There are three members of the Leading Virtually team who are currently the most active core. Of the three of us, I know Surinder well (he was my teacher and research collaborator when I was in graduate school). But I met Angelo for the first time in person last week. We have been working together for about 8 months without ever having met face to face. It was not surprising to find out in person that he’s as nice and sharp as he seemed in our virtual collaboration. But I realized when we met that I started to trust him as a collaborator as soon as we began to work together – there was essentially no period of time where I was sizing him up as part of the group. Interestingly, I realized this the moment I looked at his face and didn’t recognize him, though I recognized his voice and had a history of interaction in my memory. This so rarely happens, it caused a sort of jolt of realization.
How had I come to trust Angelo so immediately? Although it wasn’t conscious, I think that there was some transfer of trust. Surinder demonstrated clear signs of trusting Angelo (e.g., he asked him to be part of the group) and I trust Surinder, so through some non-conscious transitive process, I trusted Angelo also. In some ways this flies in the face of virtual team collaboration, since much of the focus is on how to build trust among team members. Research and practical suggestions assume it is harder to build trust in virtual teams, or that building trust happens with a slightly different mechanism than in face to face teams. Most research and recomendations for virtual team collaboration assumes a team of geographically dispersed people that really don’t know each other. Yet there is some connection between all the people in order for them to be assembled into one team. Does the connection happen at the higher level – higher managers connecting and recommending team members? Considering this process and its ramifications for trust might be very useful for people in organizations who want to utilize virtual teams. Imagine if trust in virtual teams could be developed much faster, allowing the team to work on their task or project in a more effective way, sooner in the team lifecycle.
Reputation and connections could be a crucial way to speed up the process of virtual team members learning to trust one another. If we have the technology to share documents, we have the technology to create social networks that are task-relevant. Some organizations have sophisticated information about employees on their intranet. In some of these, workers can list some basic elements of the resume – experience, skills, and interests. Much like LinkedIn or Facebook, organizations might also want to make visible a person’s connections to allow “third-party certification” from the colleagues one already knows and trusts.
Even if these social networking tools aren’t in place at an organization, virtual team leaders should be able to get a little creative in order to develop trust among members. We often make recommendations for the initial social interactions a virtual team should have to begin the trust and cohesion process. Perhaps trust could be built even faster if the team were to play a sort of Six Degrees of Separation using colleagues. See how many of the team members have a mutual contact within only a few degrees of separation. If team members give a little information about how they have interacted with the mutual contact (i.e., “we worked on the X project together in 2004 and still have coffee when I’m at headquarters” or “we were in 5 classes together during college”), trust will develop more quickly through this transfer of trust. Perhaps you as team leader suggest that team members contact their mutual colleagues to get even more confidence in one another.
Another idea is to ask team members to come to an early meeting with some kind of feedback or recommendation from others in the organization. For example, maybe you ask each team member to contact three colleagues, and ask each contact to provide one strength or skill they perceive about the focal person. Each team member then comes to the group meeting with three skills that others in the organization can vouch for, and they specifically name the source of that feedback. Again, if the contacts they draw from have a reputation, that trust might transfer to the group.
Research has been conducted on trust in several academic fields, including explicit discussion about the several sources of trust. However, it doesn’t seem that transfer of trust, or indirect sources of trust, has been researched in the context of virtual team collaboration. It would be useful to research the reasons why transfer of trust or reputation happens, and whether that has a significant impact on team outcomes. We welcome comments from our readers about your own experiences with transfer of trust. What is your experience with trust-building in virtual teams? Have you found that “third party certification” of a new colleague helps to build trust in virtual teams? Does having a strong reputation help others trust new colleagues?
Other Leading Virtually posts related to this:
Leading in Face to Face Versus Virtual Teams, Manipulate Perceptions to Improve Virtual Team Performance, Building Trust in Virtual Teams.