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Formula of Trust – Predictors and Outcomes

In today’s teams, trust is often seen as a critical success factor to ensure effective collaboration. Indeed, multiple studies have proved positive relationships between team trust and team effectiveness, including the research by University of Münster’s Guido Hertel and Technische Universität Dortmund’s Joachim Hüffmeier.

Furthermore, these studies confirm that the relationship between team trust and team performance is stronger in virtual teams as compared to face-to-face teams. It is an important finding for modern distributed teams – leaders must pay strong attention to cultivating trust in their organizations.

Trust is defined in many ways, for example:

  • “Confident reliance on someone when you are in a position of vulnerability” (HBR article)
  • “A kind of reliance on other people based on a belief that the other person will do the right thing for the right reasons” (Kellogg School of Management article)

But do we know enough about trust in teams? What does it mean to trust a team member or be a trustworthy team member? In their research, Guido Hertel and Joachim Hüffmeier provide a comprehensive and actionable model of trust. It lists and categorizes perceived trustworthiness signals in teams, and identifies concrete risk-taking behaviors resulting from team trust:

Research shows that this model applies both to face-to-face and virtual teams. However in virtual team situations, the availability factor is critical for trust emergence significantly more than in face-to-face team situations.

What are the implications for teams?

There is a scientifically-proven checklist of skills and behaviors that create trust in teams. Leaders should learn and apply these practices. This is especially important for virtual teams.

The Main Ingredient of a “True Team”

What is the definition of a team? How is a team different from a group of people? Are you a part of a true team? These topics are rarely discussed but are essential for shaping the right leadership and communication strategies.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) argues that a team is a group of people who do collective work and are mutually committed to a common team purpose and challenging goals related to that purpose. Collective work and mutual commitment are the key characteristics. Members of a true team share a genuine conviction that “we” will succeed or fail together, and that no individual can succeed while the team fails. Mutual commitment means that teammates not only think and act collectively, but the social and emotional bonds among them are compelling.

A team of researchers from Technische Universität Braunschweig ran a unique longitudinal study on the effects of the team commitment over time. They uncovered several important findings:

(1) Commitment drives results
Team commitment leads to higher team performance and co-worker altruism.

(2) Team commitment can compensate for other gaps
For example, a lack of overall commitment to the company can be compensated by team commitment. This is important for retention management, especially in larger organizations or subsequent to M&A events.

(3) Building commitment takes time
Team commitment can’t happen immediately. It develops slowly over time when employees reflect on their relationship with their team.
Team commitment can be improved by measures such as team-building and involving team members in decision processes.

Many team leaders tend to spend most of their time managing individual by individual, paying little attention to the holistic group dynamics. HBR encourages leaders to manage their teams as a whole while not forgetting to recognize individuals for their distinct contributions. Creating and leading a true team is a crucial management skill whether you lead a permanent group of direct reports or a virtual, highly diverse, widely-dispersed, temporary team created to tackle a specific problem or opportunity.

What are the implications for teams?

Building team commitment is a journey that requires deliberate planning. Shared virtual team experiences provide an opportunity to (1) bring the team members together, (2) inspire them to achieve a common goal, (3) celebrate team successes, and recognize individual contributions.

Do Your Team Members Feel Isolated and Lonely?

People crave more connection with their teammates at work. Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that more than 40% of people surveyed are feeling physically and emotionally isolated in the workplace. This group spanned generations, genders, and ethnicities. The Guardian reports that 42% of people have no close friend at work.

One of The Guardian readers anonymously confessed to feeling alone, saying: “There’s no one at the place where I spend much of my waking life to whom I can turn when I want to confide my fears, to moan about the upper echelons, to worry away about what’s happening at home.” This statement resonated with other readers a lot. From their 800+ responses, it’s clear that people have to develop their own strategies to cope with loneliness and isolation – from intentional check-ins with their colleagues to arranging badminton groups, curry nights, and similar activities.

Should companies and team leaders be more proactive in encouraging connection? What is the value of connection for the business?

HBR quantified the value of workplace belonging, both with correlational and experimental findings. The study confirms that companies reap substantial bottom-line benefits if workers feel like they belong:

  • High belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M.
  • Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (their willingness to recommend their company to others). They also received double the raises, and 18 times more promotions.

To create this sense of community and connection, leaders should learn how to engage with teammates in a way that feels comfortable. McKinsey recommends cultivating more informal interactions in the team and across teams. Informal interactions provide a starting point for collegial relationships in which people collaborate on areas of shared interest, thereby bridging organizational silos and strengthening social networks.

What are the implications for teams?

Virtual experiences help connect teammates and create a forum for informal interactions. As a result, distributed team members feel less isolated and lonely.

Surprising Facts about Trust in Teams

Most people would agree that trust in a team is important. Leaders seek to strengthen trust between them and their team members, hoping to improve team performance. But do we know enough about trust?

Researchers studying trust uncovered a set of surprising facts about it:

Oxytocin is “The Trust Molecule”
As Claremont Graduate University’s Paul Zak, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main’s Michael Kosfeld and Universität Konstanz’s Urs Fischbacher have shown that oxytocin (a hormone) plays an essential role as a biological basis of trust. Oxytocin increases trust in humans by affecting an individual’s willingness to accept social risks arising through interpersonal interactions. When someone’s level of oxytocin goes up, he or she responds more generously and caringly, even with complete strangers. This applies to all aspects of human life including intimate relationships, business, politics and society at large.

Group Activities Help Release Oxytocin and Promote Trust
As Paul Zak explains in The Wall Street Journal article, many group activities – singing, dancing, praying and others – cause the release of oxytocin and promote connection, caring and trust. As social creatures, people have created activities that prompt the expression of oxytocin to foster connection to others. Surprisingly, even online social activities such as checking out a friend’s Facebook page can prompt an oxytocin surge.

Stress Inhibits Oxytocin and Reduces Trust
In his experiments, Paul Zak also found out that stress is a potential oxytocin inhibitor. Consequently, when people are stressed, they tend not to interact with each other effectively and not feel high levels of trust.

Why is trust especially important today? During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual workers report elevated levels of stress and fatigue. Also, there tend to be less schmoozing and small talk among remote team members, which Michael Morris of Stanford and Columbia and Janice Nadler, Terri Kurtzberg, and Leigh Thompson of Northwestern have shown leads to lower levels of trust. As a result, teams can experience a decline in energy, engagement, productivity, and overall satisfaction.

What are the implications for teams?

Trust between team members is fundamental to the functioning of the team. Shared virtual experiences bring the team together, reduce stress, release oxytocin and promote trust.