A new study on the psychology of trust in face-to-face and virtual teams

A new study on the psychology of trust in face-to-face and virtual teams

Psychology of teams

A plethora of previous research has confirmed the critical role of trust in team formation, maintenance, and outcomes. With over 3.3 million research papers looking at trust in a team context, and approximately 58,000 new studies looking at trust in teams in 2020 alone, the empirical evidence that intra-team trust is a critical factor for team effectiveness and performance is beyond doubt.

Trust within teams

Not only that, but trust within teams has been shown to predict a wide-range of organisational outcomes, including, for example:

• Organisational performance
• Absorptive capacity (the ability of the organisation as a whole to absorb and learn from new external information)
• Organisational adaptability
• Readiness to change

More recently, it has been shown that intra-team trust has an even bigger role in the performance of virtual teams over face-to-face teams, even though trust is a significant overall predictor of team performance.


Trust refers to the level of willingness an individual or group of individuals has to being vulnerable to the actions of others and is based on the anticipation that others will act in a manner in accordance with their expectations, whether not they are able to monitor these actions.

Team trust

In terms of intra-team trust this means that all members of a team have a shared set of expectations about the attitudes, behaviours and actions of all the other members of the team and that those predictions will be fully met.

Trust in teams

Research on team trust

The research on team trust identifies three aspects of team trust:

  1. The antecedents or predictors of trust
  2. The nature and manifestation of team trust
  3. The consequences and outcomes of team trust

Characteristics that define how trustworthy any individual is

Previous research has identified three characteristics which tend to define how trustworthy any individual is:

  1. Ability, or the competency, knowledge and skills of the individual as perceived by others.
  2. Benevolence, or to what level the individual is acting within the interests of others or the team, as opposed to acting primarily for their own interests.
  3. Integrity, or to what extent the individual portrays and acts according to a set of values, principles and beliefs that the others find acceptable.

Therefore, trust is an emergent property between people, or within teams, that develops over time as individuals learn more about each other and have their expectations met as they learn to what extent they can rely on each other.

Swift trust

More recently, researchers have turned to the idea of swift trust, in which individuals come together to form teams for relatively short terms, often the single project or task, and then disband again. Such teams tend to be drawn together by their relative individual areas of expertise, but are quite likely never to have worked with each other before and are, therefore, relative strangers to each other.

As the use of ad hoc teams grows within organisations, and in particular the use of virtual ad hoc teams, it has been found that developing swift trust is a key predictor of virtual team success.

…developing swift trust is a key predictor of virtual team success.


One outcome of high levels of intra-team trust is that it enables higher levels of team risk-taking and enables teams to have higher levels of tolerance of uncertainty within the task environment . Operating successfully in uncertain terrain has been found to largely depend on the level of trust enjoyed by a team and is frequently characterised by:

• The level of information disclosure and sharing.
• The acceptance and willingness to trust the knowledge, experience and expertise of others.
• Shared and informal bouts of leadership by others with greater level of domain experience and expertise within the team.
• The level of autonomy allowed to team members to act without control or supervision.
• Cooperative climate.

Four primary categories of team risk-taking behaviours

In terms of risk-taking within teams there are deemed to be four primary categories of team risk-taking behaviours:

  1. Opportunity seeking
  2. Openness between team members
  3. Control reduction
  4. Accepting influence from others

A new study

A new study by a team of researchers from the University of Munster and the TU Dortmund University, both in Germany, has looked at the issue of trust in virtual and face-to-face teams using critical incident analysis.


The study found that there are five major categories and 22 sub-categories of characteristics which predict high levels of team trust:

1) Abilities

a) Task-related ability

i) Competence
ii) Reputation
iii) Conscientiousness
iv) Media literacy, or the ability to use media and social media to positive effect

b) Team-related abilities

i) Productivity
ii) Positive humour, particularly when things get difficult
iii) Friendliness
iv) Feedback culture, open solicitation and provision of performance feedback
v) Participation in all aspects of the team’s work

2) Benevolence

a) Task-related benevolence

i) Task support
ii) Autonomy – the more control team has over its working environment the higher the level of trust created

b) Team-related benevolence

i) Emotional care – listening to the concerns of fellow team members and looking out for each other
ii) Loyalty

3) Predictability

a) Task-related predictability

i) Keeping commitments
ii) Availability – where team members are socially present for others, in both virtual and face-to-face teams, replying to emails, et cetera
iii) Consistency

b) Team-related predictability

i) Confidentiality
ii) Ethical values. Team members who show that they have high ethical standards and values for the team, and that they stick to them, tend to be trusted more

4) Transparency

a) Task-related transparency

i) Information transparency
ii) Responsibility assignment – a greater level of team trust is developed the clearer an individual’s responsibility and assignments are, so that everyone knows who is doing what

b) Team-related transparency

i) Sharing private information
ii) Openness

And that these result in three areas of team behaviours that are considered to be risk behaviours:

1) Disclosure behaviours

a) Sharing confidential information
b) Discussing mistakes and conflicts openly

2) Reliance behaviours

a) Asking for help
b) Allowing autonomy (not seeking to control others)

3) Contact seeking behaviours

a) Desire to engage in future teamwork with the team
b) Spending leisure time together

The difference in virtual teams

The study also found that, whilst all of the above factors are important for team trust in both virtual and face-to-face contexts, there was one factor which takes a greater level of importance in virtual teams: that of availability. In other words, whilst all of the above factors are important for the development of trust in both virtual and face-to-face teams, ensuring that all team members make themselves as available as possible to the team takes on heightened importance in virtual teams.

The researchers found that this one factor can create a significant problem for the development of trust in virtual teams if team members habitually ‘go off grid’, regardless of the strength of all the other factors.

Virtual trust in teams


Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., Hibben, F., & Hertel, G. (2020). Trust in teams: A taxonomy of perceived trustworthiness factors and risk-taking behaviors in face-to-face and virtual teams. human relations, 73(1), 3-34.

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