The Role of Trust in Virtual Teams



In her HBR article “Do You Really Trust Your Team? (And Do They Trust You?), Amy Jen Su wrote that “at its most basic level, trust is about the work that needs to get done” (HBR, Business Communication, December 2019), and according to author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek, “A team is not a group of people that work together. A team is a group of people that trust each other” (www.simonsinek.com).


Anyone who has ever been in a team has more than likely experienced first-hand the negative impact that a trust-deficit has on a team’s performance. Silo’0s, unresolved conflict, limited information sharing, lack of collaboration and poor communication are just some of the challenges which may be caused by a lack of trust in a team, resulting in low morale, slow decision making and a lack of innovation and creativity.


These pitfalls are even more prevalent in virtual teams as it becomes difficult to build connections without shared, in-person experiences. Humans are naturally hard wired for these connections which are created through building relationships with each other. The risk of disconnection in virtual teams is even greater as context is often lost when communication channels are primarily digital and decision making is less collaborative and lacking in transparency.


So how does a virtual team increase their levels of trust with one another? Not only between themselves, but with other teams, stakeholders, clients and the larger organisational systems around them?


In his book “The Speed of Trust”, Stephen M.R. Covey wrote that “by extending trust, you empower people. You create a high-trust culture that brings out the best in people, creates high level synergy, and maximises the ability of any organisation to accomplish what it sets out to do”. Covey advises “extending trust abundantly to those who have earned your trust, and conditionally to those earning your trust”.


Building this trust takes time and intention. Virtual teams can do this by creating opportunities to share and understand each other’s scope of work, timelines, thought processes, preferred communication and social styles and their unique decision-making processes. Holding regular “Challenge and Solution” sessions where open, constructive, solutioning occurs as the team examines both challenges and solutions from every angle – risks, trade-offs, stakeholders, etc. The teams will also benefit from being curious about and pushing each other’s thinking.


Leaders of virtual teams can increase trust and set the team up for success by clarifying roles, responsibilities and expectations. Involve the team in establishing the ground rules for how they want to behave towards each other and work together, including how they will hold each other accountable and resolve conflict. Successful, trust-rich teams celebrate their wins and achievements and are intentional about nurturing the team’s spirit by ensuring a culture of appreciation for team strengths, diverse perspectives and contributions.


Trust is essential for virtual teams as it provides a sense of safety and belonging, creating a culture where the team shares openly, takes more risks, listens to each other and ultimately, flourishes, fails and learns together.


References:

  • Amy Jen Su. Harvard Business Review, Business Communication, December 2019.

  • Simon Sinek. www.simonsinek.com, 2021.

  • Stephen M.R. Covey with Rebecca R. Merrill. The Speed of Trust, The One Thing That Changes Everything. 1988.

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