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Virtual teams and trust: Q&A with research consultant Amy Walters

Insight

29 November 2018

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In the latest webinar of our Modern Teams series, Jeremy Lowen and I discussed some of the challenges that virtual teams face and shared top tips for building trust.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to catch up on our webinar, research does suggest trust matters more in virtual teams, but the answer comes with a caveat.

A recent meta-analysis reviewed over 52 studies and found that the positive relationship between team trust and performance was stronger in virtual teams compared to face-to-face teams.1

However, it’s unclear whether this is because trust is more important in virtual teams or whether trust is just more difficult to build in this context. In a virtual team, it’s so easy to misinterpret someone’s tone in an email or under appreciate the more personal, ‘coffee-break’ conversations which help teams get to know each other on a deeper level.

In the webinar, Jeremy rightly points out that either way, the message from research for leaders is clear: trust is more important in highly virtual teams and requires more effort to build.

Your questions answered

During the webinar we were asked a number of great questions but as we ran out of time to answer all of them in full, here’s a summary of your most frequently asked questions on trust in virtual teams:

 

Are some personalities better suited to working in a virtual environment?

Yes, research does suggest that certain personalities increase the likelihood of trust developing in a highly virtual team. For example, people are more likely to trust those high in traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness.2 Individuals who are more prone to feeling guilt have also been found to be more trustworthy.3 And there are some people who are, by their nature, just more trusting of others.

Researchers Ford, Piccolo, & Ford (2017) also point out how virtual team success can be enhanced by having people who are more willing to share what they know and keen to share in the success and development of others.4

That said, would I recommend selecting people, or perhaps more crucially not selecting people, for a virtual team based on a personality score? Definitely not. You may lose out on great talent and the performance benefits that come from having a diverse team. Furthermore, trust is a very context specific thing; it depends more on the environment you and your virtual team create than it does on the personalities you hire.

 

Have you got any advice on technology to use to facilitate trust? Can technology affect trust?

In virtual teams building trust is less a question of ‘what’s the best technology out there?’ and more a question of making sure you are using the different channels you have in the best way. Team members need to be smart communicators, they need to think carefully about what channels they are using and when. Specifically, we suggest thinking about four key things when deciding how best to communicate:

1. Who do you need to communication with? -is it a large or small audience?

2. How do you want to express yourself? - formally or informally?

3. How quickly do you need to communicate/ need a response? - immediately or is slow pace okay?

4. How complex is the message you are trying to get across? - is it better written or discussed in person?

 

How do you cultivate shared leadership in a highly virtual team?

Firstly, it’s important to distinguish between emergent leaders in a team and shared leadership.5 Emergent leaders are individuals who, consciously or unconsciously, have significant influence over other members of the team but not necessarily any formal authority. Shared leadership is a collective process whereby multiple team members take the lead at certain points or take on leadership functions (for example, they may play the role of innovator, resource broker, goal-setter, coordinator, facilitator or mentor).6

As we stated in the webinar, shared leadership is a key ingredient of high-performance teamwork, regardless of the team’s level of virtuality.7 What’s interesting is that 50% of all team leaders significantly underestimate the level of shared leadership within their highly virtual teams. And, these underestimated teams demonstrated significantly lower levels of performance.8

As a leader looking to cultivate shared leadership in a highly virtual team I’d therefore reflect on my own beliefs first; “am I comfortable with the team becoming more self-reliant?” Virtual ways of working limit leader’s awareness of how tasks are progressing and signs of upcoming issues. In a virtual age, leaders need to set expectations and be comfortable that the team members will be self-reliant in terms of monitoring progress, asking for support, anticipating each other’s needs, sharing

information, initiating decision-making, considering how tasks are interlinked and staying vigilant and responsive to potential issues.

 

What’s the best way to fix a broken virtual relationship where the core team has lost trust in the virtual worker?

I notice the language used in this question – ‘the core team’ and ‘the virtual worker’. I wonder how connected the team feels and the identity of the team. Do they all identify as a virtual team? Or does it feel like a ‘core team plus one virtual worker’? How would the team describe themselves? I can imagine that where the virtual workers are in the minority, they might become or feel isolated or siloed. Without regular and quality communication (both formal and informal) it is harder for them to build trusted relationships with team members, and vice versa. Meanwhile, the rest of the team might be doing this more often with each other.

To counter this, it takes significant effort from the wider team – they must empathise well with the virtual worker(s) and be mindful of the limitations of the technology. Making time to have the informal conversations, getting to know the individual beyond their job. Really understanding what it is like to be a virtual worker in the team will help to create mutual trust & increase empathy.

From a more practical perspective, making sure the virtual worker is able to equally contribute to team meetings and discussion, will help them to increase their credibility and reliability within the team.

Finally, it is not always possible, but getting the team together face to face will allow these conversations to happen more easily. Setting regular face to face time (even once a quarter) can accelerate the building of trust in each other.

These are just some ideas, but ultimately, I would want to understand more about the context i.e. why has the trust broken? What do the rest of the team need from the virtual worker? What does the virtual worker want more from the rest of the team?

 

References

1 Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101, 1151.

2 Evans, A. M., & Revelle, W. (2008). Survey and behavioral measurements of interpersonal trust. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 1585-1593.

3 Levine, E. E., Bitterly, T. B., Cohen, T. R., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2018). Who is trustworthy? Predicting trustworthy intentions and behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 115, 468-494.

4 Ford, R. C., Piccolo, R. F., & Ford, L. R. (2017). Strategies for building effective virtual teams: Trust is key. Business Horizons, 60, 25-34.

5 Hoch, J. E., & Dulebohn, J. H. (2017). Team personality composition, emergent leadership and shared leadership in virtual teams: A theoretical framework. Human Resource Management Review, 27, 678-693.

6 Carte, T. A., Chidambaram, L., & Becker, A. (2006). Emergent leadership in self-managed virtual teams. Group Decision and Negotiation, 15, 323-343

7 Hoch, J. E., & Kozlowski, S. W. (2014). Leading virtual teams: Hierarchical leadership, structural supports, and shared team leadership. Journal of applied psychology, 99, 390.

8 Hoegl, M., & Muethel, M. (2016). Enabling shared leadership in virtual project teams: A practitioners' guide. Project Management Journal, 47, 7-12.

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