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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.

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.