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 that 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 that 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 purpose – to 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.”**


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.

Photo Credit: Katie Rihman



  1. 1 of 2 guys who sees you on Tuesday nights February 2, 2012 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    What about icebreakers? Those are sometimes used to acquaint people and build trust, albeit very minor trust. As someone who used to stay closed unless I trusted a person, positive icebreakers helped me mesh with the team. Would “trust-building” icebreakers go second as well?

    How deep does this initial exposition of purpose and mission go? Does the leader tell the whole, deep 2 hour version, complete with history, examples, goals, mission statements, props, metaphors, and the like?

    • Ryan Hartwig February 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      Good question … I like your name!

      There’s nothing wrong with trust-building, “team-building” icebreakers, as long as they come AFTER a team’s purpose has been established and the outcomes associated with the activities are directly related to building skills, experiences, and relationships essential to the team’s ability to work toward that purpose. Of course, a quick get-to-know-you activity is appropriate before getting deeply involved in the purpose conversation, but seemingly endless games and activities to build relationships, trust, and a “team” are irrelevant, and even unhelpful, if the purpose is not clear. Now, that team purpose conversation doesn’t have to be 2 hours long, but it should be sufficient to garner commitment from team members after they know what they’re getting involved in.

      Look forward to seeing you on Tuesday!


  2. Dan Black February 6, 2012 at 11:43 am - Reply

    Leadership and relationships start with trust. Great post.

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  4. Rob Bray February 22, 2012 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    Awesome post! I think you nailed it. Trust is essential – but people want to know the purpose behind even building trust in the first place.

  5. paulpla June 14, 2012 at 2:10 am - Reply

    Good points to ponder…
    But what is the real purpose and mission of the church? For secular teams with their own purpose I agree with you that vision is the one that will unite people, and trust is ‘only’ foundation for achieving its purpose.
    But for the church, is it not our purpose is to relate and connect, both horizontally and vertically? I think it is imperative for church to see trust not only as a way to achieve vision, but that in our vision there should be a glimpse of shalom community. If that is true, then trust is foundation for our vision, but also indicator of its success…
    Thankyou and blessing to you,,,

    • Ryan Hartwig June 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm - Reply

      Hi Paul –

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. As the church fulfills it’s clear, Biblical, mission to make disciples, I agree that trust is important, and an indicator of successful disciple-making. But, I argue here that if the church focuses on building trust, she will fail to actually fulfill her mission of disciples. At the end of the day, trust is good, but overrated as the focus of team-building efforts.

      All the best to you as you serve the church!

      – Ryan

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