Home > Articles > Programming

Managing Trust in Distributed Teams

With worldwide access available and relatively inexpensive via the Internet and modern technologies, many organizations are puzzling their way through learning how best to work with individuals and groups in multiple locations and time zones. Any kind of diversity in a team adds to the manager's complications, but building trust between individuals is the biggest problem of all. Pat Brans examines the unique trust issues involved in managing a distributed team.
Like this article? We recommend

Modern supervisors are increasingly likely to manage distributed teams—teams whose members work in multiple locations. Advances in information and communication technologies have made such teams possible.

Unfortunately, no high-tech invention can make up for a lack of management savvy. Very few supervisors understand the challenges of running a remote team, and only a handful understand how to use the available tools. Let's explore some of the major issues of managing a remote team, and we'll pick out the best ways of ensuring success.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Remote Teams

While distributed teams may seem chaotic at times, such arrangements offer many advantages. For example:

  • If your team is customer-facing, you can extend your geographic reach by positioning team members close to customers.
  • If your team develops software, you can draw from a large pool of skilled team members.
Regardless of the nature of the job, when you give workers the opportunity to live where they want and work from home, your team members will probably become more motivated. [1]

Despite these advantages, geographically dispersed teams also present a unique set of problems. Building trust and accountability is especially challenging, and establishing a team spirit is more difficult than it would be among members who work in the same office and see each other frequently. Remote teams lack face-to-face interactions, where body language and shared experiences can build deeper relationships more quickly.

Given the mix of advantages and risks, remote teams can be anything from a disaster to a highly creative force within an organization. The degree of success partly depends on the nature of the work, but mostly it relies on the skill of the manager, the quality of the team members, and the tools at the team's disposal.

The Importance of Trust

Let's start out with a reminder of that essential ingredient, trust—it's the "glue" that holds teams together. The more your team members trust one another, the more efficiently the team works as a whole. When trust is present, team members can substitute for each other, and they can hand off work to other team members without feeling the need to check on whether the work really gets done. When trust is present, if another team member says something is done, you can safely assume that it's not just "done," but done well.

Building trust can be one of the most challenging aspects of managing a distributed team. The first step is to understand which of the three kinds of trust is present among team members:

  • Calculus-based trust
  • Knowledge-based trust
  • Identification-based trust
Let's take a look at these different levels of trust.

Calculus-Based Trust

Calculus-based trust is based on a very simple comparison between the costs and benefits of trusting another person versus the costs and benefits of not trusting the other person. This is the weakest form of trust, but over time it might allow two or more people to build a good enough relationship to move on to one of the two stronger forms of trust. [2]

Supervisors usually have to rely on calculus-based trust with new hires, when comparing the cost and benefits of handing off a task, and delegating only those work items for which the consequences are relatively light in the event the employee doesn't complete the assignment. The team members go through a similar calculation, comparing the costs and benefits of performing a task versus the costs and benefits of not performing the task.

Knowledge-Based Trust

Knowledge-based trust comes about once you know another person well enough to be able to predict his or her actions. For example, you may have seen this team member perform well in the past. You can delegate a task based on the knowledge that this person has followed through on another goal. One step beyond calculus-based trust, knowledge-based trust takes time to develop, and can be destroyed very quickly.

Identification-Based Trust

The strongest form of trust, identification-based trust exists when individuals link their own identities with those of other team members and with the group as a whole. You see this kind of trust within a family or among members of a tribe. Inside the group, members may squabble when conflicts of interest arise. But when it comes to doing what's good for the team, members strongly identify with the team, which means that you can count on them to do what's good for the group. [3]

Military units, sports teams, and even small companies are able to achieve some measure of identification-based trust, with members seeing one another almost as extended family. Sometimes even a large company—such as Google, with its strong and unique culture—can approach this ultimate form of confidence.

However, in most cases it's nearly impossible to establish a shared identity in a company. The employer-employee relationship is very much conditional on the exchange of work performance for money; rarely will someone put his or her life on the line for a business.

As difficult as it is to develop strong identification at the workplace, reaching this highest level of trust is especially complicated in distributed teams where members rarely meet, and where cultural gaps are hard to overcome. Nevertheless, managers should still strive to achieve some degree of identification-based trust among their team members. [4]

Rules and Tools

To foster trust, team managers should establish the following three rules, which are easy to remember if you think of the acronym PAT:

  • Predictability. When team members say they will do something, they should be encouraged to complete the task; if they can't follow through for some reason, they should at least inform other team members and explain why it won't happen.

    On distributed teams, predictability includes team members' assurance that if they send a message to another member, they'll get a response in a timely manner. To encourage reliable behavior, some organizations require that group members respond to mail or phone calls from one another within 24 hours. [5]

  • Accountability. When a team member takes on a task, he or she should be held accountable for the work. When a group of team members work together on a task, a single person should be assigned accountability, thus avoiding ambiguity.

    When your team is distributed, one good way to make accountability clear is to use a shared electronic folder to hold files listing who is responsible for each piece of work. Don't forget to update these files regularly to bolster predictability.

  • Transparency. Team members should communicate frequently with one another, regularly explaining their progress on goals and indicating whether they are on schedule (and if not, why not).

    Supervisors should develop a culture that encourages communication among team members. Phone and email are useful tools for quick impromptu exchanges. Video conferencing is better for scheduled meetings, giving home workers a little time to touch up their looks before facing a camera.

To further promote transparency, managers should also schedule regular face-to-face meetings to allow team members to get to know one another in person. Such meetings may be quarterly or even yearly. The key is to establish a rhythm.

Do as I Say, AND as I Do

All too often, discussions on management focus on the behavior of team members. As much as supervisors need to be able to trust team members, and team members must trust one another, even more important is that team members know they can trust their supervisor.

To build mutual trust, team leaders need to respond promptly to email and phone messages. Managers must deliver on their promises, and they need to provide information and other resources that team members need to do their jobs.

Finally, supervisors should avoid appearing biased toward team members located closest to them geographically. It's too easy to develop a sense of local camaraderie when other people are co-located. When a supervisor shows any hint of favoritism, team members located at remote offices or home quickly feel alienated.

Far-flung work groups have many advantages, but supervisors can only reap the benefits when they know how to manage distributed teams.


[1] Ann Majchrzak et al., "Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?" Harvard Business Review Volume 82, No. 5 (May 2004), pp. 131–137.

[2] Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman, and Eric C. Marcus, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, Second Edition, Jossey-Bass, 2006.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pamela J. Hinds and Mark Mortensen, "Understanding Conflict in Geographically Distributed Teams: The Moderating Effects of Shared Identity, Shared Context, and Spontaneous Communication," Organization Science Volume 16, No. 3, May/June 2005, pp. 290–307.

[5] Keith Ferazzi, "How to Build Trust in a Virtual Workplace."

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020