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Establishing Trust in Virtual Teams

By Allen Brown

Imagine that you’ve just been assigned to work on a virtual team project with colleagues stationed around the country and across the world. The goal for the project is to plan, produce, and deliver a hardware maintenance manual (HMM) for an Android tablet that’s soon to hit the world market. As the technical communicator charged with managing this project, you’ll be responsible for the design, layout, and organization of the HMM content. To do your job, you’ll need the expertise of engineers, writers, editors, graphic designers, and other professionals dispersed across the country and globe. Though your skills and background are well suited for the project scope, you can expect to experience some of the same anxieties of starting a new job, not the least of which are learning new faces, new names, and new personalities.

Fortunately, a few of your team members will be employees of your same company stationed in other offices, so you’ll already have something in common, even though you’ve never met them in person. Others, however, will be subcontractors, complete strangers, who bring a unique expertise needed for the project. The key to success in this project? Trust. That is, the individuals involved in this situation must trust one another to work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and follow through on commitments. Such trust is essential to the functioning of virtual teams because it helps facilitate a smooth flow of information and an open exchange of knowledge and resources. This article provides an overview of the factors affecting the creation and maintenance of trust in virtual teams. It will also present strategies technical communicators can use to develop trust among team members when working in such contexts.

Understanding the Dynamics of Trust

For decades, the role of trust in interpersonal and institutional communication has been a major focus of multidisciplinary research—especially the importance of trust in organizational effectiveness (Jarvenpaa, Shaw, & Staples). The presence of trust enhances productivity, job satisfaction, camaraderie, and loyalty (Alston and Tippett; Goris, Vaught, & Pettit). Even in the best of circumstances, group dynamics in collocated teams can often be complex and fraught with tension. These are only compounded when team members are not collocated and their collaborations are filtered through computer-mediated communication (Brewer, 2010; forthcoming). To address these factors, we need to first come to a common understanding of what trust is.

Trust, an abstract concept, is not easily defined. Most definitions associate it with vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, and relinquishing control to others (Harell & Daim; Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman; Meyerson, Weik, & Kramer, 1996; de Laat, 2005; Coppola, Hiltz, & Rotter). When we trust others we expect that, first and foremost, they will do no harm. We expect that they will act in our best interests, meet expectations, demonstrate integrity, maintain confidentiality, and adhere to culturally acceptable decorum. We expect that they will not compromise our reputation, our livelihood, or anything we value. We generally trust medical professionals to optimize our health and enhance our longevity because they complete rigorous academic and clinical training, pass licensing exams, and work in a highly regulated field with stringent ethical standards. Car salesmen, conversely, are low on the trust scale in our society; they are not known for high ethical standards and are not subject to any credentialing standards that qualify them to do their jobs. They are notorious for trying to obfuscate pricing strategies so that car shoppers part with as much of their money as possible. From these two examples, then, we can see that the notion of trust is culturally contextual. Individual and communal biases shape how trust is defined and how it plays out in interpersonal relations. With these ideas in mind, we next need to ask, “What factors do we associate with creating trust?”

Characteristics of Trust

Let’s return to your role as an information designer for the HMM project. Your boss has explained the importance of this project to your firm in raising its profile and attracting new business. She has also hinted that the success of this project could position you for a promotion. With these added pressures, you need to consider how you’ll work effectively and collaboratively with your virtual team members. Although you’ve worked extensively in collocated teams, this will be the first time working on a large virtual team project, and your instincts tell you that it’s going to be different. Your virtual team will need to form rapidly, meet an ambitious deadline, and produce a highly technical deliverable. Members will need to get acquainted, identify roles, learn each other’s strengths, establish communication protocols, implement workflow processes, and rely upon each other to meet commitments. In essence, they need to build a coherent team with a high level of trust.

You are a stickler for detail and deadlines, and you function better when working within a clearly defined structure. From your experience in collocated teams, you know that others sometimes approach projects with less rigor and organization than you. As an experienced information developer, you expect this to be the case in a virtual team, and that it may be even more pronounced. Team members ordinarily inclined toward withholding information will need to work more collaboratively and be more forthcoming. Those who tend to dominate will need to step back and learn to invite others to contribute. Team member differences, whether related to personality, work style, communication style, or culture, can generate even more tension and frustration in a virtual team than in one that’s collocated. What can you do—and what can you help the team do—to set a positive tone, to establish camaraderie, and to work effectively? What steps can you take in your role to build and maintain trust?

The Nature of Trust in Virtual Teams

Virtual teams are defined as work groups scattered across any number of locations, both domestic and international, that use electronic communication to accomplish tasks and projects (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998). In the 1980s, virtual teams were getting work done with telephones and fax machines; more recently, they’ve been making effective use of file sharing technologies and Web conferencing. Advances in information communication technologies (ICTs) increasingly aid in completing work across various time zones and geographical boundaries and are making global virtual teams more common.

Virtual teams work collectively to accomplish tasks or projects that individual members could not complete on their own (Harrell & Daim). They are usually ad hoc, and as such are often prone to conflicts, misunderstandings, and frustrations. These challenges are only compounded by temporal, spatial, and cultural boundaries that can impede collaboration. For virtual teams, the need for establishing and maintaining trust becomes important in optimizing productivity, in promoting harmony, and in producing quality deliverables; trust can contribute to the development of high performing teams (Brewer, forthcoming; Iacono & Weisband). While achieving such levels of trust is not easy, technical communicators can increase their chances for success by following certain strategies and approaches.

Strategies for Creating Trust in Virtual Teams
Establish competence, credibility, and humanity

In forming any team, whether virtual or collocated, one of the first orders of business is to begin building relationships. In virtual teams, which ordinarily do not meet face-to-face in shared location, it’s helpful to set communication among team members in motion even before they meet, speak, email, or join each other on a Web conference. Communicating early and often is important in virtual teams (Walton; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998; Walther & Bunz). As the project leader, you decide that you’ll begin by emailing everyone on the team, listing all their names, their organizational affiliations, and their locations. In the email, you provide your own brief biography, and then invite everyone else to share a similar bio sketch. In yours, you model the appropriate information to share, including job title, work experience, educational background, credentials, office hours, time zone, professional memberships, and specific skill sets. It’s also helpful to share which versions of various software products you use—because exchanging files with older or newer versions can often wreak havoc. You realize that while your professional accomplishments will help establish your credibility and competence, it’s also valuable to share personal information so that team members recognize you as a human being, with a life beyond the office (Brewer, forthcoming). To that end, you share information about your family, place of residence (including where you’ve lived in the past), interests, hobbies, and favorite vacation spots. If comfortable doing so, team members should also invite one another to connect on social media channels, particularly LinkedIn. And if anyone is planning time away from work during the project period because of holidays or vacations, everyone needs to be aware of it.

Exchanging bio sketches accomplishes several objectives. First, it begins to establish you as competent and credible, and it sets the stage for helping team members determine how their skills will complement one another. Second, it lays groundwork for social interactions that can transcend mere transactional exchanges associated with project work. Finally, it helps team members find common interests, allowing them to see each other as more alike than different. This can sometimes alleviate some of the isolation that virtual team members often feel (Priest, et al.).

Identifying roles, establishing protocols, creating structure

After everyone has read and exchanged bio sketches, you schedule and arrange a project kick-off Web conference, ensuring that everyone is available to join. Where possible, you encourage team members to activate their webcams, thereby fostering exchanges that approximate face-to-face communication (Brewer, forthcoming). Prior to the meeting, you send an agenda, a detailed project scope, and log-on instructions. When the meeting begins, you welcome all, express enthusiasm for the project, and point out some basic functions of the Web conference tool, including how to raise a hand, how to send individual or group instant messages, and how to mute the audio.

After team member introductions, which should include some preliminary information about how they will contribute to the project, you facilitate a discussion about the following:

  • Project mission, scope, deadlines, and related topics
  • Frequency of team meetings
  • Guidelines for responding to emails, phone calls, and other communication in a timely manner
  • Guidelines for polite email salutations and closings
  • How to communicate and reach team members during urgent situations
  • When members go missing or become unresponsive, what steps should the team take to reel them back?
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Guidelines for expression of confusion and frustration
  • How to deliver criticism tactfully and constructively
  • Protocols for celebrating successes and delivering praise
  • How and when to communicate unanticipated setbacks or delays
  • Technologies most suited to particular situations and tasks
  • Explanations for explicit communication to minimize misunderstandings

Team members should come to a consensus about each topic, thereby implicitly endorsing a series of team norms and standards. In effect, the members are creating a team culture, a series of guidelines that will aid them in working together and in exchanging information and resources (Brewer, forthcoming; Priest et al.; Walther & Bunz; Alston & Trippett; de Laat). Those who follow the guidelines will demonstrate trustworthiness. Those who do not will compromise their trustworthiness and will call into question their value to the team (Walther and Brunz; Gouldner).

The importance of persona

Now that team members have agreed to specific roles, responsibilities, and processes, you realize it’s important for them to understand that even with a solid structure in place, misunderstandings and frustrations are bound to happen, particularly among virtual team members who rely on ICTs to communicate and collaborate. With that in mind, you decide to raise awareness about common communication challenges, particularly among members with widely divergent cultural and linguistic differences. You share with your team that team trust is enhanced when members make concerted efforts to exhibit specific traits.

There are any number of traits both in theory and practice that have been identified as important to establishing trust. Sztompka identifies reputation, performance, and appearance as elements in projecting trust, as outlined below:

  • Reputation is associated with a solid track record for accomplishments.
  • Performance is associated with recent accomplishments, i.e., “What have you done for me lately?”
  • Appearance is associated with your outward presentation of self and whether you look responsible and professional.

Closely related to these traits are competence, consideration, and social capital earned through reliability (Alston & Tippett; de Latt; Walton). These traits can be exhibited by doing the following:

  • Proving that your knowledge, skill, and expertise can benefit the team.
  • Exhibiting benevolence, respect, and goodwill toward other team members—and respecting cultural and linguistic differences.
  • Demonstrating reliability by following through on obligations and commitments.

By stressing the value of these traits, you help the team understand the importance of creating a favorable online persona or ethos (Brewer, 2010; de Laat; Lipnack & Stamps; St.Amant). You explain to your team that part of their online persona is related to their presence, or lack thereof, on the Internet. For example, during an Internet search, can your teammates find your name listed on your company’s website? Do they find your LinkedIn profile, and does it reflect key credentials and accomplishments, including awards and recognition? Have you published articles, contributed to blogs, or been quoted as a subject matter expert? Is your name associated with professional organizations, and is there evidence online that you are a respected leader in your field? In the age of social media, if you don’t have an Internet presence, you may not be considered relevant or credible, particularly among younger generations.

You also stress to team members that they should take care in projecting the appropriate persona to team members in email messages, Web conferences, and in all ICT exchanges. Persona is even more important in virtual teams because communication occurs through the media filter of information communication technologies, which can distort messages (Brewer). Team members, therefore, don’t have the benefit of in-person social cues such as facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation. To compensate, they will need to be intentional in adapting their communication style to both the communication medium and the cultural and linguistic conventions of their team members (Brewer, 2010, forthcoming).

When interacting with colleagues in China, for example, team members should be aware of the importance that Asian cultures place on status, hierarchy, seniority, formality, authority, and long-term relationships. Furthermore, they should know that Asian cultures tend to be less direct in their communication style. Members of Asian cultures may be reticent to participate in Web conference discussions, but more comfortable sharing feedback using email or other forms of text-based written expression (Barazova & Yuan). Asians often consider Americans to be direct, overbearing, and informal in their communication style, which for them may seem arrogant and off-putting. Workplace humor, sarcasm, and irony may not translate well across cultures, and in many instances will be inappropriate or disrespectful. (St.Amant; Axtell). Team members who recognize and respect these differences and alter their communication styles accordingly will demonstrate more sensitivity and engender more trust. As team leader, you explain to the Americans in the group that they will be well served by tempering their communication so that it is less direct and less assertive. You suggest that exhibiting humility, formality, and respect, particularly early in in the teambuilding process, can help to establish an appropriate tone (St.Amant). In summary, you make your team members aware that they should be sensitive to messages conveyed by their online persona. Their verbal expression, written expression, and nonverbal expression can build trust or dismantle it.

For global virtual teams, a particularly useful resource for learning about cultural differences is the Hofstede Center website: http://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html. Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist who shaped much of our knowledge about cross-cultural communication through his theory of cultural dimensions. Information on this website can aid team members in understanding how cultural differences play out in interpersonal and organizational communication.

Conclusion

Collocated, face-to-face groups regularly contend with tensions created by differences in politics, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, and personal bias. Differences such as these are only compounded when they cross national, cultural, hierarchal, and linguistic barriers, and when they occur through any number of technological media that may distort, alter, or delay messages or their intended meaning. Bringing these challenges to the fore is an excellent strategy for fostering greater trust, knowledge transfer, and productivity in a global virtual team where cultural, spatial, temporal, and linguistic differences are at play.

As you guide your team through the process of building structure and trust, you recall a maxim from the late Stephen Covey, the author of many books, including The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, who advises others to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is an important and valuable leadership principle, and one that can, to a great extent, serve as an overarching theme in global virtual teams (and in all teams, whether collocated or distributed). Team members will be well served by making a concerted effort to understand others, their background, their worldview, and their cultural differences. By doing this, they establish common ground and learn to negotiate their exchanges in ways that will promote greater harmony. By taking the time to observe, to listen, to understand, and to adapt behaviors and communication styles to suit the situation, team members will lay the groundwork for stronger, high-trust relationships that will benefit both the project and the members tasked with completing it.

Allen Brown is a senior director with the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities and has served on many virtual and distributed project teams. He is a graduate student in the Master of Science in technical communication management program at Mercer University in Macon, GA.

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