What You Don't Know Can Hurt You: The Role of Team Member Uncertainty in Virtual Team Trust and Performance

Cassidy, Scott
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University of Guelph

Previous research suggests that virtual teams have difficulty developing trust relative to collocated teams; and that low team member trust can adversely affect team performance. Unfortunately, there is little research to date that considers the actual process by which virtual media inhibits team trust and performance. Seminal work on organizational trust posits that team trust is at least partly a function of the uncertainty that team members feel during their interactions. Following this idea, the present study sought to test the role of felt uncertainty in explaining the negative relation between virtualization (i.e., media richness) and both trust and team performance. To test this idea, participant teams completed a military rescue simulation under varying degrees of media richness; after which, their felt uncertainty, trust towards one another, and team performance were assessed using a variety of self-reported and objective metrics. This methodology was designed to test a likely mediator of the relation between media richness and both team trust and performance, while also simulating core task features that may generalize to applied settings. The results suggested that more media rich (i.e., less virtual) teams felt less uncertainty than more media lean (i.e., more virtual) teams. Moreover, team members’ felt uncertainty partially mediated the relation between media richness and trust; as well as the relation between media richness and self-reported performance beliefs (though not objective process performance or task performance).

Virtual work teams, Virtual trust, Team trust, Team performance, Uncertainty Reduction Theory, Media Richness Theory, Technologically-mediated communication