Conventional wisdom would tell us that trust exists in teams where there have been work and social relationships built up over many years. That it would be difficult to experience trust in a temporary group of people, self selected as members, never meeting face to face and with geographical and cultural differences dividing them.
In a recent survey I carried out in two teams, one co-located and in existence over many years (with normal staff turnover) and the other an "e-community" that came together for the purpose of learning for about 3 months, just the opposite proved to be true.
The co-located team reported negative feelings about working together - such as lack of groundrules, fear of being ridiculed, misunderstanding of one anothers' intentions and rivalry.
The e-community in contrast felt an intuitive understanding of one another, were willing to offer and accept support and felt that relationships were characterised by caring and sharing.
All in all the co-located group gave almost as many negative repsonses (97) as positive (116) in response to 25 questions; the E-community gave a significantly different 189 positive responses to just 13 negative ones.
An interesting study* of why people share information in on-line communities of practice demonstrates that a desire to enhance one's public profile or reputation may hold the key, but not especially any need to have the sharing reciprocated. But this doesn't really explain why we may feel more trusting of, more connected to relative strangers than we do to the people with whom we share an office.
Obviously, in the history of any long term relationship there are difficulties, knock backs, betrayals and disappointments along with the friendships and sharing. A short lived, on line group, just like a weekend conference or a holiday romance, may allow us to get to know one another intensely but superficially, without the burden of a long term "commitment". We show one another our best sides, just as we can carefully choose the picture that goes on our profile page and what we write about our lives.
Familiarity, we know, breeds contempt.
So is there a solution for co-located teams that have intransigent "personality clashes" or other dysfunctions to deal with?
And what are the prospects for long term virtual teams - will the same problems begin to arise over time, and can they be avoided?
One significant factor in my experience is the role of leadership: in the E-community there was excellent facilitation from a team of volunteers who encouraged me to join in, to find like minded people to talk to, and who modelled respect and helpfulness. I had a lot of support and guidance when I needed it, and a lot of freedom to explore and to make mistakes. The deadlines for completion of tasks were also clear and immutable. However, everyone took responsibility for themselves, for completing the task and for building trusting relationships with others.
A team leader can model respect and maintain boundaries that stamps on petty bickering and promotes greater democracy - for example, another "conventional" team I am a part time member of has monthly "socials" and a rotates chairing of the team meetings which are short, focussed and frequent.
So if you are leading a team, ask yourself - are you helping trust to develop? Are you supporting the team to learn, connect and take risks? And are you also maintaining clear boundaries about acceptable behaviour, deadlines and quality of work?
What other factors are there which help teams to develop trust and to maintain it over time? And maybe an important question to ask is, what are the trust killers? By exploring those factors which destroy trust in a team, perhaps we can develop a working model of how to promote it instead.
*McLure Wasko,M; Faraj,S Why should I share? Examining social Capital and knowledge contribution in electronic networks of practice MIS Quarterly Vol. 29 No. 1/March 2005