“Can I trust you?”
It’s a question that rumbles around inside our minds each time we as leaders are faced with a conflict or a fresh opportunity. But how often do we ask ourselves, “Can you trust me?”
The Link between Trust and Collaboration
Trust is listed at or near the top of the list of team-building essentials in every book and journal article I surveyed on the topic of distance/virtual teams.
What is trust? Marquardt and Horvath offer this definition: trust is the team members’ reliance on one another to protect their joint endeavor. Fourteen of 28 chapters in the very helpful Handbook of High-Performance Virtual Teams deal with the topic of trust. The lending and earning of trust is particularly crucial to distributed teams.
Why is trust so crucial? Because trust is the cornerstone of genuine collaboration. In their most recent work, Kouzes and Posner identify ten truths about leadership based on more than two million responses to their Leadership Practices Inventory from over 70 countries in the past two years. “Credibility is the foundation of leadership” is the second truth; “Trust rules” is the sixth. Rath and Conchie answer the question “What will people follow in organizational leaders?” with four clear research-based responses: trust, compassion, stability, and hope. If we define leadership as influence, trust leads the way.
For team member A to trust team member B, member A must be able to see and experience specific behaviors and non-verbal clues in member B. Pat MacMillan categorizes these core issues as Competence (Can you deliver?), Character (Are you trustworthy?) and Concern (Do you care about me and my stuff?). Clark, Clark and Crossley identify the same critical three issues respectively as Ability, Integrity and Benevolence.
It is helpful to examine the origins of the term “virtual,” which comes from Latin virtus meaning valor or moral excellence. Virtual doesn’t mean invisible or not really there. Taken this way, virtual means that I can trust you, and you can trust me, because of our mutual commitment to excellence, ability, and mutual concern.
Finally, a distributed team must develop “swift trust,” which is where each team member acts as if trust is present from the beginning. It’s like offering everyone a hundred dollars in a “trust account” that they are allowed to make a few withdrawals on, rather than starting everyone at zero where the first misstep in communication results in negative balance of suspicion or distrust. This prevents the first offense from instantly blocking future productive interactions. I have found it helpful to explicitly ask a freshly forming virtual team to loan trust and grace to one another.
What have you encountered that builds or breaks trust on a virtual team?
 Marquardt, Michael J., and Lisa Horvath. Global Teams: How Top Multinationals Span Boundaries and Cultures with High-Speed Teamwork. 1st ed. Palo Alto, Calif.: Davies-Black Pub., 2001.
 James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Truth About Leadership: The No-Fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know, 1st, Kindle ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), location 273 of 2465.
 MacMillan, Pat. The Performance Factor: Unlocking the Secrets of Teamwork. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.
 Randy Clark, Leigh Anne Clark, and Katie Crossley, “Developing Multidimensional Trust without Touch in Virtual Teams,” Marketing Management Journal 20, no. 1 (2010).