Building Trust in Modern Teams

The widespread use of communication and information sharing technologies nowadays enables employees to adopt virtual means of interaction rather than solely rely on face-to-face interaction.

Many have expressed concerns about communicating via virtual means, especially as it negatively affects team trust. Studies have shown that trust tends to develop more slowly in teams that rely heavily on virtual as opposed to face-to-face communication.[1]

The use of emails, phone calls or instant messages not only makes monitoring, observing and controlling the amount of effort team members expend impossible, but also makes others’ behaviors “invisible.” Such “invisibility” can add risks of cheating, neglecting or omitting others’ interests, abusing one’s power or resources, lowering team members’ self-esteem (due to lack of direct and timely feedback) and misinterpretation or misanticipation of others’ intentions, decisions or “actions.” 2,[2]

These risks can directly hinder or harm the development of team trust and result in more team conflict.

Most teams expect to mitigate these problems through traditional social methods, such as periodic face-to-face meetings and social events. However, the effects of these methods are easily reversible when the teams switch back to their old ways of communication.2,[3]

Moreover, communicating via virtual means has become a sign of times. Instead of having to fight against it, we need to find ways to work with it. We need to rethink how we design modern teams to minimize the negative influence of communicating via virtual means on team trust.

Some researchers found that high rates of interpersonal and “off task” communications in virtual teams appear to improve reports of team trust and cooperation;[4] others found that informal, unplanned interactions among team members helped prevent or ameliorate team conflict.[5]

When examining these research findings collectively, it appears that reducing task structure (when tasks are well defined, regimented, and/or rigid[6]) is a promising approach to help mitigate conflict arising from virtual communication.

The ability to spontaneously interact serves as a primary advantage of face-to-face interactions over virtual interactions. By reducing task structure, virtual teams can also have a greater capability to communicate “off-task”, develop interpersonal relationships and build trust.

Meanwhile, the diversity of team members’ specialized knowledge and expertise was found to have positive effects on team knowledge sharing and performance. Having team members that are specialized in specific functions should show members that each of them are competent in their respective areas. In such a situation, team members will likely trust others even if they lack the ability to monitor each other’s performance in face-to face situations.[7]

A study conducted by the author and Professor Matthew Prewett from Central Michigan University showed that both task structure and team member specialization mitigated the negative impacts of virtual communication on team trust. In fact, the level of team trust was almost not affected by the degree to which teams use virtual communication methods when tasks are less rigid and team members are all considered experts in their respective areas.

This finding reveals the importance of team task and work design, as well as the creation of opportunities for interpersonal interactions among team members.

If you are interested in more in-depth analyses and discussions on the impacts of virtuality on team trust and how to resolve the problems, read our research white paper.

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[1] Willson, J.M., Straus, S.G., & McEvily, B. (2006). All in due time: The development of trust in computer-mediated and face-to-face teams. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 99, 16-33.

[2] Sheppard, B.H., & Sherman, D.M. (1998). The grammars of trust: A model and general implications. The Academy of Management Review, 23, 422-437.

[3] Moe, N.B., & Smite, D. (2008). Understanding a lack of trust in global software teams: A multiple-case study. Software Process Improvement and Practice, 13, 217-231.

[4] Moore, D.A., Kurtzberg, T.R., Thompson, L.L., & Morris, M.W. (1999). Long and short routes to success in electronically-mediated negotiation: Group affiliations and good vibrations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 77, 22-43.

[5] Mortensen, M. (2014). Constructing the team: The antecedents and effects of membership model divergence. Organization Science25, 909-931.

[6] Devine, D. J. (2002). A review and integration of classification systems relevant to teams in organizations. Group Dynamics, 6, 291–310.

[7] Bunderson, J.S., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2002). Comparing alternative conceptualizations of functional diversity in management teams: Process and performance effects. Academy of Management Journal, 45, 875-893.

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