Virtual Teams

First Impressions in Virtual Teams

trustTraditionally, trust has been thought to be the result of a personal knowledge of an individual’s past behaviour and therefore that our (mutual) trust builds over time as we work together.  This view of trust means that I’ll trust you only when you have shown yourself to be trust-worthy through your actions.  It also views trust as a purely “cognitive” activity – ‘my’ trusting ‘you’ is a rational response to what has happened between us.

This raises some major questions for all of us who are working in an international matrix or in a virtual team.  In these environments there is often no personal history.  In these situations does trust really start from zero and gradually develop?  Also what about trusting people we haven’t met or can’t meet – does this change things?

“Swift Trust”

It  seems that the traditional view of trust is only a part of the picture and, indeed, trust doesn’t start from zero.

This, the initial level of trust ‘I’ place in ‘you’, in the absence of any interaction with ‘you’, is called “swift trust” or “disposition to trust”.

An article I read recently – “Individual Swift Trust and Knowledge-Based Trust in Face-to-Face and Virtual Team Members” made a couple of really interesting observations which anyone who is working internationally needs to be aware of.

The authors found that the “category” that you belong determines my “disposition to trust”. This means that the category label ‘I’ apply to ‘you’ affects how much ‘I’ trust you.  Category labels might  include any or all of the following:

  • your nationality (German, British, Japanese American etc.)
  • your function (Sales, Legal, Human Resources etc.)
  • potentially even things like your gender, ethnic background etc.

This is disturbing enough in its own right: it highlights that trust is actually not as rational or reasoned as we might think, but is “intuitive” too.  Not only that, but the more different ‘you’ are from ‘me’, the less ‘I’ will naturally trust you.  And, of course, the more similar ‘we’ are, the more ‘I’ am disposed to trust ‘you’.

Finally, their studies also showed that ‘my’ initial view of ‘your’ trustworthiness also determines how ‘I’ view the interactions ‘we’ have.  So if, for example, ‘I’ think you don’t deserve my trust (i.e. my disposition to trust is low), then ‘I’ (subconsciously) put a negative slant on ‘our’ interactions.   This means that whilst the effect of “swift trust” declines and “knowledge-based” trust becomes dominant, “swift trust” is actually quite “sticky”.

For managers in a matrix this has some very important implications. Here are just a few things to do to ensure trust develops the way you want it to: –

  • Create a strongly trusting atmosphere around you and within the company;
  • Look for and emphasise things that you have in common;
  • Manage the interactions with your team, especially in the early stages;
  • Keep double checking for the potentially damaging self-reinforcing judgements that you are subconsciously making.

Practical steps on building trust in an international matrix are a key part of our training so please contact us if you would like more information.

Reference: “Individual Swift Trust and Knowledge-Based Trust in Face-to-Face and Virtual Team Members”,  by Robert,Jr., Lionel P. , Dennis, Alan R. and Hung, Yu-Ting Caisy. Journal of Management Information Systems, Fall 2009, Vol. 26 No. 2. pp. 241 – 279,/cite>


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