Building trust in distant teams

Feb 20 2007 by ArLyne Diamond Print This Article

Trust is not easy to develop in the best of circumstances. When working with teams whose members may never have met each other and who may even be located in different countries, the problems increase tremendously. So how can we build trust in such an environment?

In the past, we developed teams by putting people together and letting them spend time learning about each other before we charged them with completing assignments. In spite of all our best effort, some teams were more successful than others.

In order to be honest and forthcoming with others, a level of trust must exist. The less we trust, the more guarded and self-protective we become. That's one of many reasons it's a challenge to work effectively in teams.

But the challenge increases tremendously when the people involved haven't been given the opportunity to get to know each other personally.

Today's workplace consists of people who have never met each other working on projects. Indeed many of them live in other countries. Those that might live close to their corporate headquarters often telecommute and are rarely available for face-to-face meetings.

In addition, the team is frequently led by a project manager - who has a dotted line relationship to the others and thus very little authoritative leverage. The project manager can only manage through persuasion and negotiation - two methods requiring a high level of trust.

Trust is not easy to develop in the best of circumstances - when working with distant teams the problems increase tremendously.

Professor Larry Leifer at Stanford University discovered that when he had students working in teams from different locations members, complained that they were doing more work than other teammates.

When camcorders were placed in their cubicles so that they could see each other at work, the complaints diminished considerably. Apparently, the very act of seeing someone situated at their keyboard increased the belief that they were working hard.

Visual clues are critically important. The more contact we have with another human being (assuming that they are basically trustworthy), the easier it is to trust them. One could even hypothesize that at some unconscious level, our sense of smell plays a part in what has to be seen as primarily an emotionally (psychologically) based decision.

Sound or voice quality is less effective than visual clues. When we know someone only due to our telephone interaction with them, we develop less personal or positive feelings than when we actually sit across the table from them.

We also have the variable of "low-context" and "high-context" cultures. Low context cultures are those in which business is conducted without developing personal relationships. This is akin to our decision to buy something from a discount or big box store.

High context cultures are those in which relationships are developed long before the business discussions commence. You might relate this to your decision to work with a consultant, or a decorator, or even shopping regularly in a small private boutique store. This adds another dimension to the problems of building trust between people here in the States and their counterparts in Asia or other parts of the world.

Given these problems, here are my top seven tips to developing trust in distant teams:

1. Allow members of the team to take the time to get to know each other on a somewhat personal level.

2. Have in-house discussions, at all locations, about what is proper to ask and discuss and what crosses the line into intrusive or inappropriate.

3. Share pictures - not only of the staff, but also of their families. Most people are family-oriented and grow to like (and trust) each other when they start to see pictures of their children and to hear stories about them.

4. Send your managers to the locations of their team members whenever possible. Although this is an expense, the potential value in developing trust, respect, and therefore greater levels of understanding and productivity is immeasurable.

With 30+ years experience in specializing in people and processes in the workplace, Organizational Development and Human Resource Consultant, ArLyne Diamond, Ph.D helps organizations create structures that enable cooperation, understanding, higher productivity and creativity. Find out more at

5. Teach cultural diversity. Let the people in the various locations around the world learn as much as possible about the behaviors, customs, and expectations of those in other areas with whom they work.

6. If you have telecommuters who can be brought into the office once or twice a month, be sure to have as many face-to-face meetings as possible with them.

7. Use videoconferences and video-cams where feasible.

In other words, break some of the old rules that demand full focus on work related conversations only. Take the time and create the structure that enables people to develop relationships that lead to trust. This leads to cooperation, understanding, and higher productivity and creativity.