When things go wrong… dealing with the decay of trust & Virtual Team Syndrome

Author: Gaia Grant


In 1995 several crew members from a European space exploration team became so frustrated that they consciously referred to the managers in HQ as an “enemy” to provide an outlet for their frustration. While this can create the feeling of unity for the team in the field, it is at the expense of the relationships of the virtual team as a whole. As a solution, NASA decided to use other astronauts to be the HQ point of contact to help provide empathy.

Just like the NASA team in which the astronauts in the field can become not just physically disconnected, emotional ties can also easily be tethered in the organisation – particularly when it comes to trust. HQ can often be blamed for difficulties experienced in the field. In business situations, video conferencing contributes to better understanding, and it can often be helpful to have someone in HQ who has been out in the field and has experienced the particular challenges that can be faced.

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When individuals are not in regular person-to-person contact, delays in communication can be interpreted as evidence for the virtual team being a low priority, or questions can be perceived as criticism. It is therefore important that people within a virtual team are highly responsive – even just an initial notification that the correspondence has been received and an indication of when it will be dealt with is often helpful. To ensure that questions are not perceived as criticism, it will be important to create a culture that encourages and accepts questioning. When asking questions, for example, you can ensure they are prefaced with a qualification and/or praise of the person and their work to ensure acceptance is communicated rather than distrust.

When you cannot directly see or experience what someone is going through, it can be easy to negate the importance of it or even trivialize it, so all team members will need to ensure they treat all issues raised as significant and respect the individual(s) involved. A lack of respect erodes trust and impacts morale, so ensuring there is always respect for individual ideas and challenges will be critically important.

In business situations, it is recommended to build strong interpersonal connections based on regular contact between members of a virtual team. For example, methods such as video conferencing can contributes to better understanding, and it can often be helpful to have someone in HQ who has been out in the field and has experienced the particular challenges that can be faced.

Virtual Team Syndrome

Numerous ICE studies (Teams in Isolated and Confined Environments) reveal that great tension and risk of low performance occurs in virtual teams, especially between headquarters (HQ) and the virtual team (VT). Once out of the honeymoon phase, research shows that the answer to all of these questions below is most often “YES”.

1. Is HQ blamed for difficulties experienced in the field?

HQ is often blamed for difficulties experienced in the field. Several crew members from a 1995 European space exploration became so frustrated that they consciously used the managers in HQ as an “enemy” to provide an outlet for their frustration.”

SOLUTION: NASA used other astronauts to be the HQ point of contact to create empathy.
Video conferencing contributed to a better understanding and less chance of deepening the rift.
Understanding for anger release can be “a displacement of interpersonal tension to safer, more remote (from the team) individuals outside.”

2. Are delays are interpreted as evidence for the VT team having a low priority?

Delays are interpreted as evidence for the VT team having a low priority and cause a breakdown in trust.
SOLUTION: Leaders should take into account remoteness and time zones before choosing who to respond to. With sometimes only a few productive hours in the day (considering time zone differences), an hour’s delay can mean a day’s delay for some teams.

3. Are questions (meeting deadlines, adhering to schedules) perceived as criticism?.

Questions can be be perceived as criticism. Actual criticism can be devastating for group morale and can lead to a breakdown in trust.

SOLUTION: Leaders need to choose carefully both the medium, time and method of how they question issues, along with first checking how much emotional credit they have with their teams.

4. Has the creation of a VT degraded a previously effective relationship?

Virtual teams can degrade from a previously effective relationship due to the challenges distance can bring. HQ must take the time to comprehend what ICE crews are going through.

SOLUTION: Use any opportunity possible to get quality face to face time.

5. Has unity for the VT been created through a common disappointment towards HQ?

VTs can become united in their disappointment due to HQ’s lack of assistance, BUT a danger of creating a unified group through focusing on a common enemy is that the group may cut themselves off and go off on their own tangent.
SOLUTION: Avoid using combative metaphors that encourage a culture of “Us and Them”, as this can backfire.

6. Is HQ perceived as treating some issues as trivial when the field team believes they are not?

If HQ treats an issue as trivial when the field workers believe that same issue is important, the field workers might feel that that HQ doesn’t care, resulting in low morale. If HQ and the VT start to see things differently, even words can take on different meanings and be interpreted negatively.

SOLUTION: Leaders need to read between the lines to find out what is important for the VT and respect this.

7. Have personal and family matters been exacerbated by working away from home?
Expats need to be warned that personal/family matters should be dealt with before they leave home as they may only be exacerbated when away.

SOLUTION: Proactive organizations know that a happy family usually means a happy worker. Consideration of the workers’ families and personal challenges is just as important as consideration of the workers themselves.

8. Over time do the field groups form better and have less and less in common with HQ?

Researchers have found that trust in virtual teams is always fragile and it decreases over time. High-performing virtual teams are not only able to quickly develop high degrees of trust early on in the project, but also maintain them at high levels.

SOLUTION: Move the teams around to help them to get to know each other and learn to trust each other, and trial some role reversals (even if its imagined and/or is scenario planning) to help individuals to see things from each others’ perspectives.

Research from sociologists shows that in virtual teams, the level of trust of high-performing teams will increase while that of low-performing teams will deteriorate over time. Conversely, cognition-based trust would be of greater importance in a less acquainted group such as a work group.

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