Some years ago, we undertook some research about the productivity of knowledge workers – and how it could be measured. Not surprisingly, we concluded that productivity can’t be measured in any tangible and replicable way across different communities of knowledge workers, but we DID discover a number of proxy measures for the performance of teams. These proxy measures are factors that are strongly correlated to team performance and therefore when they are present and working well, teams benefit. One of our factors was Trust – so we expected that it would also be critical for agile / virtual teams (arguably even more important than for co-located teams). And we were right!
So, what is trust? Essentially it is a feeling between people that signifies an expectation that the other party’s actions will be to our benefit, or at least not to our detriment (and not just based on self-interest). Bound up with these feelings of trust are notions of competence (the knowledge and reliability that the other party has). This is referred to as ‘cognition-based trust’ (which essentially comes from the head) and is distinct from ‘affect-based trust’ which is based on the emotional ties between parties – and hence comes from the heart.
When thinking about whether we ‘trust’ another person, these two notions can become blurred. People often draw on gut feeling or emotional reactions, whereas they might do better to turn to a more evidence-based approach which would enable them to explain their lack of trust more clearly (and express it not as a lack of trust, but as a concern about competence). Competence can be improved, after all, once it is highlighted as an issue. The problem is that many people use the statement “I don’t trust <name>” as a conversation closer – as if there is nothing that can be done to address the lack of trust and rectify the situation.
Trust in teams
There are two directions in which trust travels in organisations. First, it travels horizontally, between team colleagues. Colleagues expect each other to take collective interests into account when making decisions, and not to act out of self-interest. For example, if you share a new idea with a colleague – you are willing to risk the ownership of the idea – you trust your colleague not to pass it off as their own idea.
Second, trust travels vertically between team members and their supervisor or manager. Team members expect their manager to take their interests into account when taking actions.
Research has shown a positive relationship between trust and the performance of virtual teams. Affective-based trust (from the heart) is highly correlated with the open exchange of information, and the increased tendency to share personal information, sensitive knowledge and ideas, whereas cognition-based trust tends to lead to improved professional relations and enhanced collaboration on team tasks – all elements that are essential for the performance of virtual teams.
Although both types of trust influence knowledge-sharing between teams, cognition-based trust seems to have a higher impact on complex knowledge-sharing than affect-based trust. So, with virtual teams, for whom knowledge-sharing is critical, the level of cognitive trust may be a better indicator of team effectiveness. And it follows that the more we know each other (and about the skills and expertise each person brings to the team) the more likely it is that cognition-based trust can grow and be sustained. Also, the more we work together, the more opportunity there is for each person to demonstrate their ability and competence.
Trust is crucial for the performance of agile/virtual teams because it influences whether individual team members are willing to share and exchange information and knowledge. Having trust in one’s team colleagues causes a person not only to take their interests into account but also the interests of their colleagues. In other words, horizontal trust promotes a shared focus on common goals over personal interests. Vertical trust helps to align the team’s goals with management goals. For example, if the team lacks trust in their manager, it is likely that there will be no alignment between the goals of the team and those of management.
Key elements of trust
Essentially, to build and sustain trust – there are 3 elements that need to be present – competence, integrity and benevolence. As mentioned above, competence is whether the person has the required skills for a given task; integrity looks to whether the person has ethical standards (such as keeping their promises); and benevolence is the degree to which the party is willing to go the extra mile. These 3 factors are highly inter-correlated, so it is not sufficient to focus on just one.
Another key aspect is that of procedural justice – i.e. the fairness of the procedures used to determine organisational outcomes (for example the performance appraisal system or access to development opportunities). This is all about whether people feel that they are treated fairly.
Finally, trust is also directly influenced by a person’s propensity to trust others, which is linked to their own personality. If you have a strong propensity to trust others, you are likely to exude trust (which in turn is more likely to be repaid by those you are trusting). It is often said that trust begets trust (and vice versa).
So, what can we do to develop and maintain trust?
When forming a new team, we need to build trust quickly – but if people don’t know each other, they need time to get to know their new colleagues (and see who is competent, who has integrity and who will ultimately be benevolent, going the extra mile). So, a period and some activities designed to enable them to get to know each other is key. Without this, the new members will proceed on the basis of their own propensity to trust others, and see whether they are rewarded or disappointed over time. As the outcomes could take a while to reveal themselves, this could be damaging to the team and its task.
Research by Kanawattanachai and Yoo (2007) and AWA’s own experience over the years have identified three key areas for managers to pay conscious attention to, in order to achieve high performance in agile/virtual teams:
- The active development of trust among team members – not just leaving it to chance. Although there are challenges to developing a high level of social relationships within virtual teams, trust is clearly vital so should be pursued.
- Providing teams with relevant information on team members skills and capabilities so that cognitive-based trust can quickly develop, alongside socialising opportunities which can facilitate affect-based trust to develop. Building a pattern of “who knows what” is more difficult when people work asynchronously – so finding ways to share that vital knowledge is important.
- Maintaining as well as developing trust in virtual teams – bearing in mind that typical socialisation strategies may help develop trust, but they may be insufficient if conflicts arise within the team. Therefore, conflict resolution skills are vital if the trust among team members is not to suffer.
With regards to team members, there needs to be a clear understanding of the role that trust plays in the interactions between them. Rarely is it spoken about openly within teams – somehow there is an implicit expectation that “we all trust each other”, but the reality is often far from that idealistic vision. Without finger pointing or identifying who trusts whom, it is productive for people to focus on overtly demonstrating trustworthy behaviour.
Similarly, leaders should strive to be visible through frequent contact and exchange of information with team members. The visibility of this behaviour allows team members to make judgements about the leader’s trustworthiness and fosters the development and maintenance of trust (trust begets trust). While this can be done via any medium, face-to-face communication allows the leader to demonstrate competence and to go into detail more easily – helping to prevent misunderstandings.
 Kanawattanachai, P., & Yoo, Y. (2007). The impact of knowledge coordination on virtual team performance over time. MIS Quarterly, 31, 783– 808.