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Building Focus and Trust in Virtual Teams: What the Research Reveals

Following up on our previous blog, our readers asked us to share more of the research we found into building focus and trust in virtual teams.

Let’s start with the research into trust, and why it’s so pivotal. High levels of trust enable teams and team members to feel – and be – productive, energized, and motivated. Research published by Paul Zak has shown that higher levels of focus and trust translate to stronger levels of collaboration, feelings of job satisfaction, and employee retention.

Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology has also shown that higher levels of focus and trust are tied to the team’s ability to meet and overcome tough challenges – standing up a new line of business, for example, or dealing with a crisis.

Other studies underscore the importance of trust and focus:

  1. The Journal of Applied Psychology published a meta-analysis of 7,700 teams confirming the positive correlation between trust and team performance.
  2. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Business, Economics, and Finance found a positive relationship between vision, role clarity and team performance.
  3. Research published by the American Psychological Association shows that more a team relies on virtual communication, the more important team trust is to team performance.
  4. Another research study, published in the Organization Management Journal, showed that effective conflict resolution skills are also important.
  5. Research in the Journal of Information Systems suggests three types of challenges managers of virtual teams must overcome: communication, technology, and diversity.
  6. A study in the Journal of Managing Projects in Business determined trust is influenced by clarity of expectations, knowledge exchange, and imported trust, and less by shared risk.
  7. Research from Walden University identified two types of trust: cognition-based and feelings-based. The former relies on competence, benevolence, and integrity. The second on confidence, emotion, and reciprocity.
  8. A literature review published in the Journal of Applied Sciences shows trust is the key variable for all aspects of collaboration. This includes team effectiveness, since trust determines whether team members ask each other for help, share feedback ad discuss issues and conflicts.
  9. Recent research from the Center for Evidence Based Management shows six factors create a psychologically safe environment: vision and goal clarity, supervisory support, external communication, social cohesion, information sharing, and trust—with the last three coming under additional pressure under virtual working conditions.
  10. Lastly, the Harvard Business Review surveyed 55 teams to explore the practicalities of collaborative work in contemporary organizations and revealed a few important insights about virtual teams:
    • ​​​​​​The best teams were led by both task- and relationship-oriented leaders.
    • As the size of a team increases beyond 20, collaboration decreases.
    • Cooperation declined unless a collaborative culture was established.
    • Teammates collaborate better if they perceive themselves as being alike.
    • The more experts on a team, the more nonproductive conflict/stalemate.
    • Teams with preexisting relationships achieved higher success rates.
    • Collaboration improves when the roles of individuals are clearly defined.
    • A team’s collaborative culture reflect the philosophy of top executives.
    • The type of reward system had no discernible effect on productivity.

Eric Douglas details more ways that managers and leaders build trust in his book The Leadership Equation. Contact him at [email protected]. Aaron Matlen provided research. Contact him at [email protected].

Leadership Tools and Resources

For more than 20 years, LRI has provided management consulting to public agencies, non-profits, and corporations in the United States and beyond.

Eric Douglas

Eric Douglas

Eric Douglas is the senior partner and founder of Leading Resources Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on developing high-performing organizations. For more than 20 years, Eric has successfully helped a wide array of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations achieve breakthroughs in performance. His new book The Leadership Equation helps leaders achieve strategic clarity, manage change effectively, and build a leadership culture.

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