Making the Matrix WORK – Trust

Building, maintaining and repairing trust – a precondition for decentralized control.

What we know about trust ? It is a big thing

“Trust is like the air we breathe. When it is present, nobody really notices. But when it is absent, everybody notices”

Trust reduces transaction costs – teams and organizations with high levels of trust spend less time and money on checking and protecting themselves. People are more willing to share information and to learn. Trust increases willingness and confidence to take risks, to deal with ambiguity, and to be creative.

Trust and control are deeply interrelated – the less we trust people, the more we tend to control them. The higher the level of control, the lower the level of trust that people feel. As a result, trust is essential to true delegation, empowerment, and freedom and enables the decentralized decision making that is essential in a matrix.

Trust is about capability and character – people pay attention to both:

  • Capability is about whether you are reliable. Do you have the skills and do you deliver what you say you will ?
  • Character is about whether your behavior is predictable, consistent, open, and fair? Do you have integrity and share the organization’s values, and do you care about other’s wellbeing?

Trust operates at different levels

Each of us has different levels of trust in ourselves, in others, in groups, in organizations, and even in society as a whole. As an individual, our level of trust will be affected by our character and by our experiences at all of these levels: part of the world we live in, the kind of organization we work in, our colleagues and our personal experiences.
Most trust issues that managers can influence directly are caused by problems between individuals.

Give trust first

If we assume distrust to begin with, we will often start a negative spiral and create what we initially feared. It is good practice to extend trust first. Occasionally we will be disappointed, so trust does imply a certain amount of risk taking.

Trust assumes vulnerability

If you ask people if they trust their colleagues, they often ask “to do what?”
Trust is both more important and more difficult to give when you feel vulnerable or at risk. “Thin trust” – the general assumption that people will cooperate – can be built more quickly than “thick trust” – the knowledge that I can rely on you when things are really difficult. In many business situations, thin rust is enough.

The challenges of building trust in a matrix

In a matrix we have additional challenges because we need to build trust across five key barriers: distance, cultures, time zones, technology, and organizational complexity.


Distance means that we have limited face-to-face time. In single-site operations, trust tends to be a free by-product of proximity. People get to know each other from personal relationships over coffee and lunch.

Because we have a limited chance to evaluate character and personality, when we evaluate trustworthiness in remote colleagues we focus more on capability and the willingness to respond. When we meet, we must make sure that we give people the chance to build trust and get to know one another, not simply listen to PowerPoint presentations.


Cultural differences can have a major impact on trust. People tend to form relationships faster with people who are similar to them.
Is that very direct email from your German colleague rude, or is it merely an example of the direct professional communication that is normal in Germany ?
Is that very indirect email from your English colleague polite or deliberately evasive ?

Time zones

Time zones lead to delays and limit communication opportunities.
When you have an urgent problem and your colleague does not reply, is that because they are not cooperating, or because they are asleep ?


Communicating through technology can lead to misunderstandings when we don’t grasp the content or tone of messages.

Organizational complexity

Organizations today are much more dynamic and flexible. We work with colleagues across functional barriers, with multiple reporting lines, in virtual teams, alliances, and complex relationships that cannot be precisely regulated through contracts and rules.

The three phases of trust in matrix and virtual teams

  1. Building trust
  2. Maintaining trust as teams mature
  3. Recovering from a breach of trust

Virtual teams are not good at reestablishing relationship norms once they are set, so we need to get this right at the beginning. When bringing a new member into a team or organization, the manager has a critical role in establishing the initial level of trust.
In virtual teams, building trust, can take the form of an introductory email and photograph from the manager, telling people about the new person’s history and achievements.

In complex, matrix, virtual and global organizations there are many factors that can subtly undermine trust, and when trust is undermined managers tend to increase control. Kevan Hall talks about how to build trust and find the right balance of trust and control for your team or organization.

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