Leadership Productivity Teamwork

Do you trust me?

This is the third post in a series on Distance/Virtual Leadership. Read the first two posts here and here.

“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.[1] 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.[2] Rath and Conchie answer the question “What will people follow in organizational leaders?” with four clear research-based responses: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.[3] 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?).[4] Clark, Clark and Crossley identify the same critical three issues respectively as Ability, Integrity and Benevolence.[5]

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?


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (New York: Gallup Press, 2008), 79-83.

[4] MacMillan, Pat. The Performance Factor: Unlocking the Secrets of Teamwork. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

[5] Randy Clark, Leigh Anne Clark, and Katie Crossley, “Developing Multidimensional Trust without Touch in Virtual Teams,” Marketing Management Journal 20, no. 1 (2010).

By Ken

Dr. Ken Cochrum (DMin, Bethel University) is Vice President of Global Digital Strategies at Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) in Orlando, Florida. An avid cyclist and aspiring guitarist, he also holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from The University of Texas and a Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He recently co-founded, a movement passionate about connecting people to Jesus using digital strategies. He previously served as vice president of Cru’s student-led movements worldwide. He and his wife Ann spent 13 years in East Asia where they raised their two children. Ken blogs regularly at

6 replies on “Do you trust me?”

We use to talk each fall about the book of Lencioni 5 dysfunctional team .
I recognize in my three years on leadership that we had success cause we trusted each other…
individually we were not as good as we were together…
It build trust when we first build relationships with team members
it breaks trust when people think they are smarter and do more work than others do…
it breaks trust when words and deeds are far away from each other..
it break trust when the leader does`t do anything to intervene..
or in a worse case will support the wrong behavior…

for me team building, getting to know my comrades (their desire, why they join staff, their hobbies, their longings etcc) is a big deal for me cause this will bring trust and then a wining team despite any obstacle .

thanks for this series

Sorry i responded for face to face teams :))))
but some will apply for virtual one too

Hey Gusti,

You have shared some great insights on building and breaking trust. I believe you’re right: they hold true for colocated and virtual teams. Why? Because people are people. Thanks!

I love Pat’s book, “The Performance Factor.” It is one of the best books on team I’ve ever read.

My experience with virtual/long distance teams and the 3 areas (Competence, Character and Concern) is that concen is the most difficult to convey over distance and colors the understanding of the first 2. If a team member doesn’t believe the other teammate truly cares about them and their stuff then they start to interpret things through a hostile lens. They take away the benefit of the doubt regarding perfomance issues (competence) and attribute causes for these problems from a negative persepctive (character). “They don’t care that I have to… and that it will cost me… so they forgot to … . They are just lazy and selfish which is why they won’t …..”

It takes intentionality to remind ourselves and our teammates that we are all working for a project’s success to the best of our ability and as unto the Lord. Over communicating reasons for problems or issues and reassuring each other of our awareness that this will affect them and even asking for grace increases trust over distance. Communication is key but with virtual teams I believe in OVER communication.

@Andy – thanks for sharing your experience. OVER communication is a great aspiration. How does one know, as a team member, when one is receiving enough communication?

If one believes that the other teammate(s) are concerned about you because of the communication you have received from them then it is enough. Then you can move on to competence and character issues without fear of affected views.

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