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Too Much Technology Erodes Trust

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 10, 2011
Updated: Friday, February 11, 2011

Out of sight out of mind? Not always. But some researchers think we over-rely on emails and video conferencing at our peril.

Gregory Northcraft, a business leadership expert at the University of Illinois, says technology makes us more efficient and less effective. "Something is being gained, but something is being lost," he explained in a story at the university's web site. "The something that is being gained is time and the something being lost is the quality of relationships. And quality of relationship matters."

Trust builds best when team members work face-to-face, rather than electronically, he says. Northcraft and colleagues studied 200 undergraduate students working in different ways on hypothetical team work exercises. The group working face to face developed the most trust and cooperation, the group working by e-mail had the least, and those who were videoconferencing landed somewhere in between.

Lack of trust is trouble. Misinterpretation is a common email hazard, and intentional deception may even worse. Liuba Belkin (pdf), an assistant professor of management at Lehigh University, studied two groups of full time MBA students playing a money game. A ScienceDaily story explains they were to divide a specific amount of money between themselves and a fictional third party who did not know how much money was in the pot. Neither group played face to face, but one group used email and the other used pen and paper. The email group lied about the amount of money 92% of the time, and had no remorse about it. The pen and paper group lied less than 64% of the time. In a related study, Belkin found that the better the emailers knew each other, the less deceptive their lies were.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School found that the physical proximity of researchers influences the impact of their work. They found that papers with four or fewer authors located in the same building were cited 45 percent more often than papers by authors in different buildings. They found citations decreased as distances between the first and last authors increased. Isaac Kohane, a lead investigator and professor of pediatrics, says, "If you want people to collaborate, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures and facilities that support frequent physical interactions."

Northcraft doesn't suggest avoiding modern technology. He says businesses need to balance electronic communications with face-to-face meetings that encourage strong ties.

"Physical contact has a half life," Northcraft says. "When people meet face to face they can leverage that over a pretty lean communication medium for a while...but after a while they need to get back together face-to-face to recharge the trust, the engagement and the loyalty in the relationship. "

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