Remote Teams, Trust, Control and Performance

If you are a leader who has a team that is working away from the office, this post is for you.

Whether you use the term working remotely, virtual teams or distributed teams, leaders need to be thinking about how they influence, guide and manage their teams remotely.

Remote working requires leaders to trust their team members to be doing what needs to be done … but is that anything different than the requirement of leaders to trust their team members to be doing what needs to be done when they are in an office?

Here is a question for you: Is trust in an office environment just the same as trust in a remote working situation?

That is an area that researcher Lionel P. Robert1 wanted to explore.

His research looks specifically at remote workers or virtual teams and how the practice of monitoring performance and the type of trust that exists within the team, impacts performance… and it is fascinating research.

Robert identifies two types of monitoring:

Internal Monitoring, which is where members of the remote team are monitoring each other’s individual and collective performance.

External Monitoring, which is where the leader of the remote team is monitoring the individual and collective performance of the team.

Robert also identifies two types of trust:

Cognitive Trust, which is where the trust between team members is mainly formed based on the individual and collective belief in each other’s competence to complete their tasks effectively.

Affective Trust, which is where the trust between team members is mainly formed based, over time, on the development of meaningful relationships – they like each other.

The question that Robert explored was this:

‘How is performance of remote or virtual teams impacted when you have teams who are based more on cognitive or affective trust, and when you have more or less internal or external monitoring?’

The findings of the research were:

For teams based more on Affective Trust performance is enhanced when there is higher internal monitoring and lower external monitoring.

For teams based more on Cognitive Trust, performance is increased when internal monitoring is lower and external monitoring is also lower.

So, what does that mean for leaders working with virtual teams?

Not only ought you be thinking about the impact that working remotely can have on your team members because their ‘front of stage’ and ‘back of stage’ worlds are combining or colliding (effectively or not), you also need to think about how much micro-management you are applying and how appropriate that micro management is, depending on whether your team’s levels of trust are more emotionally and relationship based, or more based on a belief in each other’s competence.

As I reflect on this research, here is the key takeaway for leaders:

The reality is across most teams, whether remote or in-office, there will be a mix of both cognitive trust and affective trust, and regardless, the evidence is clear that leaders need to be focusing less on micro-management.

I recommend leaders ask themselves this question:

“How do I continue to earn the trust of my team, and how do I foster more individual and collective trust within my team and across other work teams?”

Trust is not something we ought to leave to chance because when we leave things to chance, the chances are we just leave it … that can put trust at risk and when trust is at risk, everything is at risk.

  1. Robert, L. P. (2016). Monitoring and Trust in Virtual Teams. University of Michigan, San Franscisco, CA.
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