Team Trust and Team Performance: trust in the variation

teamtrustThere’s something divine about trust. Many of us have felt this in different ways – and words such as peaceful, safe, warm, powerful, reliable, generous, capable, caring all come to mind.

The evolution of language reflects many manifestations of this feeling over time, some of which do indeed point to the divine. For example, Proverbs 3:5-6 in the New International Version of the Bible say:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

This feeling of trust, in the presence of someone so capable and caring that you wholeheartedly accept their knowledge as truth and you submit completely to their advice and guidance, is profound and powerful. You may not believe in God, and you may not be religious, but the idea that we can trust in the integrity, competence, and care of others is central to the way trust is conceptualized and measured in the growing scientific literature.

And cultural evolution eventually called forth the following words: let us measure trust and analyze its effects on team performance in different contexts, and let’s analyze these effects across hundreds of studies so we can examine the conditions under which the team trust – team performance relationship varies. These words may not feel quite so divine to some readers, but they are profound nonetheless, as they prompt genuine substance in our analysis of the reality of group living and the collective behavior algorithms that influence team dynamics. In essence, a simple algorithm which may switch on or off in our minds: Trust in the competence and care of team members. The algorithm reverberates through human systems in complex and subtle ways.

In a recent meta-analysis of 112 studies by De Jong, Gillespie, and Dirks (2016), focused on a broad variety of teams: project management, service, action, and production teams. We begin to understand the subtle and varied effects of team trust on team performance. Akin to our Biblical proverbs, the conceptualization of interpersonal trust emphasizes a willingness to accept vulnerability based on positive expectations of the intentions and behaviors of others. Naturally, this can play out and be measured at aggregate levels within a team.

Importantly, team trust is often measured in two ways: (a) using a cognitive evaluation of the reliability, integrity, and competence of team members; and (b) using an affect-based assessment of team members’ feelings of emotional involvement and their rating of others’ concern and care for their welfare. As such, we can analyze the overall effects of team trust on team performance, and we can analyze the independent effects of the cognitive and affective dimensions of team trust on team performance.

Prior to analyzing all quantitative effects across all studies, De Jong and colleagues note that the dominant view amongst scholars is that team trust is beneficial for team performance, as trust helps team members to suspend their uncertainty and vulnerability in relation to teammates, and work together as if this uncertainty and vulnerability were favorably resolved. This allows them to work more effectively and efficiently, using their energy and resources in ways that contribute to team performance. Conversely, a lack of trust results in team members losing sight of the goals and interests of the team and focusing instead on their own personal interests. Valuable energy and resources that could have been focused on team goal attainment is directed instead toward defensive actions aimed at protecting themselves against possible harm by others.

But how strong are these effects of team trust on team performance, on average, and what influences the variation? Using the Pearson correlation coefficient as a common effect size metric across all studies, the following patterns of variation were observed:

First, on average, across all studies, there was a positive effect of team trust on team performance (.30).

This is consistent with the basic intuition of scholars, and the general consensus in the field. But then it’s gets interesting – when we consider the variation across studies.

Notably, team trust was more strongly related to team performance when task interdependence was high (.33) rather than low (.21); when skill differentiation was high (.36) rather than low (.23); and when authority differentiation was high (.41) rather than low (.25).

These findings are consistent with the idea that, when team members must rely on each other’s input and resources to perform their tasks effectively (i.e., there is high task interdependence), and when teams consist of members with specialized skills that are difficult to substitute (i.e., there is high skill differentiation), higher levels of team trust will tend to facilitate the critical teamwork interactions needed to accomplish team goals, thus supporting better team performance.

Furthermore, in situations where authority differentiation is higher (i.e., when decision-making responsibility is distributed, with some members making decisions on behalf of their team), the levels of interdependence and vulnerability in the team are higher overall, and team members need to trust one another if sharing of information, acceptance of decisions, and cooperative team dynamics are to prevail. Importantly, in the case of authority differentiation, team members who are making decision are dependent on other team members to provide them with accurate information, and they also need other team members to accept and implement their decisions.Team members with ‘low authority’ (i.e., they are not making decisions) also rely on ‘high authority’ members to make good decisions that are in the interest of the team. In this situation, trust is important for decision-making effectiveness and overall team performance.

As such, task interdependence, skill differentiation, and authority differentiation are all worth monitoring in your team, as activation or deactivation of the team trust algorithm can have different team performance effects depending on the configuration of your team.

Other interesting findings emerged from the meta-analysis (e.g., controlling for their inter-correlation, it was found that both cognition-based trust (.24) and affect-based trust (.15) were positively correlated with team performance).

However, from the perspective of the scientist and practitioner, overall, what is most striking is the variable nature of the team trust – team performance relationship. Importantly, when you look across all studies, the effects range from negative to positive. As such, although the relationship between team trust and team performance was, on average, positive, it was negative in some studies. This is clearly a very subtle and dynamic relationship.

Does this mean that lower levels of trust in a team might, under certain conditions, facilitate better team performance, or is this idea sacrilege? We’ll pick up on this blasphemy in the next post, because there is truth in the idea. But don’t trust me, wait and see.


Featured paper:

De Jong, B. A., Dirks, K. T., & Gillespie, N. (2016). Trust and team performance: A meta-analysis of main effects, moderators, and covariates. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1134-1150.