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Fragile Trust in Virtual Teams Threatens Business Performance - Research Identifies New Rules for Communication


LONDON, UK, September 19, 2006 - The seemingly harmless behaviour of colleagues can cause untold damage to team relationships and productivity in multi-location businesses, according to a study by Cisco Systems® published today. Researchers found that an over-reliance on email, a failure to respond to messages, and the use of inappropriate modes of communication can damage trust and hamper the progress of critical projects. When virtual teams neglect the need to socialise, make visual contact and establish up-to-date communication guidelines, the trust they form is often fragile and easily compromised, leading to conflicts and the breakdown of relationships.

The Cisco study, “The Psychology of Effective Business Communications in Geographically Dispersed Teams”, carried out by occupational psychology specialists at Pearn Kandola, examines the trust-eroding phenomena that plague many virtual teams. By comparing the pros and cons of computer-based communication with face-to-face interactions, the report identifies new rules for communicating that will help virtual teams to work together successfully.

Virtual communication ’best practices’ recommended in the report include agreeing to protocols on response times, and establishing rules for the selection of media and the frequency of communications, especially in multi-cultural teams. Encouraging socialising and ad-hoc chats over a virtual ’coffee machine’ by using spontaneous and richer media for communications can also speed up the development of trust.

“Through globalisation, virtual teams are becoming a common feature in many organisations - but virtual teams often struggle to be as successful as co-located teams,” commented Carolyn Shearsmith, an occupational psychologist at Pearn Kandola and a co-author of the report.

The report highlights the issues that contribute to the success or failure of virtual teamwork. Users of electronic communication can take up to four times as long to exchange the same number of messages as communicating face-to-face, particularly as non-verbal cues can account for up to 63 percent of the social meaning within face-to-face exchanges. Trust can be fragile in virtual teams because of ’behavioural invisibility’ when teams cannot observe each other; a lack of social interaction, and the ’virtual silence’ caused by not responding to emails and voice messages. The virtual silence from someone not responding to messages can disrupt the workflow and even arouse suspicion that the silent party is shirking work.

Cultural differences can also become exaggerated within virtual teams. Multi-cultural teams can take up to 17 weeks to become as effective as teams whose members are of the same culture. Individuals in “high-context cultures” (those in most Asian, South American and Middle Eastern cultures and, to a lesser extent, French, Spanish and Greeks) tend not to express feelings and thoughts explicitly, whereas individuals in “low-context cultures” (North Americans and most Europeans) do. Therefore, people from high-context cultures can often perceive those from low-context cultures as too talkative and obvious. Conversely, those from low-context cultures perceive others from high-context cultures as sneaky and mysterious.

“Virtual teams rely heavily on technology to communicate but as we can see from the report, connecting people with people effectively is not that easy,” said Clive Sawkins, director of Unified Communications for Cisco Systems in Europe. “People are driven to build relationships and the ’best practices’ in this report will help teams and individuals to make full use of the communication technologies now available.”

“Our research shows that the media selected for a specific communication, whether it is instant messaging or video conferencing, is almost as important as the content of the communication,” Shearsmith said. “Behaviours need to change to keep up with organisational structures and new technology. The studies show how the correct choice and use of communication media can create the shared identity and shared context that is so important to successful virtual teams. The reliance on email to converse with colleagues in different parts of the world, for example, does little to build personal relationships and trust.”

“Cisco is developing communications systems to help people communicate more easily, directly and with richer interactivity, replicating those features in face-to-face interactions that are so important to building good relationships. I think this study gives us a better understanding of the behavioural dynamics of virtual teams and will improve our ability to develop, apply and use communications technology effectively,” Sawkins said.

“The Psychology of Effective Business Communications in Geographically Dispersed Teams” can be downloaded from the News@Cisco Web site,
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