Teams can’t function well when co-workers don’t trust one another. Building and maintaining trust in the traditional, physical workplace is difficult enough, but the process is even tougher in a virtual environment, where people often have to work with people they haven’t met in person.
Some biologists believe that we are hardwired to distrust everyone except our own family members. Studies have shown, however, that trust can indeed be actively accelerated and maintained on virtual teams even when they have to be assembled on the fly with employees scattered across the globe. According to our research, the following best practices will help:
Leverage “swift trust.” Recognize that when groups first form, people are usually willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. The prevailing feeling is that “we’re in the same boat together”: success will reflect well on everyone, whereas failure could hurt people’s careers. So people initially operate in a positive atmosphere of “swift trust.” (This is what colloquially we might call the “honeymoon period” of a relationship). This is particularly true if the group is under pressure to perform so that, in effect, people have little choice but to trust each other. This is easily seen on a movie set, where actors, stuntmen, the director, makeup artists, set designers, the camera crew, and others collaborate intensely from day one even though they might have been strangers before.
There are two ways to assure you take best advantage of the benefits of swift trust. Managers should 1) tout the competence of the different team members and 2) ensure that the team has clear goals that everyone understands. Over time, swift trust tends to decay, but it can help hold a team together until another type of more lasting and tested bonding has a chance to develop: interpersonal trust. This brings us to the next point.
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