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Why Trust is Overrated

Trust is overrated. Team-building activities are largely a waste of time.

I know I’m bursting some bubbles here, but building relationships and cultivating trust is vastly overemphasized in teams and small groups. Now, bear with me. I’m not saying trusting relationships are unimportant, just overrated. We need to put more emphasis on building teams around purpose and mission, and less on building teams around trust and relationships. Let me explain.

Especially in the church, leaders believe trust is the foundation for team performance. Build your team on trust, many leaders suggest. After all, trust is the foundation of Patrick Lencioni’s triangle of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. While I agree trust is important, the assumption that comes along with such an emphasis on trust early on in a team’s development is that, somehow, once the trust is built, your team will be able to achieve anything.

Some of you might be saying, “Wow, you’re really going after some sacred cows, Ryan—be careful!” Fair enough. But think with me for a minute. Trust, by itself, doesn’t translate into effective teamwork. No matter the trust level, without articulation of and commitment to clear vision, purpose and performance challenges, a team will not gel.

When I talk with pastors and ministry leaders about their priorities when building a team, I usually hear something like the following approach for building a team:

My team or small group must be built on trust. The reason is simple: if I can’t trust the other members, and if they can’t trust me, we’ll fail to achieve unity. Eventually, our team, group, ministry or church will at some point split. Therefore, we must focus first on being able to trust one another. And, of course, to do that, we need to hang out together, build relationships, go on team-building retreats and so on. Then, once the relationships are established and the trust is built, we’ll get on with casting vision, clarifying our purpose and setting some goals for our work together.

Sounds familiar, eh? Note the order here: First comes trust, then comes mission and purpose. While this sounds great, focusing first on trust is a classic case of putting second things in front of first things. As C. S. Lewis wisely noted many years ago: “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”*

You see, teams form around meaningful vision and clear, consequential and compelling purpose. And when they do, team members realize that to accomplish that purpose, they must trust one another. Trusting one another requires relationship building.

But if you start by building trust, team members will quickly lose enthusiasm to stay together because there is no reason—vision and purposeto invest in getting to know one another and cultivating trust. Most fundamentally, people join together to do something they otherwise could not accomplish alone. People engage in teams and small groups to accomplish some purpose, to pursue some compelling vision, not to build relationships and trust.

The takeaway is simple: Start by building trust and you’ll get neither relationships nor mission. Start with mission and you’ll be able to accomplish your mission AND build great relationships.

Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith highlighted the importance of focusing on team performance:

“No team arises without a performance challenge that is meaningful to those involved. … A common set of demanding performance goals (think: purpose) that a group considers important to achieve will lead, most of the time, to both performance and a team.”**

Reflection Moment:

The implications here are huge for ministry teams, leadership teams, discipleship groups, mission teams, Bible study groups and even social support groups. Be honest as you assess what you try to accomplish first: Is it high levels of trust among team members or a commitment to accomplishing something wonderful together, whether that be growing spiritually together, sharing the Gospel, leading a church, learning the Word, providing awesome ministry programs and more?

Commit yourself first to mission, and then, and only then, focus on the relationships and the trust required to accomplish it. Just like our friend C. S. Lewis noted: Put first things first, and you’ll get both the first and the second things.  

*See “First and Second Things,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 280.

**See The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (Harper Business, 1999), p. 12.

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I love Jesus and the local church, and my heart beats for discipleship. I grew up in a Pastor’s home, married a Pastor’s daughter, and have spent my entire life participating in the life of the local church. I’ve volunteered leading youth ministry, bible studies and small groups, mission trips, and college ministry from my teen years to today.