The role of trust in distance relationships

Situations of predominantly virtual collaboration raise issues of trust between leaders and followers. Trust is one of the most researched fields of investigation within virtual and distance leadership literature. Lack of physical interaction and infrequent communication bear the potential of not only nurturing misunderstandings but also creating a decrease in trusting relationships. Trust is generally known to be perceived differently by individuals and, first and foremost, it is difficult to establish and maintain (Kossler & Prestridge, 1996; Shamir, 1995). Moreover, the development of trust between individuals is a time-intensive process (Kollock, 1998) just as developing a high quality LMX relationship is (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995). Erdogan and Bauer (2014) draw parallels between LMX and a trust-building process. Each individual pays attention to capabilities, integrity, and benevolence of the other individual (Bauer & Green, 1996). In particular, a virtual work environment is reliant on trusting relationships among team members and leaders as common methods of control are redundant and trustworthiness is perceived as showing commitment (Zolin, Hinds, Fruchter & Levitt, 2004). Hoyt and Blascovich (2003) found that team members in virtual teams had greater trust in transformational leaders. The researchers confirmed the moderating role of trust in the relationship between transformational leadership and group cohesiveness and satisfaction. LMX was further discovered to be a direct predictor of performance.

Several factors have been revealed to enable trusting relationships in organizations. Schaubroeck, Lam and Peng (2011) identified the mediating role of cognition- based and affect-based trust in leader-follower relationships. Their findings disclose that leaders’ trust in team members might unlock potential by displaying confidence in the team which in turn results in better team performance. Regular information sharing about work processes is further acknowledged as a trust-enabler in distributed environments (Zolin et al., 2004). Team members develop more trust in leaders with whom they can identify. This was found to be evident in both close and distant settings (Connaughton & Daly, 2004).

Moreover, teams highest in trust show rotating leadership behavior wherein each individual exhibits some leadership traits while an actual leading figure is not present. Leadership emerges in a dynamic manner, somewhat more distributed than static. As the need for active leadership rises, one team member fills the gap (Jar- venpaa, Knoll & Leidner, 1998). Teams rather low in trust perceive missing guidance as challenging, since leadership is either absent or negative. This indicates that leaders play a significant role in the development of trusting relationships. Confirming these findings Joshi, Lazarova and Liao (2009) emphasize the role of distant leaders who have the potential to enhance commitment and trust in virtual teams. Findings indicate that in virtual settings trust does not only grow during virtual collaboration, but that an essential proportion might even be established prior to collaborative work. Co-location extends the influence of team members as trust is already established (Bradner & Mark, 2008, p. 63). Trust could be maintained even after physical co-location shifts to virtuality.

A study by Torres and Bligh (2012) aimed at assessing the role of leader-follower distance on employees’ trust level, among other factors, found that study participants tended to express a higher degree of trust towards their direct leaders than organizational leaders. Perceived social distance was negatively associated with trust, whereas neither physical distance nor interaction frequency revealed any significant correlations. The authors follow an earlier definition of distance (Antonakis & Atwater, 2002) and compare groups of those leaders who are close and distant on all dimensions of social distance, physical distance, and interaction frequency. Mayer, Davis and Schoorman (1995) define trust as the “willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor” (p. 712). A sample of 241 cases revealed that followers tend to express higher levels of trust towards their direct leaders compared to organizational leaders. Perceptions of leader-follower distance were further significantly correlated with trust in leadership. Social trust was negatively related to trust, which indicates that the more socially distant a leader is perceived, the less trust employees will express (Mayer et al., 1995).

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