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Dr. Ann-Marie Nienaber


German Research Foundation 


c £10,000


Philipp Romeike, Research Training Group: "Trust and Communication in a Digitized World", University of Muenster
Prof Gerhard Schewe, University of Muenster

Portrait of Dr Ann-Marie Nienaber stood against a metal and glass banister


Employees frequently engage in social comparison processes and have a tendency to consider their own performance as superior compared to that of their peers. We expect this to be particularly salient in virtual teams where employees receive few cues upon which the comparison with their team members can be based. With reliance on social comparison and social exchange theory, we propose that such ‘perceived overperformance’ has negative effects on job satisfaction that are mediated by team trust in team. We confirm our hypotheses on a sample of 753 field-service employees (753 employees in 57 virtual teams) using a multi-level approach. Practical implications for the management of virtual employees as well as and research implications in the fields of social exchange and social comparison theory are discussed.


Based on prior scholarly work, it can be assumed that virtuality induces two dynamics into social comparison processes: First, compared to traditional face-to-face settings, virtual teams are characterized by higher levels of uncertainty. The increased uncertainty brings virtual team members to engage in social comparison processes more frequently. Second, compared to traditional face-to-face settings, virtual team members receive less cues and have less information on which the social comparison process can be based. Oftentimes, no direct exchange between the team members occurs and the team members cannot observe each other directly at work. Instead they only receive information on the overall team performance from the team leader. Therefore, it can be assumed that virtual team members oftentimes engage in social comparison processes to reduce the level of uncertainty they face but frequently come to biased conclusions because of the limited information available. Why is that important? In the remaining part of the paper we will argue that virtual team members who engage in social comparison processes and conclude – rightly or not – that their own performance is superior compared to that of their remaining team will express less trust towards their team members and will be less satisfied with their job. We base this argumentation on social exchange theory and test our assumptions by analysing data from a large scale sample of virtual teams (57 teams in one organisation, comprising 726 employees) using structural equation modelling and hierarchical regressions. That way, we address three gaps in the literature: First, we provide evidence on the effect of social comparison processes on employee attitudes and behaviours, second, we provide evidence on the role of social comparison processes within virtual teams and third, we provide evidence in support of the specific link between trust towards the team and global job satisfaction.

Regarding the impact of this study, we can state so far that we were asked to conduct several focus groups in that company to discuss the results and to think about changes that might improve the trust between the team members as well as enhance the level of job satisfaction. Furthermore, we were asked to present our results in front of the board of directors to discuss potential ways to overcome the identified problems. Results of this work have been already presented at several conferences (researchers as well as practitioners) such as British Academy of Management, European Group of Organizational Management (EGOS) and the First International Network of Trust (FINT). 

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