The impact of individual expectations and expectation conflicts
on virtual teams
Petra Bosch-Sijtsema, PhD.
University of Groningen
Faculty of Management and Organization
P.O.Box 800, 9700 AV Groningen
Telephone: +31-50-363 7353/ Fax: + 31-50-363 7110
email@example.com / Petra.Bosch@petra.bosch.com
Bosch-Sijtsema, Petra M. (2007) “The impact of individual expectations and expectation
conflicts on virtual teams,” Group & Organization Management, 32: 358-388. DOI:
Virtual teams (VT) are characterized by geographical dispersion, organizational and cultural
heterogeneity and its members have little history and lateral and weak relationships (Wong &
Burton, 2000). Literature denotes the importance of expectations in virtual settings, but
individual expectations of virtual team members are hardly investigated. In this article I discuss
the presence of different kinds of expectations and the impact of mismatches of individual
expectations within VT. Psychological contract literature states that expectation mismatches
result in negative outcomes, while learning literature posits that mismatches enhance learning.
These concepts addressing mismatches of expectations are discussed as a theoretical paradox.
Keywords: virtual teams, expectation conflicts, learning, psychological contract, expectation
Due to changes in the environment of organizations and the use of information technology (IT)
organizations start to benefit more from working independently of place and time. Recently
more attention is paid to distributed settings and the virtual team (VT) is an example that is often
discussed. A VT is defined as a team in which groups of geographically dispersed people with a
common goal carry out interdependent tasks using mostly technology for communication (Bell
& Kozlowski, 2002; Cramton, 2001; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998; Lipnack & Stamps, 1997;
Majchrzak et al., 2000; Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000; Mohrman, 1999; Mowshowitz, 1997).
Several studies mention the difficulties of communicating over distance and its consequences for
trust building and knowledge transfer (Galegher et al., 1990; Hinds & Kiesler, 1995; Håkansson,
1992; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998; Nonaka, 1994). Others discuss the importance of face-to-face
communication (Ahuja & Carley, 1999; Wiesenfeld et al., 1999) and expectations (Bell &
Koskowski, 2002) for trust building, role clarification and learning in VT. In this study I explore
the impact of individual expectations in VT. This article focuses on individual expectations, more
specifically what kind of expectations are present in VT and the impact of expectation matches
and mismatches on learning and indirectly performance (i.e., the final outcome) in virtual settings.
Armstrong and Cole (2002) observed that expectations could act as significant sources of
misunderstanding and conflict between distant sites. These distant sites are discussed in the form
of VT in this research.
The focus on expectations in organizations is informed by psychological literature (Bruner, 1983;
Vroom, 1964) and learning literature (Inkpen & Crossan, 1995; Weick, 1995). In psychological
literature the construct of expectancy refers to the perceived probability that certain behavior will
lead to specific outcomes (e.g., Vroom, 1964). An important factor in this literature is the degree
of discrepancy between expected behavior and the actual behavior. In organization theory
individual (employee) beliefs are related to the job and the organization and emanate from a wide
variety of sources including past experience, social norms, observations by friends and so forth,
i.e., psychological contract theory (Robinson, 1996). In this article expectations are defined as
general beliefs held by individuals about what they will find in their job and the organization
(Robinson, 1996). When comparing learning literature with psychological contract literature,
mismatches in individual expectations can be likened to what Poole and van de Ven (1998) refer
to as paradoxes in theory. On the one hand psychological contract theory states that mismatches
in expectations will result in negative outcomes, while on the other hand learning theory (Inkpen
& Crossan, 1995; Weick, 1995) posits that mismatches in expectations will result in enhanced
learning. This theoretical paradox is discussed further in this article.
A VT consists of a group of geographically dispersed members who carry out independent
tasks towards a common goal (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002; Cramton, 2001; Majchrzak et al., 2000).
Three important characteristics of VTs are (Wong & Burton, 2000): (a) VT context, which
implies the physical dispersion of members working on a novel task and team members having a
low history of working together (Jarvepaa & Leidner, 1998; Wong & Burton, 2000). (b) VT
composition in which virtual team members are characterized by the heterogeneity of different
organizational and cultural backgrounds. (c) VT structure in which the patterns of relationship
between team members are described. The relationships between virtual members are likely to be
lateral but weak due to a lack of prior relationship and cultural and organizational barriers (Wong
& Burton, 2000). A VT that includes all these characteristics is defined as a fully VT and its
characteristics have negative consequences for coordination volume and the days to complete
work (Wong and Burton, 2000).
Studies on VT focus on task complexity (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002); trust building (Jarvenpaa
& Leidner, 1998); communication structures (Ahuja & Carley, 1999), and computer-mediated
communication (CMC) (Majchrzak et al., 2000). Others discuss distributed settings in which
problems of retaining contextual information of team members and differences in the salience of
information are found (Crampton, 2001) and conflicts are presented (Hinds & Bailey, 2003).
Although expectations are mentioned as important in virtual settings (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002),
they are only noted as one important factor and no empirical research has been performed on
individual expectations of VT members or the paradoxical consequences of expectations on
learning. Most literature discussing expectations focuses on shared expectations (Ring & van de
Ven, 1994; Robinson, 1996; Rousseau, 2001), but shared expectations are difficult to accomplish
within VTs due to their characteristics. In a virtual setting, little face-to-face contact, less routines,
norms and stereotypes are developed, which are the basis for shared expectations (cf. Stephan,
In this article I address the kinds of expectations that are present in VT (based on case study
research) and the impact of expectation mismatches in VTs. The paper is organized as follows.
In the following section I discuss expectations related to virtual settings. In order to gain an
understanding of the literature related to this field, psychological contract, conflict and learning
theory are discussed. In the third section I present the methods used for collecting and analyzing
the data. The fourth section describes the individual case studies and they are compared with
each other in section five and six. In the discussion section the empirical results are related to
expectation and learning literature and finally conclusions and contributions are presented.
EXPECTATIONS IN VIRTUAL SETTINGS
Several authors mention expectations in the context of virtual settings (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002;
Hedberg et al., 1997; Wong & Burton, 2000). As team members hold multiple roles within and
across different VT, members are more likely to experience role ambiguity and role conflict and
the management functions become more difficult (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002). The clarification of
role expectations is mentioned in VT literature in order to overcome coordination and
management difficulties in dispersed teams (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002; Wong & Burton, 2000).
Individual expectations are not often discussed for virtual settings, but the role of expectations in
VT can be developed by using insights from psychological contract, conflict and learning
literature. Below these fields are presented and related to virtual settings.
Psychological contract. Psychological contracts comprise expectations of an exchange agreement
between an individual and the employing firm and its agents (Levinson et al., 1962; Rousseau,
2001). The psychological contract is a series of mutual expectations of which the parties to a
(working) relationship may not themselves be even dimly aware but which nonetheless govern
their relationship to each other (Levinson et al., 1962: 20). A major feature is the belief of
individuals that the agreement is mutual. Expectations that emanate from perceived implicit or
explicit promises by the employer are part of the psychological contract (Robinson, 1996).
Rouessau (2001) discusses the concepts and building blocks for the formation of psychological
contracts in the form of schemas. A schema is a mental model of conceptually related elements
and can be shaped by prior beliefs, training and the conditions at one’s time of hire.
Expectations can be part of the schema of individuals. Expectations are shaped by past
experience (many of which may predate the relational contract), social norms, observations by
friends and professional specialization (Ring & van de Ven, 1994; Robinson, 1996). Several
authors mention the importance of matching expectations between the members involved in the
contract for job satisfaction, productivity and reduced turnover (Kotter, 1973; Levinson et al.
1962). The breach of a psychological contract is a subjective experience based on the individual’s
perception of the mismatches within a particular context (Robinson, 1996). Breaches in the
contract are related to mismatches in expectations (Kotter, 1973) and these mismatches can
cause frustration, denial, selective retention, stress (Stephan, 1985; Kotter, 1973) and a decrease
in trust (Robinson, 1996). The concepts and building blocks for the formation of psychological
contracts (Rousseau, 2001) and consequences of contract breach (Robinson, 1996) are of interest
for VT as well. Even though VT members can work in several dispersed teams, they also join
reciprocal exchange agreements with other parties (e.g., employer).
Conflicts. Conflict theory is discussed extensively and sometimes related to virtual settings. In this
section the focus is only on role conflicts and the relationship between expectations and conflicts
in VT. Co-located organizations rely upon relatively explicit and concrete factors to serve as the
basis for relationships between employees and the organization (Wiesenfeld et al., 1999). In co-
located organizations, dress codes, shared language, shared organizational routines, and
organizational identifiers such as organization charts and office buildings pull members together.
The relationships between virtual employees and their organization may however be less tangible
and more social and psychological in nature (cf. Wiesenfeld et al., 1999) due to geographical
dispersion and computer-mediated communication (CMC). In co-located organizations, people
are hired not only because of their competence, but also based on their suitability to certain roles,
and whether they fit within the organization and its culture (cf. Katz & Kahn, 1978). Most
working relationships between organizational members develop by virtue of their roles. People
begin an institutionalized role relationship often before they develop a personal relationship
(Ring & Van de Ven, 1994). Multiple roles are no exclusion in VT and they can resolve in role
ambiguity and role conflict. Team members are uncertain of their role in the team, and other
team members’ expectations of an individual are often inappropriate (Bell & Koslowski, 2002).
Conflicts between multiple role expectations and individuals’ ability to satisfy these expectations
cause negative consequences for individual’s behavior (Bell & Koslowski, 2002). Conflicts in
distributed teams are unidentified and unaddressed longer than conflicts in co-located teams
(Armstrong & Cole, 2002). Conflict literature addressing distributed teams touches upon
expectation mismatches between team members (Armstrong & Cole, 2002; Hinds & Bailey,
2003; Mortensen & Hinds, 2001), but hardly explores the presence and consequences of
expectation mismatches. In a virtual setting, members are not only geographically dispersed but
the team members work different lengths of time within the team (DeSanctis et al., 1999), which
makes it difficult to develop a team culture (with shared beliefs). Newcomers in a VT do not
have to fulfill the requirements to match the company culture.
When relating expectations to virtuality, it becomes more difficult to detect the individual
expectations of VT members. Expectations are rather personal and implicit (Ring & Van de Ven,
1994). When people meet each other regularly, it becomes easier to detect mismatches (conflicts)
in expectations (based on team members’ performance, attitude or behavior). Hinds and Bailey
(2003: 618) argue that social and psychological effects of distance are likely to lead to more
conflict (about the task and process) due to challenges resulting from different perspectives,
inconsistent norms, incongruent temporal rhythms, reduced familiarity and demographic
heterogeneity. The authors discuss three types of conflict occurring in distributed settings (based
on work of Jehn, 1995; Jehn & Mannix, 2001): task conflict (related to work content); affective
conflict (related to relational or emotional team status) and process conflict (related to the team’s
approach to task, methods and processes). Moderate levels of task conflict can be beneficial to
group performance on certain complex types of tasks, e.g., research (Jehn, 1995). Process
conflict is associated with a lower level of group morale as well as with decreased productivity
(Jehn & Mannix, 2001). These types of conflict can be related to expectation mismatches, in
which these types of mismatches between the expectation and the actual situation occur.
Learning. In the organizational learning literature, mismatches in expectations are posited as
positive for learning (Inkpen & Crossan, 1995; Weick, 1995). An organization learns in two ways
(a) by the learning of its members, or (b) by hiring new members who have knowledge the
organization did not previously have (Simon, 1991). Through learning (individual and
organizational learning) expectations can be made more explicit. Members become aware of each
other’s expectations (which are often implicitly present), and through learning, members are
allowed to revisit and revise their expectations (Doz, 1996). Furthermore, individual beliefs guide
the process through the identification of expectation gaps and conflicts, and are a product of the
learning process as gaps and conflicts are resolved (Inkpen & Crossan, 1995). In learning
literature arguing about expectations, in order to make sense of information and in the end to
enhance learning, is discussed. Through arguing about expectations, people’s expectations
become better articulated, stronger and potentially more capable in being a potent force in their
own validation (literature also mentions the possibilities of cognitive dissonance in this case)
(Weick, 1995). In learning literature the topics of expectations and expectation mismatches are
touched upon, but are not related to virtual settings or empirically studied in more detail.
This study is explorative in nature. The data from this article is part of a larger data collection
which includes besides expectations, the implications of dispersion and technology mediation on
communication and learning in VT. A case study approach was applied in which two VT were
compared. The data was collected with help of semi-structured interviews (34 in total) and
participation in 11 meetings (both formal and informal), 5 team-building sessions and 7 social
events (diners and trips). The data collection focused on expectations of VT members (besides
other aspects like knowledge transfer, coordination, performance, communication and learning
see Bosch-Sijtsema, 2003). The two case studies have many similarities, but also a different
setting (see table 1). The reason for studying these two cases was to investigate if expectations
had an impact in different virtual settings. The case studies were selected based on their
geographical dispersion (no single location), task, history, and heterogeneity of organizational
and cultural background. The case studies are presented in table 1.
Insert table 1 about here
Both VTs worked within the utility domain and were initiated and managed by the same research
company in Sweden. The VTs were investigated for the duration time of the teams, respectively
three and one year(s). According to the typology of Bell and Koslowski (2002), both teams’ task
interdependencies were sequential; they were temporally distributed over time, crossed cultural
and organizational boundaries, had a discrete lifecycle (three and one year) and numerous
members had multiple roles in the team. The VTs can be classified as hybrid teams (implying
both face-to-face contact and IT communication) (according to the classification of Griffith et
An overt participant observer role (Adler & Adler, 1994) as a member of the VTs was applied in
both cases. My role in the VTs was to study the development of the team, and communication
and interaction between the VT members. In order to validate the data obtained from participant
observation, respondent validation and triangulation of the data have been performed (Silverman,
1993). I shared ideas and data with members of both teams for validation and this generated
more ideas and sharpened interpretations and additional insights. Within both cases expectation
matches and mismatches were evaluated by the VT leader (in case UTILITY after two years and
in case SERVICE after one year), this process was observed by the researcher. Table 2 presents a
summary of the data collection.
Insert table 2 about here
The UTILITY case was followed from its rise to its end (early 1996 to late 1998), and the
SERVICE case was a one-year project (1998-1999), which was followed till its end. Furthermore,
I had access to the intranet of case UTILITY in which technical documentation, organizational
and procedural information was stored, and I was part of the e-mail circulation group of both
case studies. Semi-structured interviews were held in the beginning phase and ending phase of
case UTILITY in order to compare initial expectations and matches/mismatches (and learning).
In case SERVICE the team held a start-up meeting, in which expectations were discussed and an
evaluation meeting after one year to discuss matches/mismatches (both meetings were observed).
Interviews in case SERVICE were held after the last meeting. All interviews took place at the
location (if possible) of the VT member or when members met during face-to-face meetings.
Questions were asked about communication, information distribution, integration, expectations,
the management of the team, performance and knowledge transfer. Almost all interviews were
taped and transcribed verbatim. Interviews lasted from 1 hour to 2,5 hours and they were held in
different languages: English, Dutch and Swedish (depending on the mother tongue of the
interviewee). In the comparison of the data all material was translated to English. I also spent
time talking informally to team members during social events like diners and conference trips.
The analysis of the data is based on qualitative analysis methods (Eisenhardt, 1989) and based
upon the theoretical reference framework on expectations. The qualitative data were coded and
labeled into categories (Locke, 2001). For the codification several stages were applied iteratively
throughout the research and were influenced by the theoretical framework presented above. All
data were systematically put through stages of naming data, comparing data incidents and
memoing (memos during observations) and a list of initial labels was developed. By comparing
the data incidents the labels were re-named and categorized into a number of groups, i.e.,
coordination, communication, expectations, knowledge development and performance. Within
these categories, subcategories were found as well. This paper only discusses the category of
expectations (and partially knowledge development and performance). For knowledge
development the focus was on explicit and tacit (knowledge that is not expressed in words like
experience, skills and craft) individual and team knowledge development (based on Nonaka,
1994). Performance was measured two-ways: (a) subjective performance perceived by the VT
members and the management and (b) in the form of deliverables (on time or not). The
following section discusses the results found within the case studies.
EXPECTATIONS IN THE CASE STUDIES
Case study UTILTIY
Case UTILITY was a research project of three years, in which research and ideas were produced
to tackle the recently deregulated market of the utility industry. Members of UTILITY were
dispersed over Sweden, the Netherlands, France and Germany and they communicated mainly
through e-mail (there was no single location). Face-to-face meetings were held twice a year,
although sometimes additional meetings were scheduled with only a part of the team. The task
was novel (research) and members had different organizational backgrounds; some came from
universities and others from consultant firms. The members had no to little history of previously
UTILITY was characterized by a loose structure, tasks were not clearly demarcated and the final
goal was rather broad (the outcome consisted of publications and new ideas). Members only met
a few times a year in order to present their status on the research they performed. There was
little work-related communication in between the annual meetings and a file sharing system was
used for administrative matters, but hardly for co-operation. The members of the case
mentioned their explicit expectations in the first interviews. These expectations were labeled by
the researcher into specific areas: (a) Content or task expectations (some members had specific
expectations about how to solve their research problem; in the interviews very clear descriptions
were presented about the content of the work). (b) Role expectations (roles were not clearly
defined). Examples mentioned are: “I view that I have an integrator role between the VT
members”, or “I felt like the little technician in the closet, I had no researcher role. However, I
do feel that there was a good cooperation between researchers and technicians”. (c) Process
expectations about the development and coordination of the team, e.g. “I would like to see a
more open organization”. Another example is the following: “My expectations were pretty good
because of a long experience in these kinds of projects. My expectations were not too high. You
have a relatively large amount of freedom, but often it is chaotic and fragmented in such projects.
One knows from the beginning that when there are 9 subprojects, only 1/3 will be satisfactory
and 1/3 will not succeed. This is also what happened in UTILITY and corresponds to my
expectations”. (d) Information distribution expectations (expectations about the intranet were
diverse). An interviewee mentioned “I would like to change the notion of information, now it is
top-down information in which one says to others what to read, however, one should put
information to one’s disposal so that everyone has to actively search for it. It is everybody’s own
responsibility to receive the relevant information necessary for their work”. (e) Stakeholders
expectations, for example “it is unclear what the industrial partners want out of the project. We
do not know what to expect, where it could lead to and what it could mean for the industrial
partners”. (f) Expectations of the management about the team. The delivery of results and the
expected performance of the VT were presented in a drawing made by the management. These
above mentioned expectation fields differed per team member and since little time was devoted
in the team on creating shared expectations mismatches arose.
Expectation mismatches of case UTILITY
Initial expectations (statements made in early interviews or at the first meetings) of VT members
were discussed in the ending phase of the project in order to see if the members perceived a
match or mismatch. Mismatches in expectations were found when discrepancies between initial
expectations and the actual behavior occurred. In UTILITY, the roles of VT members, the
development of the project and the role of industrial partners were unclear to most members
and a large number of expectation conflicts were stated on these topics in meetings and during
the interviews. Three different types of expectation mismatches were found:
A personal mismatch is an expectation mismatch between the focal person’s internal standards or
values and the defined behavior (label informed by Rizzo, House & Sidney, 1970); for example,
not being able to fulfill the requirements of the task. The personal expectation mismatch was
mainly found in expectations about the task, role, process and sponsor. Most individual
mismatches were found in the process expectations about the development of the team structure
and leadership. Some of these individual mismatches resulted in mismatches between team-
members, but most members dealt with them individually. An example of a personal mismatch is
quoted below: “I expected a clear task description, but the task description was very unclear and
I was jumping from one place to another and even performed other’s tasks. I lost a lot of time to
discover what I was supposed to do”.
An inter-person mismatch is an expectation mismatch between individual’s own expectations and
expectations of other team members, e.g., conflicting requests from others (label informed by
Rizzo et al. 1970). For example, one member perceived his role as an integrator among the team
members while all other members had low expectations on his performance and did not
acknowledge this integrator role. Another example is: “I learned that many thought that I would
interfere more in their work and that I would have steered more, but I believe that this is the role
of the supervisors”.
A Person-organization mismatch implies a discrepancy between one’s own expectations and the
demands of the management of the team (the organization). In UTILITY these mismatches
became rather serious when the management did not receive the result or work they expected
and consequently they did not prolong the working contract of the members in question. In case
UTILITY serious expectation mismatches were found with several members (these members
often had personal expectation mismatches as well). These members left the team (by choice)
before their task were finished. These members were not satisfied with the development of the
VT and the task that should be performed. They experienced expectation mismatches with the
VT, their own task and role and in their contact with other members and the industrial partners.
Some examples mentioned by members are the following: “I require better and stronger
expectations. We should have been more conscious about the fact that there were no explicit
expectations. Management could have communicated some clearer outlines about where we were
heading”. “The organization has been so unclear, this virtual aspect, I have not seen it. It
changed form all the time; it was like a strange amoeba. It did not become at all what I expected,
which made that I was not at all motivated to communicate”.
Due to expectation mismatches, motivational problems and dissatisfaction arose and members
did not perform as expected by the team management. The total performance of UTILITY
became affected. One manager of UTILITY mentioned the following: “The report (deliverable)
has to be completed. I am not completely sure that the supervisors are aware of this and they
might not have understood that this is the absolute deadline. It is a moral question; you cannot
only believe that money comes in. This money is not only for one’s welfare, but also to report
the results”. The members, who left the team because of expectation mismatches, did not
conclude their work or transferred their knowledge to others and this had consequences for the
cooperation and the final result of the work.
Learning in UTILITY
Learning was investigated with help of interviews and observations. The focus was on tacit (i.e.,
skills, insights and routines) and explicit (codified) knowledge development both individually and
within the team. Individual members learned explicit knowledge in technical and managerial
insights. From interview material and statements it becomes apparent that members had learned
within their own field, but that they also broadened their knowledge in other fields. Explicit
knowledge within the team could be found in the jargon that was developed for communication
(with help a method to detect people’s decision style). The jargon was taught during team
building sessions and became a means for communicating with other members. In the team
building sessions certain methods for communication started to arise. Members also mentioned
the importance of discussing expectations within a dispersed group as a learning outcome.
Individual tacit knowledge is difficult to observe, but during the team-building sessions members
were made aware of their decision style methods for communication. Members became more
aware of the often intuitive way they made decisions and members learned how they could
communicate in another way with members from other disciplines. Tacit knowledge within the
team is rather difficult to observe, however, routines of team leaders were developed and these
routines were internalized in future teams (mainly within case study SERVICE).
Case study SERVICE
Case SERVICE was a successor project of case UTILITY and lasted one year. Its task was to
develop applications and prototypes based on the research developed in UTILITY, which can be
labeled as a less novel task compared to case UTILITY. The team had a clear responsibility
structure, no fluctuating workforce, a clear task and role description and fixed timetables for
deliverables of team members. The members were completely dispersed over Sweden and the
Netherlands; they had different organizational and cultural backgrounds and only met during
formal meetings (six in total). In between the team meetings there was very little communication
between the VT members (this communication was mainly through e-mail). Some of the team
members of SERVICE cooperated before in case UTILITY while others were new members in
the team. The management of UTILITY was transferred to case SERVICE. From evaluations of
case UTILITY, the management found that VT members had unrealistic and conflicting
expectations. Therefore SERVICE started their first meeting by identifying expectations in the
start-up phase of the project and these expectations were evaluated once the project had reached
From the interviews it was found that members held expectations in several fields: (a) task
expectations (members had rather clear expectations on their task). Some examples of task
expectations are the following: “I expect to gain practical experience in transforming concepts to
reality; in particular the implementation of IT enabled services within households and assess its
impact”. “My expectations were to develop my thoughts about how to build smart houses. I
hoped that we would develop them more concrete, like in a demonstration. We discussed this in
the beginning to demonstrate a prototype, but nothing has happened yet”. (b) Role expectations
(members had a clear picture of their role). (c) Process expectations (development and
coordination of the project were clear). (d) Stakeholders’ expectations (two team members
conducted interviews with the stakeholders to discuss their expectations; these expectations were
presented in the meetings). Members of SERVICE were informed about the expectations of the
stakeholders with help of interviews held with the stakeholders (financial sponsors and steering
committee) about their expectations of the work. The stakeholders were mainly interested in
increasing their knowledge about the market and competence in the field. (e) Expectations of the
management about the team (these were made explicit in deliverables and time-tables). In case
SERVICE most expectations were held explicitly and addressed the development of the
organization and the content of the task.
Expectation mismatches in case SERVICE
In the ending phase of the case study, matches and mismatches in the expectation fields were
evaluated and discussed with the team members at the final meeting. Furthermore, interviews
were held with the members after this final meeting. Two types of expectation mismatches were
found in case SERVICE:
A Personal mismatch in case SERVICE is a mismatch between the focal person’s internal standards
and the defined behavior. These mismatches were mainly about the individual task and the
process of the project. A member mentioned: “My initial expectations were rather high, in the
sense that I expected to some extent the realization of the concepts, but this did not happen and
this might be due to the time frame we had. We only brought forth the concepts and ideas, but
did not put them to play”.
An Inter-person mismatch is found in a mismatch between individual’s own expectations and other
team members’ expectations. One of the members of SERVICE claimed that other members
had too high expectations about his work and that he felt he failed to fulfill these expectations.
This member stated: “The others might have had higher expectations that we would find large
savings in our subproject, but we did not find this. This has influenced the rest of the project”.
In SERVICE there were no mismatches between the team members and the management of the
team. Most members stated that the management had organized the project well in the limited
time and with the small budget.
Learning in case SERVICE
From the interviews it became clear that members learned individually. The explicit individual
knowledge development was mainly in the deepening and broadening of expertise and in
developing a contact network of both industrial and university contacts. Tacit individual learning
was found within the development of experience of working in a virtual setting. Due to the fact
that members from SERVICE did not cooperate much and mainly worked individually, little
explicit and tacit knowledge development was found on team level. Explicit team learning was
found in they way teams deal with a virtual setting and how to deal with industrial contacts. Tacit
team learning might have been present, but was not observed during the meetings.
EXPECTATIONS IN VIRTUAL TEAMS
In the following section the two cases are compared on team member expectations and learning.
The focus in the discussion is on two aspects that contributed to differences in individual
expectations and conflicts of the two cases (labeled as structure and experience). Furthermore,
learning within both cases is compared.
Structure. Although both case studies worked within the utility domain their structure was rather
different. Case UTILITY consisted of a relatively large team in which the workforce fluctuated
over time and they performed interdisciplinary research over a period of three years. Case
SERVICE was applying the research from case UTILITY - developing applications and
demonstrations - in order to make the research applicable for industry. This case lasted one year
and had a rather tight deadline and clear structure. Furthermore, the workforce did not fluctuate
in case SERVICE. Within SERVICE, members perceived fewer mismatches than in case
UTILITY (see table 3). The clear structure, small size, fixed workforce of the team, the clear task
and role descriptions can be reasons for the creation of more mutual expectations about the
roles, task and process of the team. All members held a similar understanding about the task,
roles and development of the team. Furthermore due to little interdependency between tasks,
members hardly cooperated and could fulfill their own task independently. A low
interdependency of the task implies less need for cooperation between individual members and
conflicts between members are less likely to come forward. In case SERVICE there was more
focus on discussing individual expectations in the beginning of the project, which is another
reason for the occurrence of fewer mismatches in the team. Through these discussions,
expectations became clearer and fewer expectation mismatches occurred in the team
Experience. From the interviews members stated that their expectations were often based on
previous experiences, for example: “I have almost 10-12 years of experience in these kinds of
projects, like case UTILITY, with a similar structure and cooperation of several companies. With
this experience I have a rather clear expectation about what will happen in such a project and my
expectations are not too high. You have relatively much freedom, but it is often chaotic and
rather fragmented” (UTILITY member). A member of case SERVICE mentioned: “No
expectations, so no disappointments. I have been working in these kinds of projects for a long
time and have experience with this. My ‘hope’ did not happen, but I had not expected it either”.
Members with experience of working in VT had moderate expectations and perceived fewer
mismatches than those with no to little experience in virtual settings. Especially in SERVICE it
was clear that members who were transferred from case UTILITY to SERVICE, had rather clear
(explicit) expectations on the VT based on their previous experiences. The role of the members
also had impact on the kind of expectation that was perceived. Project managers had moderate
(rather clear and explicit) expectations about the development of the team and the role of
sponsors, while team members had rather high (unrealistic) expectations about the content of
their task. Case SERVICE was the successor project of case UTILITY and the management
learned from previous experience and their work in case UTILITY. One of the managers of
both cases in the ending phase of UTILITY mentioned: “I feel that management should
anticipate more to expectations. Supervisors should calculate the situation and discuss this with
their researchers. Expectation management is important in the beginning of the project not only
for the participants, but also for the sponsors. Management is obliged to communicate
expectations”. Within case UTILITY some members became less motivated towards the end of
the project, but this was hardly noticed by the management when members did not state this
explicitly. It was only mentioned during the meetings, which were held twice a year. The time
between the rise of de-motivation and the time when management or others noticed this was too
long and it became difficult to respond to the discrepancies in expectations. The decrease in
motivation and satisfaction of work caused several people to leave the team before they finished
their task. The overall performance in UTILITY was affected by these actions, since these team
members presented little or no results.
When individual VT members became aware of their expectation discrepancies they either tried
to alter their expectation or behavior, or they became dissatisfied. In case UTILITY most
expectation conflicts were found. Less expectation conflicts were found in case SERVICE, this
may be due to the fact that expectations were made explicit in the start-up phase and evaluated in
the disbanding phase, the experience of working in virtual settings of team members and the
difference in VT structure compared to case UTILITY. Table 3 presents an overview of
mismatches of the two case studies.
Insert table 3 about here
When the individual expectation conflicts with other team members’ and/ or management are
related with conflict types (Hinds & Bailey, 2003; Jehn, 1995), it is clear that all members who
left the team before the task was finished had task and process conflicts with the management.
When the conflict was resolved, the members finished their task or even performed future
projects with the management of the teams. Table 4 and 5 present the expectation conflicts of
case UTILITY (table 4) and SERVICE (table 5) and relate it to conflicts in dispersed settings
(Hinds & Bailey, 2003).
Insert table 4 & 5 about here
Learning. Expectations of members can be considered both as inhibitors of learning as well as
enablers of learning. Due to expectation mismatches members left the project and were less
motivated to co-operate. In these cases the knowledge of leaving participants was not transferred
within the VT and it became difficult to continue their work without their expertise. However,
several members who consciously experienced discrepancies in their expectations mentioned that
they had learned personally from these conflicts. A member of UTILITY mentioned: “I have
learned more from mistakes than from things that went well. I have also learned that the treshold
for problems is extremely low. It does not require much to cross it”. Another example is from a
manager of both cases: “I first learned that not all members had the whole picture, it would have
been easier if all had been situated in the same hallway, then one could have shown the whole
picture in a different way than in a distributed environment”.
In the start-up phase of case UTILITY team members discovered that individuals within the
team communicated rather differently. These differences were partly based on the discipline they
were working in, their personality, and their background (experience). In team-building sessions
the team tried to make their different ways of communication explicit, in order to make it easier
to approach another team member. A member of case UTILITY stated: “I learned about the
cooperation within the group; members had different ideas and preferences concerning
communication means and it differed how they communicated. Some are more open, come with
reports and are active, while others are more intravert and share information within their own
In SERVICE fewer mismatches were found and members mentioned that they mainly learned to
apply knowledge in new situations. The management of case SERVICE learned from the
mismatches discovered in case UTILITY. A majority of the team members of case SERVICE
had rather much experience in working in distributed teams and therefore the learning effect and
the expectation mismatches could be less high than in case UTILITY. The low interdependency
between tasks, the short duration of the project and little contact in between meetings are other
factors for low team learning in case SERVICE. The members of the cases mentioned that they
learned a lot from things that went wrong. Furthermore, members learned about their personal
performance, working within a virtual setting, preferences for future work settings and project
management in VTs. A manager of both cases stated the following: “In UTILITY, most
members had difficulty in knowing which role they had. It is important to find a mutual
understanding of roles. In SERVICE, this is different and more focused. Role identification
becomes more important in order to receive a positive result”.
Diversity of expectations in virtual teams
In contrast to co-located teams the members of a VT have no shared expectations, but rather
diverse expectations. The diversity of expectations is due to the fact that members are
heterogeneous in organizational and cultural background, have little history of working
previously together and have different experiences of working in teams (Wong & Burton, 2000).
Furthermore, due to geographical dispersion it becomes more difficult to create shared
expectations about the tasks and roles. From other VT studies it is found that VT members are
less committed and do not have a shared culture or organizational identity (Jarvenpaa & Shaw,
The literature acknowledges that the management of VT has problems with coordination and
guidance (Bell & Kozlowksi, 2002; Wong & Burton, 2000). In order to deal with the specific
characteristics of VTs, role expectations need to be made clear (Wong & Burton, 2000) and
expectations of the benefits of all involved parties should be clarified (cf. Hedberg et al., 1997).
Literature that discusses expectations, like psychological contract literature, mainly focuses on
shared expectations, instead of on individual and diverse expectations. The diversity of
expectations of VT members does not necessarily have to be negative in VTs; however, ignoring
the diversity is negative. When the expected behaviors of an individual are inconsistent, s/he will
experience stress, become dissatisfied and perform less effectively than if the expectations
imposed on him/her did not conflict (e.g., Rizzo et al., 1970; Stephan, 1985). In case UTILITY,
expectations and mismatches in expectations were left implicit and only came to the surface in
the ending phase. In SERVICE, expectations were discussed early and evaluated afterwards.
Team members of case SERVICE did not perceive as many expectation conflicts as members of
case UTILITY. Within case SERVICE there were more shared expectations created about the
task, roles and responsibilities and the final goal of the team. However, in research settings in
which the final goal is broadly defined it becomes more difficult to clearly state the content of
the task and the final outcome of the work.
Expectation literature discusses that negative individual consequences can occur when
expectations are not fulfilled (Stephan, 1985). In both case studies expectation mismatches were
found, in which members perceived a discrepancy between the initial expectation and the current
situation. Within case UTILITY these mismatches had a negative effect when positive
expectations were disconfirmed. Members became dissatisfied, less motivated and some felt
hostility and a low self-esteem. Some of these members left the team before their tasks were
finished. Serious expectation conflicts between a team member and the team management led to
distrust and anger (comparable to affective conflict in Hinds & Bailey, 2003). Members with
expectation mismatches also perceived task and process conflicts with the management and the
other team members. This corresponds to the conceptual framework of Hinds and Bailey (2003),
who state that the consequences of distance and technology mediation (as in distributed teams)
have a negative impact on task and process conflicts (and sometimes affective conflict).
Expectation mismatches are also discussed in psychological contract theory. Especially
mismatches with the expectations of the organization (i.e., the management) could make
members leave the organization; otherwise the conflict is not resolved (Levinson et al., 1962).
This part of the literature corresponds to the situation occurring in case UTILITY. Because
members perceived expectation mismatches, motivational problems and became dissatisfied,
members did not perform as expected by the management of the team. The performance of
UTILITY was affected negatively by the mismatches in expectations of members, since the
members who left the project did not conclude their task. This corresponds to role theory, which
states that role conflicts (conflicting expectations about one’s role) result in undesirable
consequences for both organizational members and for organizational performance (Rizzo et al.,
1970). From conflict theory it becomes clear that conflicts are detrimental to performance in
distributed teams (Hinds & Bailey, 2003; Mortensen & Hinds, 2001). Dissimilar paradigms,
norms and behavioral expectations are likely to result in more task and affective conflict (Hinds
& Bailey, 2003: 617). Although this study is rather small, the impact of conflicts based on diverse
expectations is negative for the performance of the team.
Experience, leadership positions and previous reputation of working in a VT resulted in more
moderate expectations about individual roles and about the development (process) of the VT.
Having more moderate expectations implied less mismatches (serious mismatches) with these
members. One can state that members with previous experience and a common history, as in
case SERVICE, developed a mutual understanding of how distributed teams work, which is
related to the psychological contract literature in which the distinction is made whether
individuals are experts (veterans) or newcomers (Ring & van de Ven, 1994; Rousseau, 2001) and
the creation of ‘swift trust’ (Meyerson, Weick & Kramer, 1996). Meyerson et al. (1996) have
developed the concept of “swift trust”, to explain how temporary teams can enjoy high levels of
trust, even though members do not share any past affiliation and cannot necessarily expect to
have any future association. Members import stereotypical impressions of others based on past
experience (Jarvenpaa & Shaw, 1998), the other party interprets these intentions and acts upon
them. Due to the time pressures in VTs, members have little time to engage in extensive social
dialogues to learn about each other. Because there is insufficient time for expectations to be built
from scratch, they tend to be imported from other settings and are imposed quickly in
categorical forms (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998; Meyerson et al., 1996). Expectations defined in
terms of categories are especially likely because people have little time to size up one another
(Meyerson et al., 1996: 174). Positive expectations of trust will motivate members to take
proactive action, which can serve to strengthen trust among team members in a self-fulfilling
fashion. Members might fall back on their past team experiences, organizational or cultural
experiences and values to form views about their team’s trustworthiness. Expectations based on
past experience might be negative and people could enter the organization with a rather low
basis of trust for other team players. Jarvenpaa and Shaw (1998) do not discuss negative
expectations, however, literature mentions that individuals carry expectations and beliefs based
on past experience, culture and up-bringing to new situations and contexts (Weick, 1995; Ring
and van de Ven, 1994).
The theoretical paradox of expectation mismatches
An important goal of co-operations like a VT is sharing knowledge and competencies. Members
can learn from the combination of experiences, competencies and knowledge available within
the team. In the learning literature little is mentioned about expectations and about how
expectation mismatches affect learning. Several authors agree that matches and mismatches in
expectations constitute learning (Inkpen & Crossan, 1995; Doz, 1996; Argyris & Schön, 1978;
Weick, 1995). Organizational learning occurs when individuals, acting from their images and
maps, detect a match or mismatch of outcome to expectations, which confirms or disconfirms
what people really do (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Inkpen & Crossan, 1995). The empirical results
correspond to this literature. Especially in case UTILITY (and partially in SERVICE) members
mentioned that they learned most from mismatches in their expectations. These members need
to be conscious of their mismatches in order to adjust and react to their observations.
Another stream of literature that discusses expectations presents a different view on mismatches.
Within psychological contract literature matches in a person’s expectations are viewed as positive,
while mismatches are seen as conflicting or negative (Levinson et al., 1962; Kotter, 1973). These
differences of psychological contract and learning literature in the effects of mismatches in
expectations can be related to the concept of “paradoxes of social theory” as stated by Poole &
van de Ven (1989), in which a paradox in different theories is discussed. In this study a
theoretical paradox can be found in the occurrence of expectation mismatches in virtual settings.
Psychological contract literature perceives expectation mismatches as negative, while learning
literature states that expectation mismatches result in enhanced learning. Expectations can affect
learning as mentioned in the learning literature (Doz, 1996; Inkpen & Crossan, 1995; Weick,
1995), which is confirmed in the empirical data. Expectations can be made more explicit (they
are often implicitly present) (Doz, 1996). Furthermore, the identification (and resolving) of
expectation gaps and conflicts are a product of learning processes (Inkpen & Crossan, 1995). A
conscious mismatch from an initial expectation can imply that an individual expectation is
revised or changed in order to fit the situation, which is visualized in figure 1). This revision of
the expectation can enhance learning through which expectations can be made more explicit and
new expectations can be formed. A match in expectations can increase learning as well (Weick,
1995); although matches have been found they are not reported in this paper.
Insert figure 1 about here
In this research the learning based upon expectation mismatches was mainly individual and
personal. It is unclear if organizational benefit is increased due to individual mismatches in
expectations. Several members detected and adjusted their expectation mismatches to the
situation of the organization. These members stayed in the project for its complete duration, and
some continued to work for the financial initiator of the project. However, those members of
case UTILITY, who had learned much from their mismatches, but did not adjust these
mismatches in order to fit the team’s expectations, left the team. Furthermore, these members
took their individual knowledge with them without making the knowledge explicit within the
The learning literature only discusses mismatches in expectations as one of the building blocks
for learning; they hardly study expectations empirically or state how these expectation
mismatches can enhance organizational learning. When a paradox perspective (Poole & van de
Ven, 1989) is applied on the two expectation views, it is apparent that expectation mismatches
have an impact not only on the individual but also on the team (or organization as well) in the
form of a decrease in performance. However, in the case studies presented here, learning from
expectation mismatches is mainly on the individual level and not on team level. Armstrong and
Cole (2002) observed that learning across distributed sites was limited, because of the distance
between the sites. Individual learning could be enhanced by mismatches, but these mismatches
can have negative consequences for the team performance and team learning of the VT.
Psychological contract theory mentions dissatisfaction, and members leaving the organization
because of mismatches in expectations. This corresponds to some of the findings in UTILITY.
However, besides the negative effect, these members learned from their mismatches as well.
Because of this paradox, it becomes rather important that expectations are guided carefully in
distributed settings. This paradox can be related to conflict literature in which moderate task
conflicts can be beneficial to team performance in complex research tasks, since members
discuss their differences in opinion and can improve decision quality among the team (cf. Jehn
1995). However, process conflict and combinations of task and process conflicts are negative for
group morale and decrease productivity (Jehn & Mannix, 2001) (this is partly visualized in table 4
An important discussion for the management of VTs is to find a balance in expectations. On the
one hand it was found that expectation mismatches enhance learning when they are guided
carefully. On the other hand, expectation conflicts can resolve in members gaining motivational
problems, frustration and sometimes leaving the organization (Stephan, 1985). Negative
emotional experiences can slow down learning processes, however, learning is accelerated if the
behavior is generated by negative emotional experiences or through sanctions, for no repetition
is usually needed for such processes (Schein, 1993). Weber and Berthoin Antal (2001) mention
that the context in which those negative emotional experiences are made is what determines
whether learning is accelerated or slowed down. The function of creating expectations in virtual
settings entails explaining and underscoring the values, culture, and role of the organization
(Hedberg et al., 1997: 187). The purpose of management is to maintain a balance among
different stakeholders of the team. The literature hardly discusses how to deal with this balancing
problem. Therefore, guidance and management of expectations in virtual settings should be
investigated more in future research. According to Bell and Kozlowski (2002) the management
only has a short period of time in the initial phases of the team to make expectations, norms and
procedures explicit within the team. However, by making expectations explicit from the early
beginning of the team, conflicts in expectations that can enhance individual learning are reduced.
From a qualitative case study I found that individual expectations are important for virtual
settings. Within virtual settings a number of characteristics can be defined that make the VT
difficult to manage (e.g., dispersion, organizational and cultural heterogeneity and little history
between team members). These characteristics might cause problems, which can partly be
overcome when expectations are made explicit between the members in the early phase of a
project. This research presents findings on what kind of expectations are present in VT and what
the consequences are of expectation mismatches in virtual settings. Expectation mismatches
were found to be important for the well being of members in a VT. In VT literature the notion
of trust is often presented, but expectations are hardly discussed. Expectations are an ingredient
for trust and mismatches in expectations have negative consequences for trust within the VT.
Matches in expectations relate to greater job satisfaction, productivity and reduced
turnover compared to situations of expectation discrepancies. Expectation mismatches, when
not guided properly, can lead to dissatisfaction, less motivation and finally members can perform
less or even leave the organization (Kotter, 1973). For this reason, ‘expectation management’ is
proposed for guiding expectations of individual members within a virtual setting, in order to
overcome the problems and conflict occurring in virtual settings.
With help of examples from the case studies, several aspects of expectations are
highlighted in the paper. Making expectations more explicit within a virtual setting could
decrease expectation conflicts as viewed in the case studies (e.g., case SERVICE). Expectations
are more diverse in VTs and due to dispersion expectations become difficult to detect. Note that
not all VT settings can easily make individual expectations about task, role and final goal explicit
(see e.g., Case UTILITY with a research task). However, discussing diverse expectations can
increase mutual understanding about the different perspectives of VT members.
Expectation management is proposed in order to stimulate, maintain and create
expectations in virtual settings. Anticipation on conflicts and failures of expectations can
influence the well-being and motivation of members. Furthermore, balancing expectations
between different parties and guiding and evaluating discrepancies of expectations could aid
learning processes within VT and indirectly improve performance. Performance is affected by
several other factors as well (e.g., task complexity, team size, hierarchical structures, team
composition and procedures), but expectations are an item that likely, in combination with other
factors, influences team performance.
Contributions of the paper are within the findings that expectations are diverse in virtual
settings. Another contribution that is hardly discussed in expectation literature is the theoretical
paradox of expectation mismatches. On the one hand, discrepancies in expectations between VT
members have negative consequences for performance. On the other hand discrepancies have
positive consequences for individual learning. From organizational learning literature,
expectation mismatches enhance learning of the organization, however, within virtual settings
the learning is more individually but hardly shared within the dispersed team.
Expectations and expectation conflicts are hardly investigated in virtual settings. The
psychological contract literature is applied neither on teams nor on virtual settings; however the
building blocks of contracts and the consequences of contract breach can be applied on VT as
well. From psychological contract literature we learn that the antecedents and building blocks of
the contract are important (e.g., mental models, promises and mutuality) (Rousseau, 2001). For
future research a study on expectations should also include previous experience, norms and
values, terms of hiring, context and social cultural aspects. These factors affect initial
expectations and matches or mismatches in expectations.
Future research will evaluate and generalize the statements made in this paper. A
comparison between expectations in virtual and co-located settings could enhance our
understanding of individual expectations in teams. Furthermore, the organizational benefit from
expectations, expectation management and making expectations more explicit is worthwhile
investigating, since the organizational benefit was rather low within the empirical studies
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Arndt Sorge, René Jorna, Sonja Rispens, members of the
research group in knowledge management at Groningen University and the anonymous reviewers of
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TABLES & FIGURES
Table 1: Key characteristics of case study UTILITY and SERVICE.
Virtual team- UTILITY
Virtual team- SERVICE
Research in utility industry (novel task)
Application methods based on
research in utility industry.
Energy providers, universities,
consultancy firms, software firms,
Energy providers, municipality,
universities, consultants, software firms
No single location, members dispersed in
Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany
and France (cultural heterogeneity)
No single location, members dispersed
in Sweden and the Netherlands
15-25 members (fluctuating).
11 members (fixed)
Researchers and consultants worked
different lengths of times
No previous affiliation
Multiple roles (not all members)
Researchers and consultants all worked
for one year
Some previous affiliation
Multiple roles (some members)
3 years (research time early 1996 to late
1998) (concrete lifecycle)
1 year (research time 1998-1999)
4 annual meetings
3 team-building meetings
3 informal meetings (part of VT)
6 meetings (including 2 team-building
meetings). Expectations explicit and
E-mail, internet, intranet, face-to-face and
E-mail, face-to-face and telephone
Table 2: Summary of the data collection (interviews with the management of both cases are
presented with case UTILITY)
• Meetings formal
• Meetings informal
Table 3: Comparison of expectation conflicts of case study UTILITY and SERVICE.
Virtual team- UTILITY
Virtual team- SERVICE
No explicit expectations
No clear roles, tasks and
No clear organizational expectations.
Unclear role of sponsors
Expectations made explicit initially
and evaluated afterwards
Frustration, less commitment, leaving
Table 4: Expectation mismatches and conflicts of case study UTILITY.
Action of team
Expected more integration between members.
Expected structure in IT system
Expected active role from sponsors
Stayed on for
Expected an active role in development of IS
with the team
Did not continue
when project was
Expected more integration between members
Finished task in
Expected to make a product
Gap between academic-technician role
Missed integration between members
Expected active role of sponsors
Dissertation not finished
Expected more cooperation and clear goal
Unclear sponsor role
Left before the
Lacked cooperation between members
Dissertation not finished
Unclear structure and coordination
Unclear information distribution
Little access to sponsors
Left before project
Dissertation not finished
Process less intrusive than expected
Little involvement sponsors
Stayed on for
Expected product as outcome
Gap between academic-industry
Expected more access to sponsors
Stayed on for
Expected active role in information seeking
Mismatch between academia-industry
Expected more integration between members
Mismatch between academia-industry
Integration between members expected
More active role of sponsors expected
Unexpected double loyalty of members
Role of management changed
More active role of sponsors
Expected members would keep time scale
Table 5: Expectation mismatches and conflicts of case study SERVICE.
Individual expectation mismatch
Action of team member
Match, no high expectations
All members from O
- N, were hired for
one year, finished
their task and left
when the project
More results expected in application
Expected demonstration outcome
Expected more contact with members
Sponsors expected more of the work
Expected to gain clear cost
Expected more integration between
Result did not fit sponsors’ idea
Expected test (prototype)
Expected realisation of product
Unclear goal (beginning)
Unclear role of sponsor
Expectations came true
Expectations came true
Expectations came true
Expected demonstration outcome
Figure 1: Relationship between expectations and learning