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Building Trust in Virtual Teams

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Building Trust in Virtual Teams

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Importance of Trust in Virtual Teams

The use of virtual teams is becoming more and more common in organizations. It is estimated that over half of all professional employees are believed to have worked on a virtual team. Researchers are only now beginning to understand how virtual teams function and much work remains to be done in order to facilitate the design and management of these teams (Martins, Gilson & Maynard, 2004). As organizations shift toward utilizing global virtual teams, it is becoming more important to understand factors that make virtual teams successful (Wakefield, Leidner & Garrison, 2008). Martins et al., explain that virtual teams are complex and unique in their ability to transcend the traditional constraints of time, location, social networks, and organizational boundaries. Due to this flexibility, virtual teams can make organizations more competitive if they are successful. In order for global virtual teams to be successful, there has to be trust amongst the team members. The intent of this review is to highlight the importance of trust in virtual teams and the critical aspects of developing a trusting relationship. Trust in virtual teams consists of three specific factors. First, the importance of understanding cultural differences will be outlined. Secondly, the importance of effective communications will be discussed. Last, the impact effective conflict management techniques have on building trust will be examined.

Importance of Trust

A globalized business environment is changing the way organizations are set up to do business. Teams are increasingly formed in virtual settings consisting of members from various countries and backgrounds. Global virtual teams are culturally diverse, work across temporal and physical distance, are interdependent, and rely on technology to communicate. Because there is often little to no face to face between team members, it is difficult to establish trust. Global virtual teams are challenged to overcome anxiety and uncertainty that influence the effectiveness of their communication. Mockaitis, Rose & Zettinig (2009) found that the development of trust in the global virtual teams is directly related to aspects of culture, communication and conflict management. In virtual teams, trust is particularly important, because electronic collaboration can be effective only if both parties enter into it with a willingness to open themselves to one another and cooperate in carrying out the team's goals. The nature of online collaboration creates dependencies on virtual teams that parties could exploit. This fact makes high levels of trust imperative to the success of virtual teams. Trust is the glue that binds virtual teams together (Brown, Scott Poole, & Rodgers, 2004).

Cultural Differences

Although global virtual teams face many challenges, they enjoy many advantages as well. Virtual teams are able to bring multiple perspectives one a problem. Traditional workgroups enjoy diversity, however, this is particularly notable in global virtual teams where the additional factor of cultural diversity is shown to improve performance outcomes (Hardin, Fuller & Davison, 2007). Cultural makeup of global virtual teams may have important implications for organizations. Culture is an established boundary for all interpersonal communication. Members from collectivist cultures where greater value is placed on group accomplishments than on individual accomplishments saw an increase in their collective efficacy (Hardin et al., 2007). This feeling of group accomplishment is then shared throughout the team. Additional cultural differences, as they pertain to teamwork are discussed by Massey, Montoya-Weiss, Hung & Ramesh (2001). Individuals of U.S. origin had less difficulty expression personal opinions than participants of Asian or European origin. Massey et al., (2001) go on to explain that U.S. and other such cultures tend to express and accept communications at face value while those of Asian descent showed a greater need to know whether others understand them and whether they can understand others under the same communication circumstances. Being aware of these differences and being able to reassure team members who require will build trust and contribute to success of the team.

Cultural uncertainty.

Brandl & Neyer (2009) contest that part the importance of addressing cultural differences is the simple act of addressing that they exist. There are many variables when working on a global virtual team and uncertainty inevitably arises (Zakaria, Amelinckx & Wilemon, 2004). New team members are less likely to expect their readymade concepts of the other culture or even their own cultural pattern to be useful predicting team dynamics, they are more likely to understand and accept daily uncertainty as normal. This is important for reducing newcomers' possible negative expectations (Brandl & Neyer, 2009). By simply addressing cultural differences it acknowledges that these differences exist and that it is acceptable to discuss what otherwise would have been uncomfortable.

Culture and conflict.

As previously discussed, both cultural awareness and conflict management styles contribute to building trust in global virtual teams. Through cultural awareness training, team members learn how to achieve solutions and activate supportive resources (Brandl & Neyer, 2009). Once the cultural uncertainty is diffused, team members become more willing to explore unknown situations. Brandl & Neyer (2009) argue that cultural training elements help team members feel comfortable approaching others without being insulting. This leads to conflict being solved between team mates (at the lowest possible level) and a higher level of trust.


Cultural awareness training also encourages team members to think critically. After receiving the training, members feel empowered to explore the other cultures in the team and become more likely to draw on a variety of tools for selective activation of trials and evaluation of results in a mutual relationship of sense-making, understanding, and influence (Brandl & Neyer, 2009). After receiving cultural awareness training, team members are empowered to confidently deal with unknown situations. This is particularly important for managing uncertainty and anxiety when working in a global virtual team.

In order to take full advantage of the cultural awareness training,



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