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Managing Trust in Distributed Teams

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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.
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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."
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