By Joel D. Olson, PhD, Full-Time Faculty
School of Business and Information Technology
Increased cost of travel and environmental concerns have led to a significant rise in virtual teams and remote employment. Virtual teams also provide the opportunity to build project-oriented teams, pulling together organizational talent without the constraints of time or distance and allowing organizations to draft their best talent for specific project. Virtual teams exist when the primary means of collaboration is electronic, or via technology. The potential advantage of virtual teams is clear, what is not as clear is how to best actualize that potential.
Trust is important in both face-to-face teams and remote employees; however, given the leaner social control involved in virtual environments, trust is even more important in virtual teams. Trust glues teams together but the virtual environment can erode trust. Trust is often nurtured with social control such as direct supervision, social presence, geographic proximity, and similar backgrounds and experience. These means of social control are limited in virtual environments.
Trust is difficult to define. We tend to know when "it" is present or absent, but not always sure what "it" is. A better understanding of "it" can help nurture trust in virtual teams. One view of trust (Mayer et al, 1995) understands trust to be about both the trustor (the person trusting) and the trustee (the person being trusted). Each trustor has a propensity to trust based on their personality and previous experience. This variable cannot be manipulated, as initial team member propensity to trust will be determined prior to the virtual team's first meeting. Their experience in their current virtual team can affect subsequent propensity to trust, which will be a feature of their subsequent virtual team experiences. We have all had those bad team experiences that impact how we trust and approach subsequent teams, or those positive experiences which lift our propensity to trust our next team.
Trust or propensity to trust can be increased by trustee behavior. As the trustee nurtures trust, trustor propensity to trust and trust levels in the virtual team can increase. As a team member, I can choose to behave in a way that builds or erodes trust. The question then becomes, "How do I raise levels of team trust?"
Trustee attributes related to trust are benevolence, integrity, and benevolence. Benevolence is the trustor's perception that team members will do more to promote the common good than promote themselves. Integrity describes the trustor's perception that the trustee's action and behavior will be dependable. Ability is the trustor's perception that the trustee has the skills to be competent.
How then would a virtual team leader or member increase trust levels in their remote employees, simply by intentionally increasing perceptions of benevolence, integrity, and ability? Ask yourself some of these questions:
- Related to benevolence, how are you demonstrating an interest in the common good?
- How do you provide evidence that your concern is larger than yourself?
- Related to integrity, can your team count on you?
- Do you follow through and do what you said you would do when you said you would do it?
- Can the team be confident that you will complete assigned tasks?
- Related to ability, what is the quality of your completed tasks?
- Do your team deliverables measure up to what was expected?
Trust is a prerequisite for any successful team. The requisite technology for virtual teams works against individual's utilization of common means of social control experience to support trust. A clearer understanding of trust and the intentional use of a simple trust model can be used as a frame to increase levels of virtual team trust. As a
Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(2), 28-32.