Trust – Critical Ingredient for Team Success

A vast majority of our work in software development, support and implementation is done in teams, and there is a lot of advice on how to make teams successful. A search on Amazon for “Team Success” yields 13,756 books variously discussing the topic. These books are usually well intentioned and contain useful information which may be based upon research and evidence or experience and anecdotes.  Regardless of the type, they all fall short of the imagined silver bullet of team success.

I can’t claim to have consumed enough of these books to present a conclusion of the common themes of team success, instead I am relying on research that has been done into teams.  Specifically in my studies for my MS in Industrial Organizational Psychology I focused on virtual teams, given their wide preference in software development and implementation.

Trust has been acknowledged to be critical in teams and virtual teams and is seen as affecting almost all team processes including collaboration, cohesion, retention, satisfaction, knowledge sharing and cooperation (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). But what does trust, in a team context mean?

Trust is the willingness of a team member to be vulnerable to actions of other team members, based upon the expectation that those team members will act in expected ways (Germain, 2011).  Another way to look at this is to see trust as being able to rely upon team members and being able to take risks with other team members – whether it is the risk of holding others accountable without fearing retribution or sharing information without risk of competition.  Germain (2011) in her seminal work on trust and virtual teams examined research extensively and found common keywords in the definition of trust including vulnerability, cooperation, expectations of others, risk taking, dependence on others, honesty, integrity, fairness and reliability.

There are two types of interpersonal trust – affect-based and cognition-based.  The former is based upon emotional relationship and the latter based perceptions of competence, reliability and dependability.  Development of affect-based trust is based upon the presence of cognition-based trust.  Cognition-based trust is then viewed as key to building trust.  Interestingly, studies on virtual teams have shown the there is a concept of Swift Trust, which is the early presence of trust on teams in organizations based upon unit perceptions, reputation and stereotypes (Germain, 2011).  In essence what this means is in many cases virtual teams start with a level of trust that wouldn’t otherwise be expected.  This means that the challenge of trust in virtual teams is given a head-start, and it’s the responsibility of leadership to build upon the Swift Trust to create permanent and lasting trust.

In upcoming posts I’ll be talking about the challenges to building and maintaining trust, and then reviewing practical ways that a team leader can build and maintain trust on their team.


Germain, M.-L. (2011). Developing Trust in Virtual Teams. Performance Management Quarterly24(3), 29–54. doi:10.1002/piq.20119

Jarvenpaa, S. L., & Leidner, D. E. (1999). Communication and trust in global virtual teams. Organizational Science10(6), 791–815.