Working together, from a distance.

Building trust in distributed teams

We can all go farther together.

THE TRUST-PERFORMANCE FUNCTION

Teamwork is a highly sought-after skill among candidates for distributed team positions. This is obvious, as an honest embrace of diversity will increase cooperation and tolerance for differences of opinion and personality types. This is especially true when the team may be comprised of people from many different backgrounds, and even more so when the team has a high level of “virtuality.”

Working in distributed teams is operationally different than working in a traditional hierarchy. It requires team members to support one another, cooperate with each other, and build a team spirit for a cheerful and productive working environment (Erdem, Ozen, & Atsan, 2003). It also requires members to operate under high pressure and make often unilateral, risk-based decisions. All of this is difficult, but made easier when there exists a higher level of intrateam trust.

Intrateam trust correlates with team performance. It is therefore important to build trust at the beginning of a team’s operations.

When we talk about trust, words like ‘safety’, ‘dependence’, and ‘reliability’ come to mind. At the most basic level, trust in workspaces mean trusting someone with responsibilities to get the work done (Su, 2019). Smart and progressive organizations work towards creating a safe space, an environment that rests on the foundation of trust because they understand that human psychology impacts work more than any values or culture an organization might have. 

It’s amazing how well teams can perform and have performed when they have sustained high levels of trust, especially against teams with those with low levels of trust. When trust prevails in a team, the members feel more inclined towards sharing their honest perspective and ideas (Hirsch, 2017), driving performance and productivity.

When trust develops in a team, members are more engaged to build relations with their team, and wish to contribute and engage with energy (Jaffe, 2018). It give s a sense of belonging to your team, of ownership.

Trust helps give each individual a path to engage the challenges that the team collectively faces, it changes expectations; it makes one expect good from their team members and therein lies the concept of mirroring.

Mirroring happens when one member’s positive behavior is reflected back from the other. This gives rise to a certain vulnerability that team members are willing to show; the dependence on the other members, and they tend to work better with the other members in an environment that is space.

When trust is lost, individual focus turns to risk mitigation, and the team loses engagement and the energy to collaborate (Jaffe, 2018).

Research conducted in 2016, by Bart de Jong and colleagues, analyzes the relation between trust and team performance (Hirsch, 2017). From their findings they concluded that teams with interdependent members were able to achiever their goals more smoothly than teams with low dependency. This clearly shows how collective ideas shared in good spirit lead to more positive outcomes.

PRACTICES FOR TRUST BUILDING

Particularly in distributed teams, practices from each individual have cumulative impacts on the group in total.

The following are practices which individuals can undertake to enhance the level of intrateam trust:

TRUST TEAMMATES TO FOLLOW THROUGH ON TASKS

  1. Increase communication frequency: Holding regular meetings, or even not-so-formal team huddles help in building trust. This can be a team meeting or a one-on-one session of each member with the leader (Su, 2019). These discussions can be about any issue that a member is facing and their agenda for the week. Making these meetings a part of the schedule would help identify possible issues quickly.This would help clear misunderstandings and would give a sense of importance to each team member.
  2. Share openly: The importance of feedback cannot be overstated. To see improvement in a team, feedback must be regularly given and received which is specific and constructive. Timely feedback gives better results so, team members must be encouraged to provide it openly.

TRUST TEAMMATES TO HAVE GOOD JUDGEMENT

  1. Fall with style: Consider failure an opportunity to grow and give your colleagues that space rather than telling them off. This comes from the popular idea from Stanford University of “growth mindset” which essentially means failure is not the end.

TRUST IN TEAM PRINCIPLES

  1. Set ground rules and live by them: In the beginning, stating ground rules regarding information and privacy gives perspective on the do’s and don’ts. Additionally, it helps build a culture of respecting one another and creating bonds.
  2. Be there for each other: When in complex situations, existing rules do not always fit the need. Be flexible, understanding, and accepting of each other, especially in tense moments. This helps build trust and brings out vulnerability.

BUILD PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY FOR YOUR TEAMMATES

  1. Say “Thank you!” a lot: While constructive feedback is very important, it is equally important to appreciate your team when it performs well. Similar to giving feedback, appreciation can be specific and timely. By sharing encouragements and appreciations, a culture of trust and positivity is built.
  2. Keep a cool head: When a conflict arises among team members, it is best to give the other person room to voice their perspective and deal with it professionally rather than suppressing it. It is very important that each member acknowledges and accept difference of opinions. Issues can be resolved when they trust one another to respect different opinions.
  3. Zero tolerance for bullying: Aside from the (hopefully) obvious point of not being a bully yourself, minimizing the impact of other is also a critical practice. Aggressive and diminishing behaviors from some colleagues will have a negative impact on the performance of the rest. Lead informally by openly standing against behaviors which are harmful to others.

For the academics

Erdem, F., Ozen, J., & Atsan, N. (2003). The relationship between trust and team performance. Emerald Insight, 337-340.

Hirsch, W. (2017). Trust: does it impact team performance… or not? Retrieved from Science For Work: https://scienceforwork.com/blog/trust-impact-team-performance/

Jaffe, D. (2018, December). The Essential Importance Of Trust: How To Build It Or Restore It. Retrieved from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/dennisjaffe/2018/12/05/the-essential-importance-of-trust-how-to-build-it-or-restore-it/#33656d3664fe

Su, A. J. (2019). Do You Really Trust Your Team? (And Do They Trust You?). Harvard Business Review.

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