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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
Communicate With Instructors. Let
them know you have an open-door policy.
Keep them abreast of all important
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
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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