Sociability, Relationship and Trust Online

Updated - March 2003 - Nancy White

Online interaction implicitly requires a group. This isn't something we do alone! So how do new groups form online? How do established groups move to an online environment? How are individuals brought into the circle? What different contexts are needed to build the appropriate degree of trust and relationship for a group to achieve its purpose? What roles do identity, social fabric, and reputation play in a text-based world for different types of groups such as work teams, learning groups or communities of practice? Read on!

These are big, big questions. Lots of philosophical paths we can pursue. But we also want to provide some concrete techniques. To start, there are some readings you may wish to check out. If you are interested particularly in group dynamics, check out:

So what are the "big issues?"

Lets start with some data. Although this addresses virtual teams in the workspace, it does extend to apply to other online interactions as well. The following is excerpted from Trust in Virtual Teams in "Organization: Trust in virtual teams" from the HBR May/Jun 1998 by Diane L Coutu.

New research shows that trust can and does exist in virtual teams, but it develops in a very different way than in traditional teams.

"Professor Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa of the University of Texas at Austin and Associate Professor Dorothy E. Leidner of INSEAD in Fontainebleu,

France, .... spent six weeks studying 29 virtual teams operating globally and communicating strictly through E-mail. They found that trust can and does exist in virtual teams, but it develops in a very different way than in traditional teams."

"'What drives the evolution of trust in conventional settings is direct, face-to-face interaction-the kind of interaction that does not take place in virtual teams,' says Jarvenpaa. 'Instead of evolving slowly through stages, trust in virtual teams tends to be established-or not-right at the outset. The first interactions of the team members are crucial.'"

"In fact, the initial electronic messages appear to set the tone for how virtual-team members will interrelate throughout an entire project, the researchers found. In one team, the appointed leader('s) introductory message with a distrustful tone, implying that he was suspicious of other members' commitment to the team low morale and poor performance .... (throughout the project)."

Other barriers: " ... establishing a set of strict rules for the way members would work together. In effect...trying to impose deterrence-based trust on itself."

Other enablers: "The researchers found that the teams with the highest levels of trust tended to share three traits.

  1. First, they began their interactions with a series of social messages-introducing themselves and providing some personal background-before focusing on the work at hand. This initial period of electronic "courtship," as the researchers call it, appears to be particularly important in establishing knowledge-based trust.
  2. Second, they set clear roles for each team member. Assigning each member a particular task enabled all of them to identify with one another, forging a foundation for identification-based trust.
  3. The third hallmark of the trusting team had to do with attitude: team members consistently displayed eagerness, enthusiasm, and an intense action orientation in all their messages."

The keynote here is sociability. Offline we talk about the important interactions that happen in the halls, over meals and "at the water cooler" which allow us to build relationships and then exchange knowledge and information in an informal framework. We have to create the structures to support sociability. We can facilitate for group formation. And we can look at evaluation and feedback loops to see if we are succeeding. Let's break this down into three parts.

Part One - Structures to Support Sociability

First lets think about the places or spaces where this sociability begins. What "containers" support it? Then a bit later in Part Two of this topic, we will talk about some processes (Remember, I said this was a big topic!):

What other structural things can support sociability and thus build the group, trust, and relationships?

Type of Trust

The Jarvenpaa's work is focused on work teams who have a stake in each other's success to achieve their joint outcome. The need each other, in other words, so there is a strong motivating reason to take the leap of faith and trust. So trust is associated in that research with common goals or needs. It is not exactly the same kind of trust that says “help, I am vulnerable.” Or “here are my deepest personal beliefs.” That could come out later, or may not even be within the specific needs of the situation. Interchange of information needs a much lower level of trust than support groups or work teams.

The trust we have online also has to make sense/have relationship with any existing trust (or lack thereof) of an existing offline group. Going online does not erase our group memories and shouldn’t! It is NOT a different world, simply a different communications medium.

Speed of Trust Creation

Does trust always happen early in interactions? Not necessarily. What if there is no visible NEED for that trust. For example, how much trust do we need to learn how to meet local sanitation rules for food workers? How much trust do we need to work through issues of personal addiction. Wow, two very different things and two very different potential needs for trust. It depends on the purpose.

Let’s think about a distance-learning example. You want to orient and train people on online interaction. Is there some degree of trust in that interaction? I think so, because of working on the "unspoken" and "unseen" elements of group dynamics online. So yes, I'd seek trust in that group.

A lot like we do offline. Here are four examples and there are BOOKS of other ideas.
  1. Be authentically human: Introductions help us to see more than one "layer" of the others. The act of disclosure, even small and contained, gives us humanity. Finding something NOT related to the interaction in common with others helps us do that. Gee, if you like chocolate, well you can't be ALL bad. (slightly sarcastic smile).
  2. Small steps together – having a group task and seeing your partners “deliver” is a very concrete way forward. Having a post responded to is a visible manifestation that you listen, thus I may have more inclination to trust you. Delivering on a promise, however small, is another.
  3. Meeting the common enemy – nothing like adversity to pull a group together. A challenging task can be the “enemy.” Think creatively.
  4. Allowing “conditional” steps – acknowledging openly if there is a current lack of trust. Don’t ignore the monster in the living room, offer it a cocktail and see if it is friendly or tame-able. You can’t fake it, so don’t.

What happens if the trust doesn’t materialize early? What happens if it is lost – and our experience is that we give it and take it away faster online – midstream? What happens if it is definitely NOT there to start with and people are guarded?


If it isn’t achieved or isn’t evolving, move to diagnosis. Why? One thing I found in intercultural and inter-disciplinary work was trust was sometimes harder to establish because of uncertainty of the “rules of the game” in a mixed group. Or even more challenging, in a group of professionals, the deep fear of looking foolish or wrong kept people from taking the risk of participation. They did not have the trust level, but it was about themselves, not the others. It was a professional culture that was very harsh. So facing the rules or the professional cultural demons is one approach. The other is to set expectations at a safer level and go more slowly. But if a group is dysfunctional offline and cannot develop trust, there is a good chance that will be worse online unless you move to a situation of anonymity – no real names – and that carries a WHOLE lot of other implications.

Create simple agreements that allow trust to build. Make sure they are well understood and visibly affirmed by all.

Here is another way to turn the tables. What if trust is there, and we simply can’t see it. What do you do offline? Sometimes you move forward in faith and go from there. Sometimes an act of us trusting the group, they are willing to move towards trust themselves. So live it. Be it.

Part 2- Processes to Support Sociability

This one is nice and practical. What are the techniques and processes that support sociability, relationship and trust? Here are a few.

Part Three - Evaluation and Feedback to Monitor Sociability

John Smith, who teaches an online course on Communities of Practice, shares a story of how one CoP leader measured the success of his group. He said "see who walks out together talking." Sometimes our evaluation and measurement is subtle. Sometimes we need to establish clear feedback mechanisms such as surveys and polls. The key issue is to be aware of the level of group formation and cohesiveness, of the level of relationship and sociability, of the status of trust and use that information to inform our facilitation of the group.

Unfinished Sidebar: SOCIABILITY, TRUST and OUR PERCEPTIONS OF "chit chat"

There is research about styles and I'll dig through the mess that is my bookmarks to find some citations (Actually, here is one scroll down to page 7). This reflects the different TYPES of trust we value as well as our personal styles around social interactions. It is a big challenge when these styles are diverse. The best approach I've found is to surface the style differences early on and then offer a social space segmented off for the social people and reinforce that a lack of participation in those spaces by others is not a judgement but an expression of preference. Know however, that for some people sociability is a integral part of trust and for others a total "turn off."

Apparent contradictions about peoples style preferences show up all the time. The classic example is the scientist who says "I have no time for this nicey-nicey chit chat" and then two sentences later says his/her best team thinking is in the pub over a beer in a wide open conversation that includes many non work topics.

I think this latter issue brings out we are not only talking about style, but organizational culture. Professional culture. National culture. These inform us to some degree of what we believe is "proper."

Finally, time is the practical component. If you have to ax something, what will you ax... the building sociability or getting the task done? If you are a virtual team with a deadline, the former. If you are building a long term learning community of practice, maybe task is not tantamount.

It all depends! ;-)