Teams can’t function well when co-workers don’t trust one another. Building and maintaining trust in the traditional, physical workplace is difficult enough, but the process is even tougher in a virtual environment, where people often have to work with people they haven’t met in person.
Some biologists believe that we are hardwired to distrust everyone except our own family members. Studies have shown, however, that trust can indeed be actively accelerated and maintained on virtual teams even when they have to be assembled on the fly with employees scattered across the globe. According to our research, the following best practices will help:
Leverage “swift trust.” Recognize that when groups first form, people are usually willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. The prevailing feeling is that “we’re in the same boat together”: success will reflect well on everyone, whereas failure could hurt people’s careers. So people initially operate in a positive atmosphere of “swift trust.” (This is what colloquially we might call the “honeymoon period” of a relationship). This is particularly true if the group is under pressure to perform so that, in effect, people have little choice but to trust each other. This is easily seen on a movie set, where actors, stuntmen, the director, makeup artists, set designers, the camera crew, and others collaborate intensely from day one even though they might have been strangers before.
There are two ways to assure you take best advantage of the benefits of swift trust. Managers should 1) tout the competence of the different team members and 2) ensure that the team has clear goals that everyone understands. Over time, swift trust tends to decay, but it can help hold a team together until another type of more lasting and tested bonding has a chance to develop: interpersonal trust. This brings us to the next point.
Pro-actively build interpersonal trust. When assembling a virtual team, managers often assume that people will mainly be interested in what their fellow team members can do, as opposed to who they are as individuals. Wrong! When looking at a resume, CV, or bio of someone, people will often latch onto personal details, such as hobbies and other outside interests, including charities the person supports. Why? Because they want to get a better sense of that individual and to see if they might have anything in common. One theory is that we tend to trust others who we perceive to be similar to us because we believe that those individuals will react to various situations in ways that we can understand (and even predict).
Managers can help encourage such personal connections by starting meetings with a “Take 5” for people to talk about what’s been happening in their lives, both professionally and personally.
A member of a virtual team in one research study happened to live in the Washington, D.C. area during the sniper attacks in 2002. During a conference call with her fellow team members, she described what she was then going through. This prompted a co-worker in the Philippines to talk about the violence there from insurgents. Conversations like that help build empathy, which then paves the way for trust.
When my colleagues and I work with physical teams, we use the art of storytelling over meals, and the same principles can be applied to virtual teams during teleconferences. Although that might feel awkward at first, it’s a powerful way to create empathy. Another recommendation is to invest in an intranet site with social-networking features that enable employees to learn about others. Such measures are especially important in a virtual environment, where people have much fewer opportunities to connect through chance encounters in the hallway or in the company kitchen.
Communicate with predictability. The key to good communications is not quantity but quality. Think about how you might not have seen a good friend for years but then when you reconnect you’re able to pick up where you left off with a truly deep conversation about your life. Smart managers recognize that, especially if they’ve had problems in the past with staffers being overwhelmed by an information overload of countless e-mails and frequent meetings. But what might be surprising is that something other than quality is also crucial: predictability. In a study of global distributed teams, the researchers found that teams lacking in trust tended to have unpredictable communication patterns, often with just one or two members accounting for the bulk of the communications.
On one such team, Alice (a pseudonym) submitted her contribution to the project but heard nothing for four days. So she sent other team members a message: “Are you not in the…assignment anymore?” As it turns out, Alice would account for more than 50% of the total communications for that team. In contrast, on the high-trust teams in the study, communications were regular and predictable. Moreover, team members contributed more equally, and they tended to be conscientious about letting others know when they would be unavailable. That way, fellow team members were less likely to be left wondering why someone was taking a while to respond to a message.
Share and rotate power. In a traditional workplace, teams are usually led by single leaders. In a virtual environment, that type of centralized power structure is less effective. A study of virtual teams in a Fortune 500 global IT company found that, on teams that had a high degree of trust, power had been shifted among the members depending on the stage of the project. Typically, the person who held the most power at any given time was also the individual with the most knowledge and relevant information about that particular stage of work. So, for example, in a project to develop a marketing campaign, the initial stages might be led by market analysts and customer researchers, and the latter stages by the creative experts. But that sharing of power doesn’t mean that a virtual team shouldn’t have a general leader. It should, but that leader should have more of a “monitor and mentor” approach to managing, instead of the traditional “command and control” mindset.
Many managers are skeptical that real trust can be established in a virtual environment. After all, how can employees truly develop trust for people they’ve never met? The hard truth, though, is that teams can’t function without trust, and a lack of face-to-face interactions doesn’t automatically lead to an atmosphere of suspicion. But managers shouldn’t simply enlist employees in a virtual environment and hope for the best. Instead, they need to be pro-active, implementing the right mechanisms to ensure that trust will flourish (and not wither) within that environment.