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The development of trust in virtual leader–follower relationships

Steven M. Norman (Department of Business, Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, Colorado, USA)
James Avey (Department of Business, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington, USA)
Milan Larson (Department of Business, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado, USA)
Larry Hughes (Northcentral University, San Diego, California, USA)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Publication date: 19 July 2019

Abstract

Purpose

Responding to calls to examine trust beyond the scope of the objectivist paradigm, the purpose of this paper is to qualitatively examine the trust relationship between leaders and followers in virtual work settings. Based on results, trust was operationalized based on extant theory (e.g. ability, honesty, integrity, benevolence; Mayer et al., 1995). Given the high degree of technology mediated communication prevalent in the workplace today, it was interesting that the authors also found evidence for followers’ perceptions of a leader’s level of media savvy (adeptness at using appropriate media dependent on the message being sent) as a salient phenomenon that appears to influence followers’ trust of their leaders in a virtual work environment. Other variables that influenced leader–follower trust relationships also emerged, including leader and follower personal characteristics, depth of relationship and time. These variables and their relationships are discussed in consideration of the existing trust literature with specific consideration of the context of virtual interactions. Implications and future directions are also discussed.

Design/methodology/approach

The paper opted for an exploratory study using the open-ended approach of grounded theory, utilizing open-ended survey data from 137 working professionals (after data cleaning and eliminating incomplete responses). This study was an inductive, theory-building effort focused on analyzing participants’ views of their own experiences in interacting with their leaders in a virtual work environment. The authors utilize methods of grounded theory research that guide a researcher to recognize the theory that emerges from the data (Locke, 2002; Strauss and Corbin, 1998), which included microanalysis and open coding, followed by axial and select coding.

Findings

The authors found evidence for followers’ perceptions of a leader’s level of media savvy as a salient phenomenon that appears to influence followers’ trust of their leaders in a virtual work environment. Other variables that influenced leader–follower trust relationships also emerged, including leader and follower personal characteristics, depth of relationship and time.

Research limitations/implications

With any qualitative study, there are limitations to the generalizability of the sample to other populations. Although the authors developed considerable evidence to support the proposed relationships offered here, the authors are working with what is still a new and unexplored context: the virtual world. Perhaps the leader’s media communication skills moderate or otherwise impact the relationships found here and as supported by Mayer et al. (1995) and Mayer and Gavin (2005). Therefore, it would be of interest to examine possible differences in trust of the leaders by manipulating the media through which leaders communicate with their followers.

Practical implications

Given the findings, the authors believe the leader can communicate positively on follower development in a virtual setting, subsequently enhancing follower trust levels. The implications are also apparent on a much smaller scale: the relationships between leaders and followers. One common theme was that leaders should not completely eliminate face-to-face interaction in order to first develop and then maintain trust in a virtual work environment. This indicates the necessity for managers to not only develop a technical competence with computer technologies, but also the ability to render an appropriateness judgment in terms of what messages are most appropriate for what medium.

Social implications

Given the popularity of virtual settings, much interpersonal communication is now electronically mediated. However, even with the expansion of the virtual context, the authors still know little about how various forms of technology mediated communication by affect leader–follower relationships. Therefore, it is of interest to researchers and practitioners to examine the impact of virtual settings on interactions and relationships, specifically between the leader and follower.

Originality/value

This paper fulfills an identified need to study leadership in varied contexts, in this case the virtual workplace. Relatively few research papers have examined this context, thus creating originality and value.

Keywords

Citation

Norman, S.M., Avey, J., Larson, M. and Hughes, L. (2019), "The development of trust in virtual leader–follower relationships", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 279-295. https://doi.org/10.1108/QROM-12-2018-1701

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited