Building trust in virtual teams. The 2 type of trust essential to managing virtual teams effectively.

virtual teams are built on trust

Team building is an essential leadership skill. No matter if you are leading a management group, a sales team or a development project, you want to make sure that everyone is working together towards a commonly agreed goal. That takes trust, communication and cohesion and a shared goal.

Covid also created a need for remote working, bringing virtual teams into the mainstream. Many companies struggled to maintain a coherent culture, especially with new hires, because traditional teams became virtual teams with little consideration of how management and leadership needed to change to accommodate the lack of social interaction.


With an increasingly globalised workforce, virtual teams are fast becoming the norm because they are cost efficient, bring a diversity of skills and approaches and, in simple terms, make the working day a lot longer!

But they bring their own special set of problems and can be very difficult to manage well. The proper use of technology can overcome the socialisation issues, but only if used well and correctly.

What is a virtual team?

A virtual team is one that relies on electronic rather than personal communications to co-ordinate and communicate. So emails, phone calls and forums try to fulfil the role of face to face meetings, but people are intrinsically social and can feel isolated without the ability to form relationships and communicate with their peers.

virtual teams can feel isolated

Each team has a leader responsible for performance, co-ordination and the fostering of trust within the team, These teams can be temporary or permanent. However, the time dimension is important, so short term and long term teams have different needs as the type of relationship and depth of trust needed are different.

However, they are not always effective. MIT Sloan’s research found that 82% of teams fell short of their goals, so what can we do to improve this?

The importance of trust in virtual teams

Most researchers agree that trust is one of the fundamental drivers for team effectiveness. We need to believe that everyone around is working towards the same goal and is mutually supportive. Trust is based on relationships, we need to understand the people we work with and know what they are capable of.

For traditional teams working together this is easy. We probably know them already, have socialised at work and may know them socially. Unfortunately this is not possible when managing virtual teams.

So does this mean we need to build social events and bring everyone together to make virtual teams effective? Well, no, it depends on the type of team and how long they need to work together.

What is trust?

Trust is built between virtual team members based on their perception of the ability, integrity and benevolence, coupled with their intrinsic propensity to trust. So this means that each team member is making an assessment of the others in the group, based on evidence and cues that they pick up from any communications and stimulus that they receive, meaning the communications methods available must be capable of sharing this level of information.

We also need to recognise that there are two types of trust, one, cognitive is based on a rational assessment of performance and abilities of individual team members. The other is affective and stems from the emotional connection we have with people around us.

Cognitive trust develops faster but is relatively weak, but affective trust is stronger and longer lasting, hence, for short term projects, building cognitive trust is sufficient. but to build longer term bonds, affective trust needs to be nurtured as it means that team members will become more invested in the relationships and the team.

Building affective relationships requires personal relationships, and as social interaction can be non-existent  in Virtual teams, this is a significant challenge. The lack of social, face to face contact increases the level of miscommunication which can be that both the overall objectives of the team and the day to day interactions can be misunderstood.

What does that mean in practice?

Time is a finite resource, so you want to get started building trust as soon as possible, so initially focus on building cognitive trust between team members as this can be achieved quickly, but then build social interactions so that affective trust can be developed.

Cognitive trust – the early part of the relationship

1.   Team selection.

Propensity to trust, technical ability, willingness to commit to the team objective and integrity are essential for trust building. If the wrong team members are selected, then no amount of management is going to overcome those barriers, so look for the following 5 key traits for team building

  • Competence
  • Integrity
  • Reciprocity
  • Commitment
  • Information sharing

2. Effective and timely communications

Correct, timely communications delivered through the right channels are essential to build trust within the team and this needs to start with the team leader. They are responsible for setting the tone and expectations for the team, hence have to demonstrate the behaviour that the team should follow.


3. Be transparent

Integrity and ability are key to trust and this requires both the team and the team leader to be transparent internally. This is affected by content and delivery. Status and feedback needs to be honest and open, and provided in a professional manner. Teasing and sarcasm should be avoided, as should local idioms which may be misunderstood cross culturally.

4. Use of ICT

The Cognitive aspects are less socially dependent, hence asynchronous tools can be more effective, as the content is more relevant than the tone and reciprocity of the form.

  • emails. wiki pages, forums etc work well,
  • Where responsiveness is essential, IM, Chat or Phone should be encouraged.
  • To build a sense of transparency and encourage participation use conference calls for team meetings

Building affective trust for the long term

Cognitive trust is fragile, and over longer timescales is likely to drop off. Affective trust is more personal and subjective and lead to a stronger emotional connection which can help to reinforce this and minimise drop off. Again, this is based on personalities, so a person must be capable of forming trusting others, so look to develop teams with 5 core traits where possible,

  • Compatibility – Common interests or a shared background
  • Benevolence – Lack of ego
  • Predictability – We are likely to trust people more if we are able to predict how they will react.
  • Inclusion – a natural focus on being part of a team
  • Accessibility – willingness to share and be vulnerable

Use of ICT

Affective trust is built on social interaction, and this can be particularly problematic for virtual teams. ICT can bridge this gap if used effectively, but the requirements are different building personal relationships than for cognitive trust, so should be used appropriately.

  • Face to face is preferred, but video conferencing is the next best option.
  • Use of team social channels and networks, including group chat should be encouraged.
  • Team leader needs to build a relationship with their teams and 1-1 calls are recommended, especially to learn more and show interest in team members.


All teams need trust to be effective, but virtual teams create challenges to the communications that underpin the interpersonal relationships to build trust.

There is more than one form of trust, they develop in different ways and over different time periods, and will have greater or lesser effect depending on the nature and length of the team’s existence.

Picking the right communications tools for the type and life stage of the teams can have  a profound impact on the level of trust that the team feels, which will impact on the effectiveness of the virtual team.

If you are interested in taking your leadership skills to a new level, Go deeper!

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