Recent Lessons in Teamwork from Project Runway

I can’t wait for tonight’s episode of Project Runway.  Heidi Klum is a glamorous, winning host and Tim Gunn is a warm and talented business man, artist and leader.  I love Nina Garcia and Michael Kors and enjoy the guest judges that contribute their perspective.  Last week, on the team challenge, designer Anna Sui was the guest judge and gave input on the relationship between team work and the quality of the collections.

Teams are (supposedly) randomly selected, but sometimes the matchups seem planned.  Regardless, these are always fun, especially on seasons like this when the personalities of the designers are so prominent.  There’s Elena, who is incredibly volatile.  She has huge problems controlling her emotions, evident on every show and with every designer.  There are the super confident (Ven and Dmitri), the quietly confident (Melissa and Fabio), and the dramatically confident (Christopher, Gunner), each with his or her own unique style and personality.

Each team had three designers.  All had different ways of working as a team that impacted their success.

Team Strength (Christopher,Sanjia, Gunner) started with some conflict between Gunner and Christopher but ended up being very functional and successful.  They each worked on their own garments, complementing each other’s work.  As Gunner described the process to the judges, Sui commented, “Well of course, you’re all using your strengths.”  Later she said, “One of the key things in designing is teamwork.  That was really smart to use each of your strengths too.  They worked together to develop a cohesive collection but they used each other’s strengths.”

Team Hostility (Elena, Alicia, Dmitri, ) was in the bottom two.   They bickered and fought in the workroom and in front of the judges.  Sui summed it up nicely:  “The conversation reflects in the clothes.”   Nina added, “It was an angry coat.”

Team Nice Guy (Ven, Melissa and Fabio) was so agreeable that their clothes were boring and not cohesive.  They were so accommodating, they didn’t challenge or push each other.   In fact, they deleted the strongest piece, Ven’s, which led to a struggle to produce a unified collection.

There are teamwork lessons to be learned here, some more obvious than others.

  1.  Use your strengths.  But don’t just use yours – use the strengths of others too.  This is always a sound approach with lots of evidence to support it.  It’s smart and simple.  In the words of Tim Gunn, “Channel your inner winner.”
  2. Use your emotional intelligence (EI).  Elena is extremely lacking in EI.  She has little self-control and is not attentive to the feelings of others.  Few people would act that way in a professional situation, but this is Project Runway, so the interpersonal rules, boundaries and expectations are a bit more fluid.  Nonetheless, the teams that exhibit more empathy, self-control and interpersonal skills are more effective.
  3. Lack of overt conflict does not preclude problems.  Just as extreme hostility will trip you up, so will extreme agreeability.  Yes, you can be too nice.  Effective teams challenge each other to succeed.

There are other patterns here too.  What did you notice?  What experiences have you had working in teams when people are (or are not) using their strengths?  How do you “make it work”?

Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. is a Business Development and Leadership Coach and Victory Circles facilitator in Southern California.  She is passionate about helping others discover and develop their strengths to achieve greater business success through coaching programs, workshops, staff training, executive coaching and keynote speaking.  Visit her website at to sign up to receive helpful business development resources, including a free Business Planning Template. You can also connect with us at


15 comments so far

  1. Tea Silvestre on

    As much drama as these reality shows have, they DO offer some pretty good lessons from time to time, too. I’ve got to keep #3 in mind as I build the Prosperity’s Kitchen show…I probably won’t put people together randomly, but will try to see if there’s a common thread or complimentary type of biz that makes it work. And as much as I want to eliminate melodrama, I can see that I shouldn’t shy away from a little bit of drama — makes for better stories AND products!

    • Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. on

      The entertainment value of that type of drama can’t be underestimated. I’m sure you’ll hit the right balance! Can’t wait to see what comes out of your new kitchen. What I learned in The Test Kitchen definitely inspired this blog post.

  2. Ann Evanston on

    I love reality TV because I too can pull so many relevant lesson and stories for life!

    • Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. on

      So true, Ann. While much of it is edited so producers get most drama for their buck, there is always a great lesson to extract. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. JeanBentley (@SenderOfCards) on

    Gloria, I too am a Project Runway fan and found it very interesting that the team that got along so well, did so poorly. It just goes to show that healthy conflict is good, it helps us stretch ourselves and see things differently that we would have under calm and conflict free situations. Too much conflict and there is a disconnect but when there is a balance you get a type of synergry where the whole is better than the parts would have been put together.

    Great post,
    Gratitude Coach

    • Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. on

      Thanks, Jean. Always nice to meet another PR fan. Who’s your favorite this year? I like Melissa, Dmitri and Christopher (ironically, one from each team).

      Seems with most qualities, too little or too much are usually problematic. There’s that sweet spot, even with nervousness, that help you perform at your best.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Vicki Dello Joio on

    I’ve never watched this show but was interested to see what you pulled out of it. I love considering the balance between cooperation and constructive challenge as a way to increase team efficiency.

    • Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. on

      It’s got it’s high drama, like most reality TV, but I do enjoy seeing the fashions and the talents of the designers.

  5. Coach Sue on

    Great ideas about teamwork, and learning lessons. There’s always lessons below all your experiences.

    Sue Bock

    • Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. on

      You’re right, Sue. There’s always something to learn. Thanks for reading and sharing!

  6. Rochelle Wilson (@treatmetoafeast) on

    Finally, something good to come of reality TC (sorry). I hadn’t thought of them as micro-studies on team dynamics, but it’s a great concept-well done.
    I also love Tim Gunn’s consistently positive approach-make it work. Sometimes that’s all I need to keep moving forward…
    Peace and good to you.

    • Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. on

      Thanks, Rochelle. Reality TV is one of my guilty pleasures, though I don’t like when they get super negative and attacking.

  7. Maureena Bivins PhD, LAc on

    I tend to be very flexible when working with a team yet at the same time I definitely know what I like and don’t like. I also have a sense of what will or won’t work. I really enjoyed the points you highlighted about team strength which recognizes that conflict is part and parcel of harmony and creativity.

  8. Rowena Starling on

    I haven’t worked closely with a team in a few years. I am on a team but the members are 50 miles away & more. My experience was not a great one so not missing it.

  9. Robbie Schlosser on

    Thanks, Gloria — I enjoyed your descriptions. Very interesting to read all the nuances you recognize in these situations. I’m actually not a fan of “reality” TV programs, so perhaps I’m missing some great insights into the human condition.
    I’ve been working in a band nearly every day, for many years. I’m sure the teamwork has become second nature for all of us. Now I wonder if I try to examine it, will I cripple the smooth functioning?

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