Trust: The essential ingredient for successful virtual teams

Of course, trust in any type of collaboration is vital but when team members rarely or never see each other in person they are less likely to build trusting relationships between each other.  Team members may also have competing priorities if they are part of several concurrent project teams and so showing that they are trusted will help them stay on track. And team managers who can’t keep an eye on their employees in the old-fashioned way need to resist the urge to micro-manage and develop their ability to trust and be trusted by their teams. Trust may develop naturally among co-located teams but if you are managing a virtual team you might need to focus more time and more attention on building trust.

Trust works three ways in any kind of team:

1. The team manager needs to demonstrate trust in their team members – employees who sense that their manager doesn’t trust them are likely to feel disengaged and less likely to go the extra mile.  

2. Team members need to trust their manager – managers of virtual teams need to lead by example and exhibit trustworthy behaviours; make yourself available, deliver on your commitments and offer support when needed.

3. Team members need to trust each other – as a virtual team manager make sure your create a team culture where individuals can get to know each other personally, share information transparently and share success.

 "He who does not trust enough will not be trusted." --Lao Tzu

How can managers generate trust in their virtual teams?

Managers of virtual teams need to work harder at building trust than managers of co-located teams but once high levels of trust are established virtual teams can outperform their face-to-face counterparts.

  1. Create clear ground rules from the start – many virtual teams put in place a team charter with clear guidelines about practical issues such as communication channels and response times, email protocols and knowledge sharing.  Charters can also include the team’s mission and guiding principles or values which should help develop team cohesion and engagement.
  2. Develop cross-cultural sensitivity – trust is often described in universal terms but requirements for trust are also culturally driven.  For some, the most important criteria for trust is feeling safe and taken care of. For others, it’s all about reliability and predictability – do you do what you say you’ll do.  In some cultures people need to know more than anything else that someone is credible and has the right expertise to be able to trust them.  Get to know each team member personally, understand their cultural background and find out what they need to be able to trust you.
  3. Encourage shared leadership – if you show that you trust the team they are more likely to trust you. Try rotating the lead on team meetings, creating mentoring roles for more experienced team members or giving responsibility for special projects to other team members.
  4. Communicate clearly and respond promptly – clear and transparent communication is a crucial factor in establishing trust in teams.  Team managers need to lead by example; share information quickly, deal with any conflict openly as it arises and ensure you have regular individual and team catch ups.
  5. Discourage cliques and sub-teams – with teams that don’t meet face-to-face it can be easy for team members who perhaps have worked together on previous projects or who are co-located in the same office to form cliques within the team. This can cause other team members to feel isolated and excluded and can undermine trust between the team as a whole.  As a team manager, address these issues openly and encourage team members to work across the whole team or perhaps create a buddy or mentor system.

Without high levels of trust, your team members will become frustrated and disengaged, it will take longer to get things done and you will struggle to meet your objectives.  However, the good news is that trust can be developed and learnt.  Training on Managing Virtual Teams can also help. Talking about it openly and getting to know team members as individuals is the first step and then putting in place systems and processes that enable the team to communicate openly, share information and support each other will allow them to focus on collaborating to get the work done.

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