Trust: does it impact team performance… or not?

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    Key Points

    • A recent meta-analysis confirmed there is a positive relationship between how much team members trust one another and the achievement of team goals.
    • What’s more, it seems trust between team members is related to team performance even when you take into account other factors, such as trust in a team leader and past team performance.
    • Trust seems to matter most for teams that concentrate decision-making responsibility amongst a small group and least for teams where individuals can work relatively independently to complete their work.


    How many teams are you part of right now? Probably at least one, maybe quite a few.  How much time do you spend thinking about and working to build trust on the team(s)?  If the answer is “not much,” new research may convince you that trust is worth more of your attention.

    In 2016, Bart de Jong and colleagues published a meta-analysis looking into the relationship between trust and team performance.  Drawing data from 112 studies, representing over 7,700 teams, this meta-analysis helps resolve the debate about whether intrateam trust (how much team members trust one another) makes a difference for team performance (the achievement of shared goals.) It turns out; it’s likely that trust does make a difference!  Due to the type of research studies included in the meta-analysis, we can’t say that increased trust causes improved performance, based on these findings. But we can say there is a positive relationship between them.

    Importantly for practitioners, this study also provides insight into how trust may work on teams and the circumstances in which trust likely matters most.


    Trust likely helps team members focus on collective goals rather than personal interests

    Trust relates to how open we are to vulnerability (i.e., possible harm or damage), based on how we expect others will behave towards us.  De Jong and colleagues theorize that in a team setting an increase in trust among team members helps them act as if they aren’t vulnerable. This enables them to work better together to achieve the team’s goals.  For example, when team members trust one another, they may be more likely to openly share perspectives and work through differences, increasing the quality of their work.

    Conversely, when there is a lack of trust on the team, and feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty are higher, the theory is that people tend to focus their effort and energy on defending their personal interests, rather than supporting the collective goals of the team (de Jong, 2016).  For example, when trust is lacking, individual team members may hesitate to share their unique skills and abilities in an attempt to avoid criticism or negative feedback, with consequent damage to team performance



    Intrateam trust is a unique predictor of team performance

    As noted above, the meta-analysis we reviewed found that increased intrateam trust does likely enhance team performance, finding an above average effect size 1.

    Likely more relevant for those managing teams, the researchers also investigated if intrateam trust would still predict team performance when taking into account other factors, such as trust in a team leader and the team’s history of performance. It did! From this we can draw a major insight: even if a team has been successful in the past, and even if they would follow their leader into a burning building, their trust in one another, or lack of it, is still likely to make a difference in the team’s performance.


    The more interdependent the team, the more trust seems to matter.  

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly for those of us working in organizations, this meta-analysis gives us an understanding of when efforts to build trust may make the most difference. De Jong and colleagues looked at moderating factors to see if how a team was structured changed the relationship between trust and performance. They found support for a common notion: the greater the interdependence between team members, the more trust is likely to matter.



    Regarding when trust matters most, the study found the relationship between trust and team performance was strongest for teams with high authority differentiation, i.e., where leaders make decisions and rely on team members to carry them out. It found the relationship was weakest for teams with low levels of task interdependence, i.e., when individuals can complete tasks independently, without collaboration with others (de Jong, 2016). This makes common sense:  the more you can work and make decisions on your own, the less you may need to trust others to succeed.

    Also of note, the study authors tested whether intrateam trust would have a stronger relationship with performance for virtual teams (versus teams that collaborate face-to-face) and for temporary teams (versus teams that anticipate ongoing collaboration). Their analysis did not support these assertions. The authors suggest further investigation is warranted, particularly into the role of trust in virtual teams (de Jong, 2016).


    Takeaways for your practice 

    When looking for ways to enhance team performance, you may be tempted to overlook the basic premise of trust in favor of a more exciting and seemingly innovative intervention. However, the research we reviewed in this article indicates if you are interested in team performance, trust is worth your attention. Beyond the general finding of a positive relationship between intrateam trust and team performance, when applying these findings in your organization, you may want to keep in mind:

    • Trust is likely to matter more when team members are dependent on one another to get the job done. Specifically, when team members depend on one another for clear decisions, technical skills, and to complete tasks.
    • Don’t rest on your laurels — even when a team has a trusted leader or strong history of performance, teammates’ trust in one another (or lack thereof) is likely still important.
    • When people evaluate the trustworthiness of others, they often focus on three things: ability (skills, competencies, characteristics), benevolence (motivation to do good) and integrity (adherence to acceptable principles) (Mayer, 1995).
    • Some research has indicated that having team members share relevant past experiences helps them to build trust by highlighting areas of competence as well as similarity among team members (Salas, 2014). Additionally, and especially for leaders, maintaining visibility with your team, particularly through face-to-face communication, can be helpful in fostering trust (Colquitt, 2009).

     



    Trustworthiness score 

    We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this article. We found that it has a moderately high (80%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

    Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

    We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.


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    References

    Colquitt, Jason A., and Sabria C. Salam. “Foster Trust through Ability, Benevolence, and Integrity.” Handbook Of Principles Of Organizational Behavior: Indispensable Knowledge For Evidence-Based Management, Second Edition. Ed. John Locke. Second ed. 2009. 389-404. Print.

    You can find the article abstract here!

    Jong, Bart A. De, Kurt T. Dirks, and Nicole Gillespie. “Trust and Team Performance: A Meta-analysis of Main Effects, Moderators, and Covariates.” Journal of Applied Psychology 101.8 (2016): 1134-150. Web.

    You can find the original article here!

    Mayer, R. C., J. H. Davis, and F. D. Schoorman. “An Integrative Model Of Organizational Trust.” Academy of Management Review 20.3 (1995): 709-34. Web.

    You can find the original article here!

    Salas, Eduardo, Marissa L. Shuffler, Amanda L. Thayer, Wendy L. Bedwell, and Elizabeth H. Lazzara. “Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organizations: A Scientifically Based Practical Guide.” Human Resource Management 54.4 (2014): 599-622. Web.

    You can find the original article here!

     

    Notes:

    1. The researchers determined this by comparing their findings (p=.30) with the average effect size (p=.26) reported in other meta-analyses on teams in Organizational Behavior and HR literature

    Leave a Reply

    9 comments

    1. Trusting is like clapping, which requires yin-yang co-ordination.

      One has to trust in order to be trusted.

      To harbor trust, one has to be authentic and sincere.
      Authenticity and sincerity qualify one to underscore and garner trustworthiness.

      Thru your actions
      1)by planting seeds of vision,
      2)by yourself being an example first,
      you can harvest hope and trust.

      ~~~Trust yourself and you can trust all :)))

      • Wendy Hirsch

        Thanks for your thoughts, Shilpa! Evidence does support the importance of demonstrating integrity to build trust, e.g., walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

        • Shilpa Mishra

          Wendy, it’s a pleasure~
          Thank you for sharing your amazing insight on the role of trust in team-work. I really enjoyed reading it! Your vocabulary and management-diction along with your views on the team spirit are great 🙂

    2. Philip Lillies

      It is dangerous to count trust as an independent variable. The fastest way to build a trusting organization is, after all, to eliminate members who disagree or are different. A group thinking team is the most trusting.pli

      • Wendy Hirsch

        Hi Philip – If you are interested in a broader discussion of available research on teamwork, you may enjoy this talk on the “Science of Teamwork” given by Scott Tannenbaum, PhD. You can find it here: https://goo.gl/QiO8JF (Hat tip to my teammate Pietro Marenco for making me aware of this talk!)

    3. Wendy, I concur with your article! As the leader of high performance teams in aviation (including the Blue Angels), I believe individual and collective trustworthiness is the keystone ingredient for high performance. To develop trustworthiness I recommend focusing on five characteristics:
      1. CHARACTER — walk your talk; integrity
      2. COMMITMENT — sacrifice for the team and bring your A-game during tough times.
      3. COMPETENCE — continuously improve your knowledge and skills; stay relevant.
      4. CONNECTION — understand the viewpoints and perspective of others so well they feel understood.
      5. COMMUNICATION — be understood by communicating clearly, concisely, consistently, and directly.

      • Wendy Hirsch

        Hi George — Thanks for sharing your experience..it seems like you are involved in some high stakes teamwork! Given the list you shared, you may enjoy a 2014 article by Eduardo Salas and colleagues — they outline 9 considerations to keep in mind when thinking about teamwork…all of which also begin with the letter “C”! You can find it here: https://goo.gl/qCTac5

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