While trust is an important component in the success of any co-located team, it is especially critical in the success of distributed teams. There are few large companies that have all their staff co-located in one location. Hence the skills required by a leader to build strong working relationships with his/her distributed teams are of vital importance to most companies today.

Work remains largely a social endeavour developed through interaction. Distance therefore can result in a number of issues. These include how fairly knowledge gets distributed and shared, how frequently unplanned insight rich business conversations are possible across a geographic divide and the extent to which everyone gets equal access to context critical information about assignments on the go. At the heart of these issues is interpersonal trust and how trust is sustained when face-to-face interactions are limited or not regular. The tendency for organisations to rely on email, other written communication such as newsletters and the intranet does not adequately address some of these very real issues. This is primarily because of the way in which work related knowledge is shared, retained, developed and created.

Knowledge sharing, in particular the sharing of deeper role related insights often depends on personal connections rather than (or more often in addition to) the transfer of knowledge impersonally through codified documents and standardised processes. In complex businesses where knowledge does not lend itself to being codified easily, most knowledge is held tacitly. That is to say that valuable knowledge is often carried in the heads of experienced people and subject matter experts who themselves will struggle to articulate let alone document what it is they know.

Trust and interacting and trust and collaboration are mutually reinforcing, trust helping to decrease the costs of coordination and knowledge sharing. Research on social attributions shows that when people see each other as members of a co-located group, they are more likely to extend the benefit of doubt regarding any social transgressions. So if I am part of a co-located group and I have been left out of a distribution list or inadvertently left out of a meeting or conference call I ought to be at, I am more likely to give that instance less prominence than if I was in a distributed team located elsewhere. However, many small transgressions such as this experienced by a distributed team will add up, misunderstandings quickly build and consequently the propensity to trust those at the ‘centre’ is impacted. Sometimes even when these transgressions are unintentional, over time they come to be perceived as intentional. This can then morph into a major barrier to collaboration and team performance and adds to the overall perception of “otherness”.

To better understand why this happens, we need to recognise that trust is both context as well as socially derived. Trust at work has 3 arms (Newell & Swan, 2000):

1. Commitment trust (or structural trust) – derived from contractual agreements between parties defining mutual benefit, usually regulated by a employment contract but facilitated also by a psychological contract that spells mutual benefit and based on the belief that the contract between parties will be honoured. It reduces risk and uncertainty for parties

2. Competency trust – based on perceptions of another’s competencies to carry out the tasks that need to be performed and is based on an attitude of respect (from the ‘trustor’) for the abilities of the ‘trustee’ to complete their part of the responsibilities. It is usually influenced by the frequency of task related interactions

3. Companion trust – based on judgments of goodwill or personal friendships that develop over time and based on a belief that people will behave in a way that does not harm but rather promotes the good of other members within the group. There is a joint expectation of honesty and openness, which develops over time when people get to know each other personally and develop ties that are not just task based. It also is driven by the frequency of informal interactions

These 3 types of trust are interrelated. So for example if competency trust does not exist, it is hard to establish companion trust. If commitment trust is low, it is harder for the other forms of trust to emerge and form. Therefore trust is an antecedent to and result of successful interaction and collaboration and may create potential issues for teams that are not co-located. Companion trust is most susceptible to rifts between the co-located and distributed team and relationships become tense, frayed and sometimes even broken, if due care is not taken. This is because teams that are distributed, experience a sense of ‘otherness’, which can make the preservation of all 3 types of trust truly challenging.

Leaders must be cognisant of this and take steps to manage this dynamic proactively. Of course the impact of the diverse nationality profile of globally distributed teams is yet another layer of complexity for a leader to manage. Nevertheless, whether a distributed team operates within or outside national borders, the management of trust is critical in ensuring that cliques and clannish or tribal behaviour does not take root. Where it does there is a real danger of a direct impact on knowledge sharing and therefore team productivity, collaboration and performance.

Therefore as a leader of a distributed team it is critical to reflect on all 3 types of trust and consider how this may be impacting the sharing of critical role related knowledge and insight, and how this may be impacting the combined team’s path to high performance. A leader focused on their expense line to find reasons why a distributed team should not travel to spend some face-to-face time at regular intervals should think again. Additionally the thought a leader applies to how they manage virtual meetings when they are scheduled, is equally critical in order to give voice and attention to all 3 elements of team trust.

For more on trust in teams contact meena@talentinvest.com.au

Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest

Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.

Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today