Purpose + Trust = Team

In my research and conversations around the Future Of Work, variations of the following question have consistently come up: what does teamwork mean to you? What does good collaboration look like? What does it take to make a team work?

For me, this boils down to two things: purpose & trust. Since these words are easily bandied about, let’s look at what they really mean and why they’re important to me.


a strong, clear and shared purpose….is the foundation upon which all other elements of a successful team are built.
Simon Hartley, Stronger Together

I have worked in teams where the purpose was not defined; no one ever even bothered to try to tell me what it was. After blindly following tasks for a year or two it finally dawned on me, and I was suddenly able to make decisions that I knew would fill that purpose. For that reason I think the purpose of what a team does should be written up on the wall above where we work in yellow blinking neon, with the simple guideline: if in doubt, refer to the neon sign.

More tangible features of the team such as tools, processes, completion criteria, deliverables and documentation can (and should) all be subject to change. Those changes will save your team from stagnation and extinction, but the purpose must be fixed so that changes are made only to better serve the overall direction.

I should clarify at this point that a purpose is not the same as a goal. A goal should be actually achievable, a measurable thing which when you arrive at, you’ll have to find another one. A purpose is a persistent intention that carries through in everything you do.

A clearly defined purpose has the additional benefit of allowing for autonomy in completing a given task. With the purpose clearly defined, leaders can take a step back and let their team figure out how to achieve it. An organisation where decision-making is centralized will always be beset by profound bureaucracy and bottlenecks; whereas autonomous players are more flexible, motivated and quicker to deliver value.

My approach to team building and cohesion would be to make sure that the team’s purpose is clearly stated and is understood and agreed upon by all from the outset. This involves taking the time to discuss with each individual what that purpose means to them and then to define it for the collective as a whole.

SYPartners describe this as well as I possibly could:

An organization’s purpose defines why the organization exists in the world.
A well-crafted purpose statement stays true over time: it should be specific and unique enough to be meaningful, but far-reaching enough to make room for expanding possibilities.
It declares an ambition, while being authentic and ownable. It should resonate on every level — individual, team, company, and society.
And overall, it is the organization’s highest ideal — the North Star that guides smart business decisions and inspires employees.


In order to maintain cohesion, it is important to build trust. I believe that this works in two ways: an individual who feels passionately about a decision must be trusted by other team members to make that decision, even if they don’t agree. Likewise, that individual must trust that if the decision goes badly there won’t be recrimination. To put it another way, there must be permission to fail, and failure, when it inevitably happens, should be celebrated as an opportunity to learn.

Trust in teams is not a new concept. It’s right there in the agile manifesto:

5. Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted

What isn’t as immediately clear is that the relationship between motivation and trust is a spiral, both upwards and downwards. Trust an individual to make a decision and they will be motivated to own that decision and see it through. However, mistrust will manifest in micromanagement which breeds complacency in the individual: if someone’s checking and altering everything you do, then why bother giving it 100%? Worse still, managers who don’t trust their team to deliver to stakeholders will unwittingly fall into the trap of swooping in at the final moment, making a few changes and presenting an idea as their own.

Just as purpose encourages autonomy, a crucial byproduct of trust is an open and constant dialogue about not just the work, but how the work works. If your team trust that they are each fully invested in each other’s growth and development, then feedback can be delivered without it seeming anything other than constructive.

At the advice of ustwo, I recently began prefacing feedback to colleagues with the question of whether this was a good time to do so. I’ve found this softens the conversation from the outset and hope that it shows compassion for whatever might be going on for them. The goal is to show that this is not snap judgement, and it can wait for a time when they are receptive to improvement.

Take the example of Sheryl Sandberg telling Kim Scott, founder of Candor, Inc that the “ums” Scott had been interjecting while speaking made her sound unintelligent — well, actually not unintelligent, “stupid.”

“It was actually the kindest thing that Sheryl could have done for me. But part of the reason why she was able to do it for me was that she had shown me in a thousand ways — and everybody that worked for her — that she really did care personally about our growth and our development.”

The bedrock of trust allows for frank and open conversations between team members and the brutal honesty required to succeed.