A win is a win
When your star player is your biggest headache
If you know anything about Formula One, you know that Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber don’t get along. The rift between Red Bull’s two star drivers has become a recurring feature in the brand’s recent history and a headache for Team Principal Christian Horner, who spends most of his time trying to diffuse tension enough to pass it off as a healthy rivalry to the press. But at last month’s Malaysian Grand Prix, Vettel added a spectacular new f issure to the already strained relationship when he deliberately disregarded strict team instructions and overtook his teammate in the closing stages of the race when the two drivers were neck and neck – a move that was not only exceptionally dangerous, but irrevocably detrimental to what now looks like a fully-fledged internal feud. (Vettel went on to win the race – his third win in Malaysia and the 27th victory of his career.)
The 25-year-old German champion was more than happy to remind the press of his impressive lack of tact last week when he implied that his actions had been something of a revenge ploy, “indirectly” related to past instances where he felt Webber had raced against the best interests of the team. He also suggested that he would
defy orders again should a similar situation arise: “I would have thought about it and would probably have done the same thing because Mark doesn’t deserve that,” Vettel said. “I don’t apologise for winning. That is why people employed me in the f irst place and why I’m here.”
Rumour has it that Vettel had demanded earlier that Webber be instructed to move out of the way.
What happened next is interesting. Bar a feeble attempt at reproach by Horner during the race (“This is silly, Seb, come on,” he warned, intervening over the radio during the 46th lap) it later followed that no punitive measures were taken by the Red Bull team in response to Vettel’s actions: no suspension, no formal apology ordered, no serious punishment meted out. What the Red Bull bosses did do is amend their policies so that no team orders were allowed to be given during the race, stating that all strategic decisions would be made prior to the event.
“What’s wrong about this situation, is that Horner adjusted his management decision to avoid a team member not obeying him,” says Dr Frances Wright, a management specialist who holds both an MBA and a PhD from North-West University. “This is a clear case of insubordination, one that has been tolerated through the changing of a management decision to avoid conflict, and when that happens, a precedent is set. [Horner] has lost his ability to control the team, no matter what he says or thinks.”
The problem with the Vettel/ Webber fiasco, and like so many companies dealing with similar conflict, is thus not with the two individuals in question, but with management.
What most critics noted about the Red Bull management is that, given the highstakes nature of the sport, winning has unashamedly taken precedence over the team members’ personal needs of assurance, fairness and due praise, and Horner has made no attempt to hide the fact that there is a very visible pecking order, if not a certain predilection towards favouritism. According to Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, it’s the key reason why Red Bull is having a hard time: “Red Bull have a clear one and two, they always have. And that is why they have always had the prob- lems they have had,” The Guardian quoted Hamilton as saying. “We don’t have a one and two at Mercedes. I have always said, from the moment I was speaking to the team, that I wanted equality (with Nico Rosberg).”
Overinflated egos, office rivalry, dubious rule-bending and undiscussed risktaking – all are manageable scenarios that can escalate to unpleasant proportions if you aren’t managing your team in the right way. David Parnell, a US-based legal consultant, makes a point that if there is tension in a team dynamic, you’ll find your employees wasting their time and ‘cognitive bandwidth’ on “exercising restraint, measuring words and otherwise forcing hands to play nicely in the sandbox.” The result, he says, is “shoddy workmanship, pushed or missed deadlines and severe lacerations to the company culture or your group’s sub-culture.”
Even the most experienced managers have had trouble dealing with a ‘Sebastian Vettel’ in the workplace at some point in their careers. We spoke to three South African management experts on how to approach similar situations:
HOW WOULD YOU HANDLE THIS SORT OF SITUATION IN A BUSINESS CONTEXT?
Erik Vermeulen – Business consultant, behavioural economics strategist and keynote speaker:
I think the most important aspect to bear in mind is that this high-profile sport functions in a very different environment than business teams. Within a business context though, such behaviour certainly impacts on trust in the team. Ultimately the team should always rank above the individual, and in business this should always be the case. The best way to handle this in my mind would be to have a crucial conversation with the two guys and focus on the probability of risk in the decision. What risks are there to the team, to the individual and to the company when executive decisions are ignored or f louted?
Allon Raiz – Founder and CEO of Raizcorp:
I think there is far more to this situation than meets the eye. I think we know less than 10% of what the real reasons are for