Building Trust to Enhance Knowledge Sharing in Virtual Teams

Building Trust to Enhance Knowledge Sharing in Virtual Teams

Picture by: Carrie Gibson

Article and Author Information

Carrie Gibson (MSLOC 2013) wrote this article in March 2012 for the MSLOC Advancing Learning & Performance Solutions course. Prior to starting the MSLOC program, Carrie led and developed a sales operations team. She is currently an HR Specialist at Motorola Solutions where she leads initiatives to drive strategic change within the organization's HR department.  She is a dedicated OD practitioner and she has a passion for helping organizations succeed by leveraging the talent of their workforce. Carrie's MSLOC Capstone research, Getting the Most Out of Your Mission: Organizational Missions as a Key to Employee Engagement, is also published on the Knowledge Lens.

Introduction and Objectives

Virtual teams are unique in that they are forced to "span the boundaries of space and time to accomplish important organizational tasks" (Kirkman & Mathieu, 2004, p. 1). As these unique teams continue to become more commonplace within organizations, factors which impact their performance are increasingly examined. One such factor is knowledge sharing. Defined as "the exchange of knowledge between people," knowledge sharing is a key determinant of team effectiveness (McNeish & Mann, 2010, p. 19). Within virtual teams, knowledge sharing is even more important as it has been shown to directly influence the performance of these teams (Staples & Webster, 2008). Unfortunately, the physical distance, time differences, and lack of face-to-face contact that characterize virtual teams can impede knowledge sharing (Staples et al.). Overcoming these obstacles presents a particular challenge for the leaders of virtual teams.

In the absence of regular, personal interaction, the presence of trust within virtual teams has been determined to be a key factor for facilitating knowledge sharing (Newell, David, & Chand, 2007). Characterized as "an individual's willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another person," trust provides the members of virtual teams with the confidence to expose the limitations of their knowledge (Robert Jr., Dennis, & Hung, 2009, p. 242). It also increases their assurance that the knowledge provided to them is both accurate and helpful (Staples et al.). Like knowledge sharing however, trust is also difficult to build within a virtual team and it requires a leader to use certain techniques.

Understanding how leaders can help build trust on virtual teams to promote knowledge sharing will enable LOC professionals to design solutions to improve the performance of virtual teams. This article will facilitate that understanding by discussing the importance of knowledge sharing within virtual teams and demonstrating why the development of trust is essential for knowledge sharing to occur. It will outline techniques for leaders to build trust within virtual teams and conclude with a case study that presents a leader who built trust to enhance knowledge sharing in a virtual project team.

The Importance of Knowledge Sharing Within Virtual Teams

The 2008 study by Staples and Webster demonstrates that knowledge sharing in virtual teams has a direct positive correlation with increased performance. Their study, and Kauppila, Rajala, and Jyrämä's 2011 study of multinational corporations, distinguishes three key reasons why knowledge sharing is important for virtual teams.

Unites Diverse Expertise

Virtual teams are often formed to utilize the specific expertise of a diverse group of individuals. When faced with particularly challenging projects, organizations create virtual teams to unite the best and brightest in hopes of finding a solution. While each individual's unique knowledge is an asset to these teams, the knowledge is only effective if it can be synthesized with the knowledge of other team members. Under these circumstances, virtual teams who fail to unite the diverse knowledge of their experts, subsequently fail to meet their primary performance objective (Staples et al.).

Figure 2

Enhances Team Synergy and Innovation

Even within virtual teams of non-experts, knowledge sharing is a basic requirement for developing the synergy and innovative capabilities of a team (Staples et al.). By strengthening the collaboration skills of a team, knowledge sharing enables individuals to work with their fellow team members and unite their skills to create more revolutionary products, services, and solutions (Robert Jr. et al.).

Strengthens the Capacity for Knowledge Sharing Within the Larger Organization

A supplemental benefit of knowledge sharing within virtual teams is that it can also enhance knowledge sharing within organizations. In the Kauppila, Rajala, and Jyrämä (2011) study of multinational corporations, the knowledge sharing capabilities of Vaisala Instrument's virtual teams were shown to directly influence the rise of knowledge sharing within the entire corporation. By overcoming the significant barriers that hinder knowledge sharing within virtual teams, Vaisala's teams were able to lower these barriers for the entire organization and increase the cohesiveness and knowledge sharing among all employees (Kauppila et al.).

The Role of Trust in Facilitating Knowledge Sharing

Trust is held by most knowledge theorists to be "the single most important precondition for knowledge exchange" (Rolland & Chauvel, 200, p. 239). Within virtual teams, this theory has been empirically proven, as trust has been shown to have a direct positive correlation with knowledge sharing (Staples et al.). Benevolence, integrity, and ability are three commonly held dimensions of trust (Clark, Clark, & Crossley, 2010) and as the following points convey, these dimensions can foster the conditions necessary for knowledge exchange within virtual teams.

The Risk Factor

A significant amount of risk is involved in knowledge sharing. When requesting knowledge from a fellow team member, an individual is exposing the limitations of his or her own knowledge. This process places the individual in a highly vulnerable position (Staples et al.). Within virtual teams, this vulnerability can be increased as team members do not have the benefit of requesting knowledge through face-to-face interactions. The presence of trust within these teams can overcome this barrier as it serves to create the benevolent environment that is required for individuals to undertake the risks involved in knowledge sharing (Kimble, 2011).

The Personal Connection

Given the risk embedded in knowledge sharing, the practice of it within virtual teams necessitates the existence of a personal connection between the individuals involved (Rosen, 2007). As stated by Newell, David, and Chand (2007), "knowledge sharing is essentially a social endeavor" and trust forms and maintains the personal connections that are required for this endeavor (p. 159). Benevolence and integrity are the first two key dimensions of trust. By believing that a team member has the benevolence to try to help and the integrity which makes him or her dependable, an individual is able to establish the connection necessary to both request and provide knowledge.

The Reliability

When both giving and receiving knowledge, an individual is forced to depend on the reliability of the other person involved in the exchange. Trust establishes this reliability among members of a virtual team. On the receiving end of knowledge sharing, trust enables an individual to believe that the information given to him is both accurate and helpful (Staples et al.). On the providing end, trust fosters the belief that the team member who receives the knowledge has the ability to both comprehend and properly apply it (Newell et al.).

Figure 3

Read more below about techniques for leaders to build trust within virtual teams.

Techniques for Leaders to Build Trust within Virtual Teams

The leader of a virtual team lays the foundation for trust. This concept was empirically demonstrated in Jarvenpaa and Leidner's 1998 study, where non-existent and poor leadership were found to have the ability to both impede and dissolve trust within virtual teams. Given the impact a leader has in developing trust in virtual teams and the increased knowledge sharing and performance that this trust creates, it is critical that the leaders of virtual teams obtain the tools necessary for creating trust. The following tips were compiled from the vast literature on virtual teams and represent a "best practice" approach for leaders to build trust in virtual teams.

Build Interpersonal Relationships Amongst Team Members

Cultivating trust within a virtual team requires leaders to work on relationship management (Newell et al.). Because the personal connections necessary for knowledge sharing are not easily fostered in virtual teams, it becomes the leader's responsibility to actively build these connections within the team. A proven technique for accomplishing this task is to implement activities where team members share personal information with each other (Rusman, van Bruggen, Sloep, & Koper 2010). By engaging the team in these self-disclosure exercises, a leader enables the members to develop a deeper understanding of one another and to form the bonds necessary for strong personal relationships.

Figure 4

Create a Common Group Identity

A common group identity is an antecedent to the creation of trust in teams (McNeish et al.). This identity not only establishes a unifying bond within the team, but it can also help to form the initial swift trust that is crucial for fostering sustained trust in virtual teams (Robert Jr. et al). In addition, the common group identity of a team has a direct impact on knowledge sharing, as it sets the foundation necessary for the creation of shared meanings (Kimble). Without shared meanings, members of virtual teams do not have the ability to fully comprehend and apply the knowledge that is transferred to them. To create the common group identity of virtual teams, leaders are encouraged to promote socialization, emphasize the shared expertise of team members, and champion the team's objective (Rosen et al.).

Establish a Culture of Psychological Safety

Developing a psychologically safe team culture fosters trust within virtual teams (Rosen et al.). By creating such a culture, a leader enables individuals to feel comfortable exposing their vulnerability and taking the risks necessary for them to learn to depend on and trust their fellow team members. Psychological safety also directly facilitates the risk taking required to exchange knowledge within virtual teams (Kimble). To create a culture of psychological safety, leaders must emphasize the value in asking fellow team members for help (Rosen et al.). They must also encourage team members to admit their mistakes. While this exercise increases vulnerability, it helps to build the personal connections inherent in trust and it serves as an excellent learning and knowledge sharing opportunity for the entire team (McNeish et al.).

A Case Study: Knowledge Sharing in a Virtual Project Team at Financial Solutions

Financial Solutions (name has been changed) is a global financial services firm that regularly creates virtual project teams to develop solutions to operational challenges. In February of 2010, the Sales Operations Committee reviewed the inefficiencies of the firm's account opening system and decided to assemble a project team to evaluate the system and to make recommendations for the design of a more efficient tool. A month later, a virtual project team was created. The six operations experts selected for the team were located in six different regions of the United States. While the individuals on the team were familiar with the names of their fellow team members, they had never actually met or worked with them before. Caroline Sterner (name has been changed) was the leader of this team and she knew that in order for the team to accomplish its objectives, the individual members would need to share their specific expertise with the team.

Assessing the uneasiness of the team during its first teleconference, Caroline broke from the agenda and asked everyone to share their favorite hobby with the group. She then asked each member to disclose their hesitations with the project and what they hoped to achieve through their participation on the team. At the end of the meeting, Caroline shared the notes she had taken during these exercises and she asked the team to use this information to write a short motto which described the team. Caroline recited this motto at the beginning and end of every meeting. She also added an exercise in which every member shared the biggest mistake he or she had made that week. The team met weekly for seven months and in September of 2010, it delivered a very comprehensive evaluation and set of recommendations to the COO. While the COO credited the success of this team with the individual expertise of each member, the team itself recognized that it was the way in which it synthesized this expertise that contributed to its success.

Caroline's team achieved peak performance through knowledge sharing and it was the trust she built that facilitated this sharing. By engaging her team in self-disclosure exercises, creating a team motto, and having members regularly admit mistakes, Caroline helped her team develop the personal connections, common identity, and culture of psychological safety that are required to establish trust. Caroline's actions placed her team on the road to success and they can be used as a model for any leader of a virtual team who wishes to enhance performance.


The existing research on virtual teams illustrates that knowledge sharing is a key factor in the overall performance of these teams. It also indicates that trust is required to facilitate knowledge sharing. By utilizing techniques which build personal connections amongst team members, create a common group identity, and establish a culture of psychological safety, leaders of virtual teams can develop the trust necessary to lead their teams to peak performance.


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