Power and Trust in Global Virtual Teams: Matrix Monday

Trust imageNow we’re back in the post August swing, we have a review by John Bland of a paper: Power and Trust in Global Virtual Teams, by Niki Panteli and Robert Tucker. Published Communications of the ACM, December 2009

Recently I came across a paper on trust in global virtual teams in the Communications of the ACM.  This is the monthly journal of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and – I have to say – not the most obvious place to find an article on this sort of topic.

In the paper, the authors have taken a new view of how trust operates in global wirtual teams.

They start by both acknowledging and by challenging the widely held assumption that trust develops more easily through face-to-face interactions (what they term a “rich information context”).  They set out to argue that, because global virtual teams have to rely on ‘computer-mediated interactions’ it is important to understand not only the role of face-to-face interactions, but also the the role of power in the mix.  They suggest that we must focus specifically how to manage the power differentials on a team for the team to be successful.

To test their hypothesis, they studied 18 real work teams, all of which came from the global IT organization of a Fortune 500 Company (which is where I assume Robert Tucker worked – Niki Panteli being a lecturer at the University of Bath).  They interviewed members of the teams and looked at the levels of trust on the team, and whether that changed.  Then they looked at correlations between trust and how power was used within the team, using a relatively simple and practical definition of success as the team either ‘worked well,  or the team ‘did not work well’.  This was determined by interview.

It may help to summarise at this point what the authors mean by Power.  Their definitions is (and I quote) “the capability of one party to exert influence on another to act in a prescribed manner”.

One of their key findings is that shared goals are critical to success and the best teams used shared goals to engineer success  – which reassuring to see, as this fits both my own experience and that of others I have spoken with.

On their main point (on the use and effects of power), they conclude that in poorly performing teams both positional power (meaning specifically power battles) and coercive power were common.  By contrast, in successful teams, knowledge power was the most important source of power and this power often moved and shifted within the team.

I conclude, therefore, that the biggest challenge for team leaders is to learn let go of the obvious and very tempting positional power lever.

Why not…?

(If you follow the Matrix Resource Links category visible on the right of this page – on most devices – you will find links to further summaries of papers and literature.)

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