May 21, 2020

One of my favorite reality TV shows is Project Runway. For over 15 years the series has revealed amazing creativity (albeit, specifically of the fashion variety), the winning results of personal confidence, as well as an insight into the complexities of the group work dynamic. Invariably, whenever the “team challenge” arises nearly every contestant groans. Loudly.

For Project Runway competitors — and for many of the rest of us, I’d wager — there seems to be an active dislike of working on a team. The frustration that develops between the designers creating a 2-piece mini collection on TV are remarkably similar to what happens in workplace teams: often there is ambiguous leadership, misunderstanding of the group’s mission, team members’ communication styles are misinterpreted, shared work isn’t equally shared, the extroverts usurp their share of recognition and the introverts feel unacknowledged. 

To get multiple perspectives on teamwork, I reached out to a few Twin Cities’ executives with a legion of experience in the corporate, retail and non-profit sectors. I wanted a counterpoint to my own experience with interpersonal dynamics — after all, my kindergarten report card was once notoriously marked with “Elder John doesn’t share his toys and slaps other children.” Perhaps I’ll dive into the issues around greed and anger management in a later blog post.

To begin, simply enough, every team needs a sustaining leader. Much like a levee, leadership channels and contains the group work to stay on task. Without the levee’s walls, a runaway flood of ideas and inefficient use of time and resources can occur.

Roberta Bonoff, Partner at EnvisionIt! Wholesale Management, advises that “one of the first tasks is for the leader to establish agreed upon ground rules for the group’s communication; such as not talking over each other, or that judgment and wrong-making of others are not allowed.” It can also be the declaration of an intangible spirit of communication and thought, such as “we don’t know, what we don’t know.” Once the rules for communication are understood, everyone is held accountable and brought back to the agreement if needed.

Good leadership also ensures everyone in the group shares their ideas publicly — and that everyone is allowed to shine. Collective minds are more creative than any single contributor. Some team members may need additional coaxing to join the conversation; but the group trust, and the fulfillment of the team’s objective, are better for it.

Leadership aside, what about advice on how to be a good team player? One of the most important characteristics of being an effective team member is to leave your ego at the door. Everyone can’t get their way, every time. And no matter how right, or how relevant you think your opinion is, more than likely you will need to choose to accept someone else’s choice. Functioning in a team is less about the individual and much more about the group goal.  

Learning to listen is also paramount. Partly, that means trying not to interrupt conversation, and not prejudging a team member’s opinions based on your previous experience with them. Instead of automatically assuming you think you know what the purpose or intention of someone’s idea is, and responding accordingly, listening means asking questions until real, mutual understanding has occurred first — and then responding.

Fear can limit a team’s effectiveness. When trust within the group is established, no one should be afraid to go against the grain and offer a strong, differing opinion, even if it directly contradicts the group majority. And for the leader, after truly listening to even a popular idea from team members, they can’t be afraid to acknowledge what is wrong, to sort through what works and what doesn’t work, and ultimately, they can’t be fearful to be contrarian and oppose the popular idea if it is not in the best interest of the team’s objective.

In the words of Project Runway’s mentor Tim Gunn — challenges are often filled with “make it work” moments.