Building Trust in Virtual Teams: Real Challenges and Solutions

“I could look him in the eye.” “We do deals on a handshake.” “She has an honest face; I trusted her from the get-go.”

When we’re working or dealing with other people face-to-face, we send and receive all kinds of clues and indicators that help us assess trustworthiness, and by which we can show others they can trust us. Casual interactions, tone of voice and body language, small daily experiences all contribute to building trust. Face to face is high-bandwidth trust time.

This all changes, however, when we’re part of teams or work groups scattered across the globe – virtual teams (real people, real teams, but working together virtually instead of sitting in a conference room to brainstorm or peering over the cubicle walls to ask a question.) And with so much of the world now working in virtual teams building trust among the members of a team who don’t look one another in the eye or share coffee every morning is a challenge.


When we work in virtual teams, it’s all too easy to forget that we are in fact working with real people who just happen to be 15—or 15,000—miles away, and trust in the relationship takes a beating. Yet trust is paramount to collaboration, to getting things done, and to relying on those who we don’t see every day and can’t look in the eye. If we can maintain some of those high-bandwidth characteristics, we all benefit immeasurably.

The Trust Quotient

Casual readers of this column know that our way of thinking about building trust revolves around the Trust Equation, and the associated Trust Quotient Assessment which break down trust-building into the four components of Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self-Orientation. 

Looking at virtual teams through these lenses, we can suggest some very specific behaviors which help to build trust, and further collaboration:

CREDIBILITY: When the virtual team is first assembled, go beyond the usual jargon-laden introductions [“I’m Jane Smith, a SR PM in the RV Division.”] and ask each team member to say something about what they bring to the group, and what they hope the project outcomes will be. We believe in people whom we know something about; if all we know are resume headlines, we don’t assign them great credibility.

RELIABILITY: Every time you turn in a piece of work, refer back to the master schedule and how your piece relates. If there isn’t a master schedule, take the responsibility of creating one. Despite the truism that trust takes time, this is the only component of trust that truly does require multiple experiences; this is how you create them.

INTIMACY: When someone starts a call with: “So, how was everyone’s weekend?” really share something: “We had so much fun; my 5 year old daughter is playing T-ball and the girls were hilarious whacking at the ball and running around the bases.” We trust those who are willing to take the small risk of revealing something about themselves; encourage it, especially by role-modeling it.

SELF-ORIENTATION: On a conference call with the group, stop multi-tasking, no matter how tempting, and really listen as each person speaks. Don’t do email, turn off the cell phone, face a non-moving vista.  Do whatever it is that you do to actually pay attention.

More about Virtual Teams: An Invitation

Key research in this area has been done by Onpoint Consulting, and we earlier talked about some of the six competencies and 24 behaviors they found in the most effective dispersed teams and leaders. We’ve teamed up with Onpoint to invite you to a free webinar on November 1 at 12:00PM ET, 9:00AM PT  where Charlie Green, CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates LLC and Rick Lepsinger, President of Onpoint Consulting and co-author of the new book Virtual Team Success will talk in depth about trust and virtual teams.

Trust and Virtual Teams

I recently read a fascinating article on Virtual Success: The Keys to Leading from a Distance.  (Yes, you do need to give your contact info, but I trust the authors not to sell or misuse your email address.) Darleen DeRosa and her colleagues at Onpoint Consulting  have recently completed a study of 48 virtual teams in 16 organizations around the globe.

What they were looking for is what distinguishes highly effective virtual teams and team leaders from those that are marginally effective or completely ineffective. In the study, they’ve identified the unique challenges of the manager who has team members spread out around the globe, and the six behaviors that differentiate the highly effective virtual team managers.

Not surprisingly, communication was overwhelming cited as the key competency for the effective managers.
Building relationships, building trust, being personally accountable and having a results orientation were also cited.

Six Behaviors and Twenty-four Performance Enhancers

The study identified six behaviors and 24 specific actions of the most effective leaders; I want to concentrate on one of each.

Among the six competencies, or behaviors, one key is fostering an atmosphere of collaboration among team members.

The most effective leaders of virtual teams … establish a culture of accountability in which roles and expectations are clear and there is zero tolerance for blaming others or finger pointing. [T]eam members can raise problems and admit mistakes without fear of retribution. … Effective leaders of virtual teams build an environment of trust within the team, which further enhances collaboration.

And my own favorite enhancer, under Support, Engagement and Recognition is this one:

Focus on moving from task-based trust to interpersonal trust by communicating openly and honestly, leading by example, employing consistent team interactions, and being accessible and responsible.

I love the notion of moving from task trust (“I trust that Mark will get his piece done on schedule”) to interpersonal trust (“I trust that Mark will raise a flag if he sees any difficulty, and will keep me fully in the loop. And if I ask for his help on this problem that has me stumped, I know I’ll get help, discretion and no attitude.”)

All of this adds up, it seems to me, to creating a safe atmosphere akin to what we call Intimacy and Transparency. And that adds up to true collaboration.