Cross-functional teams are a critical driver of innovation and organizational success at the global level. However, when people representing different functional backgrounds work together, there are often divergent interests and points of view (Pinto, Pinto and Prescott, 1993), resulting in complexity. In complex structures, trust has proven to be a determining factor in the ability of independent actors to work together effectively (Pennings and Woiceshy, 1997; Seabright, Leventhal and Fichman, 1992; as cited in McAllister, 1995).
In this article, I examine findings from a review of literature related to cross-functional teams and trust. I will also propose solutions that leaders and Learning and Organizational Change (LOC) practitioners may consider in order to increase trust within cross-functional teams.
Given that LOC practitioners are increasingly involved in cross-functional teams, it may be especially important to know what role trust has to play in optimizing performance. A LOC practitioner may find oneself as either part of a cross-functional team or in a role supporting a cross-functional team. A LOC practitioner may also be coaching a leader who has progressed in their career within a distinct functional area but is now leading a cross-functional team (e.g., a CEO whose functional background is in sales). Understanding the impact of trust on the performance of cross-functional teams is a differentiating tool for LOC practitioners.
Problem Analysis: How does the level of trust among team members contribute to the performance of cross-functional teams?
The two variables explored in this article are cross-functional teams and trust. In the following section, I explore these variables to gain insight into how the level of trust among team members contributes to the performance of a cross-functional team.
Cross-Functional Teams: Definition and factors impacting effectiveness
Cross-functional teams pull team members from different areas of an organization to perform a function that the regular organization is not equipped to perform (Cohen and Bailey, 1997). Types of cross-functional teams referenced throughout the literature include new product development teams, cross-functional management teams, strategic alliances, and social partnerships. The most common outcome-based reason for adopting cross-functional teams is speed (Figure 1).
Effect of functional diversity on cross-functional teams
Cross-functional teams have high absorptive capacity, due to differing expertise among team members that allows them to access and understand a wide array of new information and knowledge (Lovelace et al, 2001).
However, the more heterogeneous the functional backgrounds of the individual team members, the greater the potential for conflict in understanding. This diversity can be especially negative in times of significant change or crisis because there may be problems generating consensus in a timely manner (Lovelace et al, 2001).
Antecedents impacting performance of cross-functional teams
Throughout the literature, various antecedents are presented as critical factors to the success of cross-functional teams. Two common themes were identified as crucial to the performance outcomes of cross-functional teams. They include:
- Team alignment to organizational superordinate goals (Pinto, Pinto and Prescott, 1993; McDonough, 2000); and
- Establishment of project team rules and responsibilities to create mechanisms for coordination and integration across functional boundaries (McDonough, 2000; Pinto, Pinto and Prescott, 1993).
Trust in Teams: Definition and Effects on Team Performance
For the purposes of this article, trust in the organizational setting is defined as confidence that one party, the trustor, has in the conduct of another party, the trustee (Mayer et al, 1995). Trust leads to higher performance in teams (Thompson, 2018; Mayer et al, 1995; Rousseau et al, 1998), enabling team members to take risks and alleviating fear that they will be taken advantage of (McAllister, 1995).
Effects of low trust
When trust within a team is low, team members tend to monitor and duplicate work (Wilson et al, 2006). A lack of trust may have an adverse effect on team member satisfaction (Golembiewski and McConie, 1997, as cited in Wilson et al, 2006) and may also hinder team members’ propensity to openly share information about problems (Zucker, Darby, Brewery and Peng, 1996, as cited in Wilson et al, 2006), which interferes with group effectiveness.
Solutions and Best Practices: Establishing trust within a cross-functional team
Based on the review of literature related to cross-functional teams and trust in an organizational setting, I offer three solutions for leaders and LOC practitioners when working with cross-functional teams.
- Establish early rapport. Gathering the team early in a face-to-face fashion will build trust faster due to the ease of sharing social information in a face-to-face setting (Wilson et al, 2006).
- Evaluate antecedents to adjust to higher trust scenarios. Focus on aligning superordinate goals and establishing the right balance of rules and procedures. The rigor of rules and procedures should be adjusted to the current level of trust. When trust is high, fewer structured rules and procedures may be necessary. When trust is low, higher structured rules and procedures will enable trust (Pinto, Pinto and Prescott, 1993).
- Create a forum where team members may safely express doubts. Creating a forum where team members feel psychologically safe (Edmondson, 1999), enabling them to take risks to unearth concerns, obstacles, problems and doubts may increase trust within a cross-functional team.
Based on a literature review of cross-functional teams and trust in an organizational setting, I find that trust is a critical component to the performance of cross-functional teams. Strategies are needed to enhance trust within cross-functional teams so that team performance, innovation, and organizational success can be optimized.
- Cohen, S. G., and Bailey, D. E. (1997). What makes teams work: Group effectiveness research from the shop floor to the executive suite. Journal of Management, 23(3), 239–290.
- Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383
- Lovelace, K., Shapiro, D. L., and Weingart, L. R. (2001). Maximizing cross-functional new product teams’ innovativeness and constraint adherence: A conflict communications perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 44(4), 779–793.
- Mayer, R., Davis, J., and Schoorman, F. (1995). An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734.
- McAllister, D. (1995). Affect-Based and Cognition-Based Trust as Foundations for Interpersonal Cooperation in Organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 38(1), 24–59.
- McDonough, E. F. (2000). Investigation of factors contributing to the success of cross-functional teams. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 17(3), 221–235.
- Pinto, M., Pinto, J., and Prescott, J. (1993). Antecedents and Consequences of Project Team Cross-Functional Cooperation. Management Science, 39(10), 1281–1297.
- Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., and Camerer, C. (1998). Not so different after all: A cross-discipline view of trust. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 393–404.
- Thompson, Leigh. Making the Team: A Guide for Managers (2018). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.
- Wilson, J. M., Straus, S. G., and McEvily, B. (2006). All in due time: The development of trust in computer-mediated and face-to-face teams. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 99(1), 16–33.