How To Build A Productive Team (And Weed Out Toxic Behavior)

Whitney Johnson’s new book, Build An A-Team, is based in understanding where collaborators are on their learning curves.

How To Build A Productive Team (And Weed Out Toxic Behavior)
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Whitney Johnson isn’t afraid to challenge people to be their best selves. From her books Dare, Dream, Do, to Disrupt Yourself, Johnson puts forth a framework for innovation that starts with empowering the individual to take charge of making change. It’s something she’s learned from personal experience. Originally a classically trained pianist, Johnson went on to become an equity analyst on Wall Street despite having no financial background. Between speaking engagements, writing, mentoring, and advising startups, Johnson also cofounded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen.


In her latest book, Build an A-Team, Johnson discusses her experience and advice for creating the most productive collaborations. Here’s her advice for building an innovative team and weeding out toxic behavior.

Fast Company: What was the most challenging team you’ve ever been on?

Whitney Johnson: I was still working on Wall Street, I had been an award-winning stock analyst for about eight years and effectively at the top of my learning curve. I loved to coach and mentor people, so I went to [my boss] and said I wanted to go into the management track. Rather than being supportive, he was dismissive and discouraging, basically saying, ‘We like you right where you are.’ This is a big challenge that plays out in companies all over the world every day. People get to the point where they are ready to disrupt themselves, but the ecosystem makes it impossible, even though they may have a great boss. It’s basically the “innovator’s dilemma” but with people.

FC: How did you resolve the dynamic?

WJ: I left.

FC: Is there such thing as a bad team? Or is it only a matter of getting a good manager/leader who can make it good?


WJ: There is such thing as a bad team. Sometimes you have bad players who are toxic–and we all can be toxic at different times, it’s not that a particular person is toxic in every situation. But often you get people not performing well, and/or they’re in the wrong role. Other times, frequently there is a strong performer who got to the top of their learning curve after four or five years on the job, and they’re bored and they start to underperform. They may feel they paid their dues and are entitled. That impacts everybody on the team.

FC: What’s the best way to deal with that?

WJ: If there is truly a toxic player, you need to weed them out. Otherwise, recognize that every single person is on a learning curve, including you. You build a great team by optimizing those curves. At any given time you have 70% of the people on the steep part of the learning curve, and 15% who are on the low end asking questions like, ‘Why are we doing this?’

The other 15% are people at the high end who aren’t necessarily innovating, but who are willing to set the pace by teaching, training, and collaborating. They know that shortly they will jump to a new curve of learn, leap, repeat, continuing the cycle. You have to constantly have people in a slot either learning a little more, or getting ready to learn again, then you’ve got people who are engaged, happy, and productive.

FC: What do you personally look for in others when collaborating, and how would you advise others to seek the same?

WJ: A lack of entitlement. A lack of either, ‘I’ve paid dues,’ or somehow I am owed for something. A willingness to learn and be humble enough to say I don’t know how to do everything, and I’m willing to learn from every person, not just my betters. To demonstrate domain expertise and excellence around the work they’re doing. A willingness to show up and be all in.


One of the ways you know people are excited to work with you is that they ask you questions about the work, and not about what’s in it for them. One advantage of the gig economy is working on short-term projects with someone. To me, that is the best way to test if they are all in.

FC: How would you hire to build a great team?

WJ: Look for the questions they ask to see if they are invested in the business. Ask them about times in their career or at school that they’ve taken a step back to slingshot forward, or if they were pushed back and what that looked like.

This will show how self-aware they are if they are taking ownership, or if it is someone else’s fault. You will see how agile and nimble they are, which is required for disrupting. Then talk about something that’s not worked and what the return on investment of it was. You’ll be able to see resilience, and how intact their sense of identity is if their failure is an event and not a person.

FC: How would you advise someone who’s contemplating joining a team to make the right decision?

WJ: Bosses are pretty good at telling you what you want to hear about a job, and it all looks really exciting. Ask the manager where the people are who worked for them in the past, and what they are doing today. Ask if there were women or people of color on those teams. Ask if they helped them to get to where they are–even if they moved to another organization–and if they are proud of them. That is the person you want to be working for, because this boss will make it possible for you to jump to a new learning curve.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.