Building Trust in Modern Teams
- The degree to which teams rely on virtual technology for completing tasks and communication (virtuality) affects the level of trust among team members. It appears that the higher levels of virtuality, the lower levels of trust.
- Low trust can be a cause of team conflict. We found that higher levels of virtuality are also related to higher levels of both relationship- and task-focused conflict.
- Properly designed team and task features can help alleviate the negative impact of virtuality.
- When tasks and team structure are less rigid (where team members can meet off the grid), the positive relationship between virtuality and team conflicts is mitigated.
- When team members are all experts in their respective areas, the negative impacts of virtuality on team trust are significantly reduced.
With organizations heavily relying on work teams, increasing team performance has become a popular topic. As one of the predictors of team performance across a broad range of team types and contexts, trust among team members (aka intrateam trust) drew a lot of attention in both academic and applied fields.
One finding over the past few decades on intrateam trust is that trust matters more in teams that rely heavily on virtual communications (high level of team virtuality) than with face-to-face interactions in that the more a team relies on virtual communication, the more important team trust is to team performance. However, it has been found that trust tends to develop more slowly in virtual communication than face-to-face. This is especially relevant to teams today because whether geographically dispersed or not, modern teams frequently use communication, information sharing and collaboration technologies to complete tasks.
The use of emails, phones or instant messages not only makes monitoring, observing and controlling the amount of effort team members expend impossible, but it 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, These risks can directly hinder or harm the development of team trust and result in more team conflict.
Meanwhile, the frequent use of emails leads to a higher possibility for conflict because emotions in these messages tend to be misinterpreted. Research reveals receivers often misinterpret work emails as more emotionally negative or neutral than intended. It was also found that people believed relationships with coworkers were cold and impersonal when email was used as the medium for communication.
Most teams expect to mitigate the above mentioned 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,
In this research white paper, we will focus on two factors that have been found to affect team trust: the characteristic of the task and the composition of the team. But first, let’s examine how trust and conflict are developed in teams respectively.
Trust and Conflict in Teams
Trust is briefly defined as the interpersonal relationship based on the expectation that others will behave as expected. Professor McAllister in 1995 brought up two types of trust that serve as foundations for team cooperation: affect-based trust and cognition-based trust.
Affect-based trust is more likely to originate from positive and frequent interpersonal interactions. Once affect-based trust is established, individuals involved in the trusting relationship are more likely to keep track of each other’s needs, fulfill these needs and initiate more interpersonal helping behaviors for each other. This kind of bond is much stronger than individuals simply involved in exchange relationships (e.g., you give me something, I give you something).
On the other hand, cognition-based trust in the workplace is based on one’s evaluation of others’ abilities in performing their tasks, their professional reliability and how similar they are in terms of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Little trust in others’ work abilities can lead to close monitoring of others’ behaviors and can activate one’s defensive mechanism when working with those he/she doesn’t trust.
Both types of trust can coexist and lead to higher levels of team performance. Trusting coworkers can always mean sharing the risks. It not only benefits the cohesion and collaboration of the team, but it can also help increase the creativity and work. 
When the level of trust is low, conflicts among team members are more likely to break out.
Three types of conflicts are often studied in team research; they are relationship-related, task-focused and status conflict.,Relationship conflict is the awareness of interpersonal incompatibility. It involves personality collisions, emotional conflicts and personal tension within a team (i.e., there is a lot of emotional conflict between individuals in this work team). Task conflict is the awareness of differences in viewpoints and opinions pertaining to a group task; it refers to the disagreements regarding the work being done.8
Task conflict was once thought to be beneficial because we expect the collision of different opinions can help create greater ideas. But a meta-analysis found negative relationships between both types of conflict and team performance. One explanation for the finding is that task and relationship conflict are often closely related. Of the studies on team conflict the authors examined, most studies found high correlations between task and relationship conflict. The negative effects of task conflict on team performance is high when the two types of conflict are highly correlated, while the negative impact is lower when the correlation of the two types is lower.
Another form of team conflict that is not studied as much as the other two types of conflict is status conflict. It is about team members’ relative positions in a team’s status hierarchy. This type of conflict generally harms group performance. Status conflict in teams can be resolved and even avoided by establishing a formal status agreement. Such agreement can be set by task-relevant cues — for example, a team member who has the most important task should assume high status.
Since not much research has been focused on status conflict, we will only focused on relationship and task-focused conflict in the current paper.
Data were collected from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (www.mturk.com), an open online platform for working people to participate in paid web-based surveys. Mechanical Turk typically provides a more diverse sample than traditional data collection methods with at least the same reliability and quality. A disadvantage to using Mechanical Turk was the inability to obtain intact teams, but this disadvantage is offset by the ability to examine team member perceptions across a variety of tasks that have varying degrees of virtuality, specialization and task structure.
Participants who reported working in a team were eligible to complete the survey. Several screening items were employed to ensure participants responded thoughtfully and appeared to belong to an interdependent work team as opposed to a loosely connected work group. This screening approach reduced the sample from its original size of 956 to a final size of 647. All the online participants were provided a small monetary reward upon completion of the survey.
Communication Technology and Team Trust & Conflict
As was mentioned earlier, due to the lack of face-to-face interaction and communication, teams that rely on virtual technologies to interact are not able to rely on traditional social methods to resolve conflicts. Meanwhile, forming an interpersonal relationship is fast in face-to-face interactions, but it can take longer in virtual communication. Several studies have found that virtual teams reported higher levels of conflict.  
In the current study, we also found a positive connection between the degree to which a team relies on virtual technology for communication and task completion and relationship (r = .12, p < .01) and task conflict (r = .15, p < .01), as well as the negative association between the use of virtual communication methods and overall team trust (r = -.08, p < .05), even when other research variables are controlled for (Table 1; Table 2).
Reduce Conflict in Virtual Teams
Given the problems posed by conflict in virtual communication, researchers have searched for methods that may reduce this negative consequence of virtuality. A common recommendation is the use of a “kick-off” meeting, where team members interact and get to know one another personally before beginning work. Similarly, high rates of interpersonal and “off task” communications in virtual teams appear to improve reports of team trust and cooperation. Hinds and Mortensen (2005) also found that informal, unplanned interactions among team members helped prevent or smooth out team conflict.15
When examining these research findings collectively, it appears that reducing task structure is a promising approach to help mitigate conflict arising from virtual communication. Task structure indicates the extent to which the tasks being performed are well defined, regimented and/or rigid. Teams with less structure have a greater capability to communicate “off-task” and spend time forming bonds.
However, teams with highly structured tasks may simply lack meaningful opportunities to develop interpersonal relationships. Indeed, it is the ability to spontaneously interact that serves as a primary advantage of face-to-face interactions over virtual interactions. We sought to test this inference directly by examining the moderating effect of task structure upon the virtuality-conflict relationship — under the assumption that in teams working on highly structured tasks, less interpersonally oriented communication should occur. We found that task structure within a team has a significant impact on the way team virtuality affects team conflict. Namely, a positive relationship between virtuality and conflict is stronger when task structure is high and is lower when task structure is low (Table 2, Figure 1 & 2). The result is true for both task and relationship oriented conflicts.
Another way to counter the negative impacts of virtuality and conflict is to build trust. As researchers have expressed concern that virtuality inhibits the development of team trust, an examination of mitigating factors for this relationship will facilitate our understanding of the practical effects of virtuality. The degree of member specialization may especially serve as an important factor when examining the virtuality-trust relationship. Functional diversity, which is an important team design character, was defined by Bunderson and Sutcliffe (2002) as the “distribution of team members across a range of relevant functional categories.” They argue that intrapersonal functional diversity (the diversity of team members’ specialized knowledge and expertise), which is the same as what we examined as specialization, has positive effects on team knowledge sharing and performance. . Lewis (2003) created the term “specialization” as a sub-term of transactive memory system. It is the differentiated structure of team members’ knowledge. Having team members that are specialized in specific functions should convey contextual information that members are competent in their respective areas. In such a paradigm, team members will likely trust each other even if they lack the ability to monitor their performance in face-to face situations. There is also a more direct explanation for this proposed moderating effect. Because functionally diverse teams do not share expertise, they may be less likely to note deficiencies in the competence of specific members than in cases where team members have overlapping expertise. Thus, even if a team member is performing poorly, it may not harm team trust because such deficiencies are less likely to be noticed by other team members.
Our research supported such hypotheses. We found that in teams with higher levels of specialization (where team members are all experts in their respective areas), the level of team trust was almost unaffected by the levels of virtuality. On the other hand, for teams with low levels of specialization, the levels of trust drop as the levels of virtuality increase (Table 3; Figure 3).
Implication for Team Leaders
As the use of virtual communication becomes common in teamwork, it is important to identify and mitigate the potential drawbacks from this form of communication. Echoing previous research on team virtuality, the current study found that increasing reliance on virtual tools of communication has a negative relationship with team members’ perceptions of trust and positive relationships to perceived task and relationship conflict. We further identified the impacts of specialization and task structure on the relationships between virtuality and team outcomes. These results were noteworthy, as structure and specialization reflect two variables that may be controlled (to some degree) by management in team staffing and task design.
With increasing specialization in member knowledge and expertise, the negative relationship between virtuality and trust dissipated. When each member’s specialized expertise are added as contextual information as team character, member competence tends to be salient to the other team members. As virtual communication typically provides very little contextual information, the salience of member expertise likely has a greater effect is such arrangements than in face-to-face settings. Thus, it is easier for people to trust other members with specialized knowledge, even if they are still getting to know them personally. Therefore, organizations can potentially control undesired conflicts by building and developing teams with individuals specialized in diverse task-related areas. This will increase the salience of member competencies, thus increasing team members’ perception of trust.
Finally, as multiple researchers have indicated, informal and unplanned interactions tend to mitigate conflicts in virtual teams, such that less structured tasks give team members greater freedom to interact with their teammates and develop stronger interpersonal relationships. Stemming from this phenomenon, lower levels of task structure reduced perceived conflict (both task- or relationship-oriented). This finding reveals the importance of team task and work design, as well as the creation of opportunities for interpersonal interactions among team members.
Correlations, Means, Standard Deviations, and Reliability for all variables
|Virtuality||Trust||Specialization||Task Conflict||Relationship Conflict||Task Structure|
Note: N = 647, ** p <.01, p < .05; Reliabilities are italicized and on the diagonal.
Moderated Regressions of Task Structure on Virtuality and Two Types of Conflict
|Task Conflict||Relationship Conflict|
|Step 1||Step 2||Step 3||Step 1||Step 2||Step 3|
|Virtuality X Task Structure||.11**||.12**|
|Change in R2||.01||.01||.00||.02|
|Note: N = 647; ** p < .01, *p < .05|
Moderated Regressions of Specialization on Virtuality and Trust
|Step 1||Step 2||Step 3|
|Virtuality X Specialization||.09*|
|Change in R2||.00||.01|
|Note: N = 647; ** p < .01, *p < .05|
Figure 1. Interaction of Virtuality and Task Structure in Predicting Task Conflict
Figure 2. Interaction of Virtuality and Task Structure in Predicting Relationship Conflict.
Figure 3. Interaction of Virtuality and Specialization in Predicting Trust.
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