being a supportive team player. She sees just one piece of the puzzle—the people who attend her classes.

As a program director, you understand the value in keeping classes full of enthusiastic participants. However, in efforts to keep numbers up, you may overlook a diva's bad behavior. A diva can hold a club hostage to get what she wants, and may threaten to leave if her wishes are not granted. She may also try to convince others that your program will fail without her. The fear is that members with whom she has aligned herself will retaliate, numbers will drop and you will be faced with uncomfortable confrontations. A little direct diplomacy when dealing with a diva will help you retain your leadership position, make other instructors feel valued and ultimately allow the entire staff to serve members better.

Diva Management 101
The diva comes in many forms. She may or may not be your best instructor. She may be an experienced veteran or simply your newest instructor who has achieved some success and gained praise from members. "She" may be male. Whoever it is, the bottom line is that the diva must be managed! You will spend 90% of your time managing the 10% of your staff the diva makes up and 10% of your time managing the remaining 90% of your dedicated staff. If you do not address and deal with the diva's toxic attitude, it can sidetrack your program and undermine the cohesiveness of your team.

It's not just the diva's ego and sense of entitlement that affect others negatively—the manner in which you handle her can also be detrimental. Turning a deaf ear and ignoring behavior that is unbecoming to a team player sends the message that unprofessional behavior is acceptable. Shift your focus from managing numbers to managing people. If you build a strong, loyal team of instructors who support one another, all classes will flourish. Command respect by being direct and dealing with all issues equally.

Management Strategies
The following section details accounts in which "untouchable" or "superstar" instructors attempt to manipulate management. The solutions offer guidelines for working with difficult egos.

More, more, more
Issue: The diva is notorious for pushing for more classes and higher pay. It is clear that what drives her is not the members' success, but her own. She comes to the negotiating table completely prepared with reasons why she deserves more money and classes than others.

Response: Remain firm. Remind your diva that teaching is a privilege, not a right. Tell her that all instructors are equally considered for available opportunities—and that you award classes based not only on aptitude but also on attitude and level of team support. Think twice before giving more classes to someone who does not respect management or the club's mission.

I'm too good to sub
Issue: Most clubs have specific job requirements, policies and procedures that must be clearly defined in order to provide equal employment terms. For group exercise, this may include an instructor's commitment to sub classes. Many divas feel that this policy is for everyone except them.

I recall a jaw-dropping incident in which an instructor who frequently traveled and called on fellow teammates to cover classes was herself asked to sub. The diva's response after a heavy, annoyed sigh was that she felt she should not have to sub classes. When I regained my ability to speak, I asked why. Her answer floored me: "I'm above and beyond subbing. My classes are full, and subbing is for instructors who aren't on my level."

Response: Initially I wanted to fire back, "Who do you think you are?!"

Instead, I gained my composure and began to lay the cards on the table. First I pointed out that subbing classes was a requirement stated on the job description she'd signed. I also reminded her that this very instructor who desperately needed help was not only her "go-to" sub but a skilled, veteran instructor herself. I then reviewed the value of subbing: getting yourself in front of a new group of participants is a great way to advertise skills to fresh faces. Last, I revisited a very recent conversation in which the diva had demanded more teaching time. Once I presented these points, she agreed to sub.

Participants as pawns
Issue: A diva may like to get others to fight her battles, using class time as a forum to recruit "soldiers." She is quick to play the blame game and not afraid to broadcast what she feels are shortcomings of other staff members and the club. It is easier for her to whip followers into a frenzy in order to wage war with petitions than it is to go through proper channels or deal with disappointment. Her thinking: if members bring these concerns to management, she will get her way.

Tell-tale signs of this insubordination include multiple notes in the suggestion box (immediately following her class), worded the same and often not signed by members. Granted, some of these notes may be legitimate complaints, but when the remarks relate directly to issues that you are currently dealing with involving the diva, it is too much of a coincidence.

Response: Approach your diva with these notes or petitions and question her. This lets her know she is on your radar. "Gee, Helen, we received 20 notes regarding the microphone issue that you and I spoke of last week. Do you know anything about this? Can you help me understand how members would know about this or why they are involved?" Remind the diva that these matters should be dealt with behind the scenes.

Top-dog syndrome
Issue: A diva does not like to share the spotlight. She tends to promote only her own classes and discourages members from attending other sessions. Sometimes a diva will even invite members to another club where she teaches. When members become excited about a new class or sing the praises of another instructor, the diva's feathers become ruffled. Fearing that her loyal followers might go elsewhere, she may try to sabotage the other instructor's efforts.

The diva thrives on being top dog and wants everyone to know it, including other team members. One former instructor didn't bother to write a number in the weekly attendance book. Instead, she wrote in big red letters,"SOLD OUT!" Another diva placed stars around her name and marked it with a yellow highlighting pen. Yet another placed fliers sporting a picture of himself (shirtless) along with reasons why his class was the best. This incident happened after another class became popular.

Response: Inform your diva that the attendance book is a company document. Attendance is to be reported accurately. All fliers and promotional materials must be approved by the director and used to promote the program as a whole.

Deal with a trash-talking instructor directly: "Tony, a member approached me about Patty's new double step class. The member really enjoyed it, but he has concerns and is hesitant to return based on a conversation the two of you shared. Can you fill me in on this? Do you feel there are some safety concerns? What are those concerns based on—fact (i.e., industry guidelines) or opinion? Have you taken the class yourself?"

To wrap up the conversation, you might add, "Tony, I respect your efforts but hope that in turn you appreciate and respect what your fellow instructors are bringing to the team and to our members as well."

For the sake of your whole staff, you must address the diva and make it clear that this behavior, if continued, will result in loss of classes or even termination.

Mine, mine, mine
Issue: The diva takes ownership of her "followers." She refers to participants who frequent her class as "my members" or "my people." "My members think the pool is too cold." "My people are advanced." "My members don't like it when Suzy subs."

Response: Typically "my members" is "me" in disguise. Perhaps your diva needs a quick lesson in member retention. Even though she may be packing her class, industry research shows that clubs retain more members when they are involved in all aspects of the club, not just one class. If a conversation starts with "my members," interrupt and set the instructor straight. The participants are our members. They pay dues to our facility and rely on our entire staff to provide them with a positive experience. We don't own our members. With that clarified, remember that some concerns expressed by the diva may be valid. Ask her which members spoke to her and go to them directly.

I'm an old pro
Issue: Many divas have been teaching for years and may have certifications or degrees from days gone by. However, guidelines continue to change, and research is ongoing. Confused members confronted me one time regarding a cycling class in which a diva taught movements that others discouraged. While auditing the class, I was surprised to discover myriad blatant contraindications. This diva had recently attended two nationally recognized indoor cycling certification trainings.

Response: As a director, you must know the current guidelines or have immediate access to them. When I met with the instructor after class, I questioned why she used certain moves even though they were contraindicated. She replied that she had a master's degree in an exercise-related field and had been teaching fitness for more than 20 years. She felt that her knowledge far outweighed what had been presented in the trainings.

Respect your instructor's education, but stress that her knowledge must be kept current. A degree or certification is only the foundation from which a fitness professional grows. Inform her that in order to move forward, she must let go of the past. An instructor who relies on outdated information creates liability issues for both herself and the club. She also muddies the waters—members receive conflicting information regarding standards for specific formats.

Remind the diva that class guidelines are created by people whose education is on a par with hers. They are subject to continual research and testing. If you still do not make headway, you may need to suspend her classes until she will comply with guidelines. Frequently attend her sessions to ensure that she is staying true to standards.

A Triumphant Team
Do not be afraid to address the conduct of hard-to-manage instructors. Enlist the support of other key persons in management, including your executive director. Focus on building a supportive team and weeding out divas. It may be a scary step and members may threaten to leave if you cut a diva loose, but only a very small percentage will follow through. Besides, numbers will rebound as you grow your staff with positive, member-focused instructors. Once you have set a precedent, indicating that certain actions will not be tolerated, you will be respected as a leader and others will think twice about traveling down that prima donna path.

Manage with facts, not feelings. Continue to assess yourself, and be sure you are not the team diva! Create an environment that makes all instructors comfortable and equal. Keep a strong pool of devoted, supportive instructors, and focus your attention on their growth. This will make handling your diva easier. She cannot hold you hostage if you have others waiting in the wings to fill her spot. All instructors must be aware that everyone is replaceable and no single person is bigger or better than the facility itself and the members who make it happen.

SIDEBAR: Proactive Measures for a Diva-Free Team
Screen Thoroughly. When hiring, use a comprehensive interview/audition process. Focus on questions that pertain to teamwork and teaching techniques.
Evaluate. Audit all instructors on a regular basis. Your form should include a section on attitude.
Outline Expectations. Make it clear which types of behaviors are acceptable and which are unacceptable. Continue to review these with staff.
Outline Consequences. Make all instructors aware of consequences for bad behavior. These may include a written warning, class suspension, loss of classes and/or termination.
Know Your Facts. Stay current with industry compensation and class guidelines.
Follow Through. If you address certain issues and warn staff of impending disciplinary actions, you must take those steps. Otherwise, you will lose control and respect.
Stand Strong. Be true to yourself and the team, and don't fear the consequences of disciplining a popular instructor.
Communicate With Club Managers.
Inform management of the issues you are facing and request their support. Help them understand how this one person affects the rest of the staff.
Communicate With Members.
Acknowledge concerns and make yourself available.
Communicate With Instructors. Let them know you have an open-door policy. Keep them abreast of all important club information.
Be Direct. When dealing with the diva, don't sugarcoat things. You must be as direct as she is. Let her know that you are aware of her indiscretions, and use facts to back yourself up when you confront her.

Peggy Gregor is the group exercise director at Healthtrax Fitness & Wellness in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. She also serves as a master instructor for SPIN Pilates®. Reach her at

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About the Author

Peggy Gregor, AFAA, ACE

Peggy Gregor, AFAA, ACE IDEA Author/Presenter

Peggy Gregor is the group fitness director and corporate group fitness advisor for Healthtrax Fitness & Wellness. She inspires and educates others through her many published articles, dynamic fitness conference presentations and lectures. Additionally, she serves as a Group POWER and Group GROOVE program tester for Body Training Systems and is a member of the Ringgold Rams (Football) Strength and Conditioning Coaching Staff lending her fitness and Pilates expertise to highschool athletes.