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I just received an email that a paper I’ve been coauthoring has been accepted at Information Systems Research. “Trust is in the Eye of the Beholder: A Vignette Study of Post-Event Behavioral Controls on Individual Trust in Virtual Teams” reports the results of a study that began during my introductory seminar for the PhD program at Indiana University in 2004.   It’s wonderful to finally see the nearing culmination of years of work. I’m grateful for dedicated coauthors who have labored so diligently to bring this work to light.

In brief layman’s terms, the message of the paper is as follows: Virtual teams is the term we use for describing teams whose members interact primarily using technologies instead of in face-to-face settings.  With such teams, a managerial concern has been that it is difficult to control such groups, and that when controls are put in place, it tends to undermine trust among the team members. In our study, we conducted an experiment testing whether behavioral controls (requiring group members to report on the performance of their team members) and the presence of reneging behaviors (people failing to following through with their commitments) affect trust in these virtual teams. What we found was that these controls actually lead group members to notice both positive and negative behaviors and enhance what is called the “selective perception bias.” Basically it helps people find what they were predisposed to look for. If people tend to be distrustful, behavioral controls in virtual teams increased that tendency. If they tend to be trusting of others, behavioral controls increased that tendency as well.

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After I finished teaching class one day, I walked in late to a presentation. Almost immediately, I could tell things weren’t going well for the speaker. There was an uneasy tension in the room. The facial expressions of the attendees were masked or furrowed, and the questioning was not very energetic. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the presentation, I am amazed at how readily apparent the group feeling was to me.

Thinking about this experience has lead me to question whether I would have had the same experience had the interaction occurred in a virtual environment. Recent psychological research (Oberman and Ramachandran 2007) indicates that our brains are especially effective at simulating the observed behaviors and intentions of others within ourselves. When we see an acrobat walking a tight-rope we naturally tense as if we were on the line ourselves. In my situation, I was able to enter the room and see and hear my colleagues. My mind simulated their expressions, body language, and words and mapped the feelings and intentions I would have had had I made those same actions. To some small degree, I became one with my colleagues and was able to experience empathy for them.

When these empathetic simulations are occurring reciprocally among group members, I believe this could be described as a group-level instantiation of the organizational construct of the collective mind (Weick and Roberts 1993). Unlike its organizational counterpart, the group collective mind hinges on empathy rather than on interrelated specialization. Both require synchronized interaction. But the development of a group collective mind allows the group members to achieve this synchronization through psychological and behavioral alignment (Pickering and Garrod 2004), whereas the organizational collective mind facilitates synchronization through identified expertise within the organization and through coordination among specialists (Weick and Sutcliffe 2001).

With regards to the development of the group collective mind, I’m wondering how well we could mentally simulate the actions of others in a computer-mediated context. Perhaps a better question would be under what conditions do different media enable the development of a collective mind (i.e., empathetic alignment)  among group members? I this regard, I don’t think text is consistently inferior to speech. Rather, I think it’s the forms of communication that facilitate or inhibit the development of a collective mind. A well constructed narrative of a tragic event can bring me to tears whether it’s written in print or displayed on a movie screen. But does this process of developing the collective mind work differently when groups use different tools to communicate electronically?

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