Trust is one of the most important factors in successful teams at work. In this CQ dossier, we describe the nature of trust in teams and explain why it matters in organizations. We will consider the difference in levels of team trust and current controversies regarding the constructits. Finally, we will explain how trust is linked to team outcomes and present some interventions that can help improve team trust based on important contextual factors.
Researchers have found that trust in teams exists at two levels – trust between team members at the individual level and team trust that is shared among team members at the team level (Costa et al., 2018). Interpersonal trust refers to the relationships between pairs of members in the team and is measured at the individual level (Costa et al., 2018).
Team trust occurs between individual team members and among team members
By comparison, team trust is measured at the collective level through aggregation of perceptions; in this case, team trust is the consensus by all team members that they can trust their team (Fulmer & Gelfand, 2012). It is important to consider trust at both the individual and team level (Costa et al., 2018).
Trust is deeply psychological: It rests on beliefs and vulnerability
Over the past two decades, researchers have provided various definitions of trust with most scholars acknowledging that trust is a psychological phenomenon. Denise Rousseau (1998) states that “trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.” Roy Lewicki (1998) provides a similar definition, “an individual’s belief in, and willingness to act on the basis of the words, actions, and decisions of another.”
In a review of the team trust literature, Costa and colleagues (2018) describe two points of contention in defining trust. Rousseau and colleagues consider it is necessary for individuals to show a willingness to be vulnerable in order to demonstrate trust; Lewicki (1998) believes that vulnerability and taking risks are unimportant when individuals hold positive regard for the trustee.
To trust and not to trust are not clear opposites
The other issues with describing trust in work teams is the distinctions between high trust, low trust, and distrust. Some scholars view high and low trust as being on opposing high and low ends of a continuum and perceive distrust to be a distinct yet related construct. Contrastingly, other scholars view high trust and distrust as being on the same continuum (Costa et al., 2018). More research is needed to understand these distinctions and their implications for practice.
What role does team trust play in organizations?
Team trust plays a role in several aspects of daily professional life. We have identified three manifestations:
Team trust is linked to individual and team level outcomes at the workplace
Team trust plays an important role in organizations mainly because it is linked to workplace outcomes across multiple levels (Costa et al., 2018). At the individual level, trust between team members is related to outcomes such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment (Matzler & Renzi, 2007). Team trust also influences team dynamics including the capacity to be more open in communication and knowledge sharing between members (Costa et al., 2018). Team trust is also related to team effectiveness including better problem solving and team performance (Parker, Williams, & Turner, 2006).
Team trust is positively related to team performance
At the team level, metanalytic reviews have found that team trust is related to team performance (De Jong et al., 2016; Breuer et al., 2016). The relationship between team trust and team performance was positive and was stronger when there were high levels of team interdependence and authority and skills differentiation within the teams (De Jong et al., 2016). Costa and colleagues point out that team trust seems more important for team performance when team members differ in their attitudes and skillset (Costa et al., 2018).
Team trust is linked to attitudes about the team
In another meta-analytic review, Breuer and colleagues found that team trust was related to team-level attitudes including team satisfaction, commitment and cohesiveness. They also confirmed that team trust was positively related to team performance (Breuer et al., 2016) and was strongest when team virtuality and task interdependence was high (Breuer et al., 2016). Costa and colleagues point out that this meta-analysis suggests team trust becomes more relevant in virtual team situations and under conditions of high task interdependence.
What interventions improve team trust?
In order to develop and implement interventions to improve team trust, it is important to consider contextual factors that are related to building trust between team members, and trust in the team. This section discusses these contextual factors and considers how practitioners can implement the research findings to build effective interventions.
Overall, thre are three interventions that help improve team trust:
Organizational culture and team trust
An organizational culture that focuses on ethical values and corporate social responsibility is linked to trust in teams (Bhattacharya, Korschun, & Sen, 2009). Moreover, organizations that foster collaboration with employees sharing information and offering different perspectives also leads to trust between team members. One way in which organizations can foster team trust is through evaluating the culture within their organization and designing interventions that boost ethical values and corporate social responsibility.
Organizations that have a decentralized system of decision-making also tend to engender team trust; Moorman and colleagues found that team members working in highly formal structures experienced less trust at the individual and collective level (Moorman et al., 1993). It seems that organizations who have formal rules and regulations decrease social interactions within the firm because decision-making is made through institutional policy. One way to engender team trust is for organizations to develop informal networks and encourage face-to-face communication to foster strong interpersonal interactions (Ambrose & Schminke, 2003).
One of the best ways in which organizations can foster team trust is through selection of effective team leaders because they play a key role in establishing trust in teams (Dirks & Ferrin, 2002). When leaders have high quality relationships with their subordinates they are seen as more trustworthy (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995) and leaders who are helpful, open, and empathic tend to foster high team trust (Carmeli et al., 2012).Organizations can design and implement team development initiatives that foster effective leadership in teams. The best training programs are those that provide knowledge and skills based on leadership theories such as the leader-exchange model (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995) and provide developmental opportunities for managers to stretch themselves both interpersonally and intrapersonally.
Team trust is an important construct in organizational science because it is linked to key organizational outcomes such as organizational commitment and team performance. It is important for organizations to foster team trust and to cultivate a strong organizational climate so that it becomes easy to build team trust.
Critical appraisal of Team Trust: Solidity rating 4
Based on the empirical evidence for the importance of team trust, this dossier is assigned a Level 4 rating (based on a 1- 5 measurement scale). A level 4 is the second highest rating score for a dossier based on the evidence provided on the importance of team trust. To date, the research on team effectiveness has demonstrated the importance of this construct and its relationship to individual and organizational outcomes.
Interpersonal trust refers to the relationships between pairs of members in the team
Team trust is the consensus by all team members that they can trust their team
Team trust is linked to workplace outcomes across multiple levels
An organizational culture that focuses on ethical values and corporate social responsibility is linked to trust in teams
Organizations that have a decentralized system of decision-making also tend to engender team trust
Leaders who have high quality relationships tend to foster high team trust
References and further reading
Ambrose, M., & Schminke, M. (2003). Organization structure as a modera- tor of the relationship between procedural justice, interactional justice, perceived organizational support, and supervisory trust. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 295–305.
Bhattacharya, C. C., Korschun, D., & Sen, S. (2009). Strengthening stake- holder–company relationships through mutually beneficial corporate social responsibility initiatives. Journal of Business Ethics, 85, 257–272.
Carmeli, A., Tishler, A., & Edmondson, A. (2012). CEO relational leadership and strategic decision quality in top management teams: The role of team trust and learning from failure. Strategic Organization, 10, 31–54.
Costa, A. C., Fulmer, C. A., & Anderson, N. R. (2018). Trust in Work Teams: An Integrative Review, Multilevel Model, and Future Directions. Journal of Organizational Behavior 39.2, 169-84.
Dirks, K. T., & Ferrin, D. L. (2002). Trust in leadership: Meta‐analytic findings and implications for research and practice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 611–628.
Graen, G. B., & Uhl‐Bien, M. (1995). Relationship‐based approach to leader- ship: Development of leader–member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi‐level multi‐domain perspective. Leadership Quarterly, 6, 219–247.
Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities. Academy of Management Review, 23, 438-458.
Moorman, C., Deshpande, R., & Zaltman, G. (1993). Factors affecting trust in market research relationships. Journal of Marketing, 57, 81–10.
Parker, S. K., Williams, H. M., & Turner, N. (2006). Modelling the antecedents of proactive behaviour at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 636–652.
Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., & Camerer, C. (1998). Not so Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust. Academy of Management Review, 23, 393-404.
Annette was born in England and now lives in the United States. She has a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and has taught at several institutions. Annette has published in several journals, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Human Resource Development Quarterly, and Organizational Research Methods. She worked in the public and private sector for many years, primarily as a management trainer.