Research and Advances
Computing Applications Virtual extension

Power and Trust in Global Virtual Teams

  1. Introduction
  2. Power Matters
  3. Power shifts
  4. Facilitating Power Distribution
  5. References
  6. Authors
  7. Footnotes
  8. Tables

Our broad contention in this article is that though the current understanding of virtual teams has advanced in significant areas over the last few years, it has not taken sufficient account of power dynamics within virtual teams nor sought to explore the nature of power within geographically distributed teams. Indeed, despite the overwhelming interest on virtual teams, our understanding of computermediated interactions and virtual team dynamics has remained limited. Reliance on mediated interactions and especially those that are text-based and asynchronous such as email has been seen to inhibit the development of good working and collaborative relationships;2,3,4 such views often derive from the media richness theory which suggests that face-to-face is a richer information medium.1

Our argument, however, is that even though the value of face-to-face communication in creating and promoting a rich information context needs to be highly appreciated, we also have to acknowledge that significant interactions remain computermediated and provide extensive opportunities for trust development. The challenge is to be able to manage power differentials effectively in order to allow collaboration to foster within a virtual team environment. Power, defined as the capability of one party to exert influence on another to act in a prescribed manner is often a function of both dependence and the use of that dependence as leverage.5,6 The question therefore is: how is power exercised in global virtual teams and how can it effectively impact trust development and overall team performance in such distributed environments?

We pursued a qualitative study of 18 global distributed teams within a global IT organization, a Fortune 500 organization. The study involved interviews with individuals in the specific organization who were part of culturally diverse, geographically dispersed and technology-enabled global virtual teams. Interviewees were encouraged to recall their experiences from working in a global virtual team that they judged to have ‘worked well,’ and conversely their experiences from working in a team that ‘did not work well.’ This approach resulted in two case scenarios from each interviewee. The interviews were guided by open-ended questions which aimed to explore the background to the team, the performance levels, the distribution of power amongst the team members, the levels of trust within the team, and how trust changed over time.

Analysis found 11 scenarios where teams worked well, seven where teams did not work well and two where the performance improved over time. From these, 7 teams experienced good trust relationships, seven did not, and four developed trust over time. Table 1 presents the main findings from our interviews and shows the key characteristics or each team in terms of performance, power differentials and trust. The findings are interpretivist in nature and are based on the interviewees’ own experiences and perceptions.

Based on the findings, the teams were categorised as ‘High-Trust’ and ‘Low-Trust’ teams and are distinguished here in terms of their power dynamcis. The four teams that developed trust over time fall within the former category; also when conflicting views were expressed, the decision was based on the consensus of the team members interviewed (such as Team 1). Table 2 details the common power issues identified within ‘High-Trust’ and ‘Low-Trust’ global virtual teams.

Back to Top

Power Matters

As with traditional collocated teams, power was found to play a key role in team dynamics within global virtual team interactions. Power differentials were acknowledged in all of the teams, even where the teams were considered to have worked well; however these differentials were exercised differently to those in the collocated teams.

In the teams that worked well, shared goals had been used to create a higher level or an overriding goal or vision. These goals were focussed on the success of the team as a whole, and in some cases attempted to combat the individual or non-complimentary goals:

“…I was not in a position to alter the power due to the political situation. So I looked for something that was more important than our individual political needs, and used the customer as the central focus. This worked well in the majority of situations as everybody could easily relate to meeting the customers’ needs” (Team 1)

It was also apparent in the study that where the ‘most powerful’ parties had identified the success of the team as their primary consideration, they consciously minimised the use of coercive power – as in the case of example 3 (Table 2).

Back to Top

Power shifts

The study found that in the high trust teams, power differentials do not disappear; rather power shifts from one member to another throughout the life cycle of the project depending on the stage and its requirements. Several interviewees described the power within their team as originating from knowledge and noted that at any given point in time the most powerful was the individual with the most relevant information. In these situations coercive power was rarely used, and significant emphasis was placed upon collaboration and the use of persuasive power. A U.K. development manager explained:

“My approach is definitely to focus on the fact that we both work for the same corporation and ultimately need to be making the best decisions in the interest of maximising profits. We need to start thinking about power more in terms of knowledge power than positional power. The real strength in the relationship is acknowledging who has the most relevant knowledge at the time the key decisions need to be made. As far as positional power is concerned this keeps swapping…”

Back to Top

Facilitating Power Distribution

Facilitators were found to have an enabling role in minimizing destructive power differentials. In general, it was felt by the interviewees that the role of a facilitator has been to help in team building techniques at the early stage of the virtual work project and in promoting a shared understanding among team members. For example, facilitators have been valuable in both designing and conducting team sessions as well as in structuring team discussions by using various forms of collaborative technology. However, we cannot say that simply by assigning formal facilitators will contribute to a high performance team. What we found is that it was the way the facilitators performed their role that mattered most than the mere availability of facilitators.

The competence and skills of a facilitator, formal or informal, in bringing individuals together and in encouraging the use of collaborative technologies and the development of shared understanding can foster an atmosphere of collaboration and trust building within the virtual team environment and allow power to be distributed effectively. This was seen very clearly in the cases of the four teams in which trust improved over time:

“Team 2 consisted of representatives from the US products division, the Japanese country distribution organization and us as the distribution centre in Singapore. The team came together in May 2000 and things began to go wrong right from the start…It took us a couple of months of very unproductive meetings before we realized that each party had conflicting interests. The Japanese team was focussed on quality…The US division was focussed on supply chain costs… and as a regional distribution centre our focus [in Singapore] was on customer satisfaction and costs…We pulled together a meeting to highlight the conflict of interests as we saw them. We kind of took on the role of a facilitator. We explained that the only way to move forward was if each party moved a little. Thankfully everybody agreed and we began a process of scrutinising each criteria and agreeing new standards…”

Accordingly, further to helping move from low-trust to high-trust teams, facilitators could provide a means towards developing a sense of identity for team members, which can be of particular benefit to those global virtual teams who meet infrequently or perhaps not at all. These benefits include the establishment of a foundation upon which to build shared goals, to develop trust and minimise the use of coercive power in pursuit of a collaborative and productive relationship. Moreover, our study suggests that shared goals may be used to minimise power imbalances and the exercise of coercive power, by driving progress through the pursuit of mutually beneficial objectives based on a perceived equity of return. Though this might be a time consuming, iterative and challenging process, this research concludes that it is far better to invest in it as up front in the project as possible than deal with the vicious, destructive downward spirals that result from team members with conflicting goals and poor levels of trust.

Finally, it is important to highlight that knowledge is becoming the source of power in the current digital age and this power moves to the knowledge source. When virtual team relationships are damaged and internal confusion exists, managers need to begin the task of rebuilding trust in the pursuit of developing as best as possible collaborative global virtual teams. The study presented here can offer a means by which to understand the key variables in managing power and building trust towards improving the virtual collaboration skill of the corporation.

Back to Top

Back to Top

Back to Top

Back to Top


T1 Table 1. Team Characteristics

T2 Table 2. Power Issues In High And Low Trust Global Virtual Teams

Back to top

    1. Daft R. L. and Lengel R. H. Organizational Information Requirements, media richness and structural design. Management Science 32, 5, (1986), 554–571

    2. Davenport T. H. and Pearlson K. Two cheers for the virtual office. Sloan Management Review, (Summer 1998), 51–65

    3. Handy, C. Trust and the virtual organization. Harvard Business Review, (May-June 1995), 40–50

    4. Nandhakumar J. and Baskerville, R. Durability of online teamworking: Patterns of trust. Information Technology & People 19, 4, (2006), 371 – 389

    5. Rassingham, P. The influence of power on trading partner trust in electronic commerce. Internet Research: Electronic Networking Applications and Policy 10, 1, (2000), 56–62

    6. van der Smagt, T. Enhancing virtual teams: social relations and communications technology, Industrial Management and Data Systems 100, 4, (2000), 148 – 156.


Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More