What Data on Formula One Crashes Suggests About Workplace Rivalries

May 4, 2018 Henning Piezunka

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David Arky/Getty Images

Do you have a work twin? Is there a colleague whose name is constantly mentioned in the same breath as yours? This colleague’s responsibilities may differ from yours; he or she may even work in an entirely different department. Yet because his or her position in the organizational hierarchy is roughly equivalent to yours, the two of you are seen as almost interchangeable.

When people call you by the wrong name or send you an email meant for your “twin,” how do you feel? Your polite smile notwithstanding, probably not good. Chances are, you resent the implied threat to your uniqueness and feel, however fleetingly, a competitive urge to outshine your organizational double.

Let’s be honest: We like to feel we have things in common with our colleagues, but we get very uncomfortable when there are too many points of similarity. This is especially true at work, where status hinges upon our unique experience and competencies.

In his book Collision of Wills, University of Chicago sociology professor Roger V. Gould described how uncertainty around status can lead to unhealthy conflicts. Hierarchy can create stability — it tells us where we are in relation to others, clarifying who should defer to whom. Its absence can be deeply unsettling, driving people to go to great lengths to establish superiority over those whose status within the group mirrors theirs.

Competition fueled by status-similarity can be especially destructive. To examine this more closely, we studied how competitive dynamics precipitate potentially deadly collisions in the world of Formula One racing. We hoped to glean insights about the dangers of competing with near-peers, and the conditions that intensify those dangers, that we could then apply to the business world.

For those unfamiliar with Formula One, the first thing to know is that F1 crashes are usually not random. It’s not that a driver makes an unforced error at breakneck speed; it’s that two drivers, locked in one-on-one opposition, goad each other into increasingly reckless moves. At some point, both lose sight of the bigger competitive picture, becoming more intent on overtaking their immediate rival. What ensues is the classic “game of chicken” — something you may recall from 1950s drag race movies. Only here, the contestants are piloting $200 million vehicles.

A parallel occurs in the business world when two managers allow their rivalry to escalate into public, tooth-and-claw conflict. The stakes here may not be as high — the corporate fast lane normally doesn’t require risking life and limb – but the damage can be costly nonetheless, both for companies and for individual careers.

We examined the F1 Championship seasons from 1970 through 2014, looking at all the crashes serious enough to cause at least one of the two drivers involved to leave the race. The dataset contained 193,395 total driver pairings (each pairing representing two drivers competing in the same race), 506 of which resulted in a race-ending collision.

Collisions, we found, were particularly likely among pairs of drivers who were roughly equivalent in status. That is, their competitive histories across the entire racing season looked similar — e.g. they had beaten, and been beaten by, many of the same people. Their standings in the insular world of Formula One racing were very similar.

What does this mean for business? First, it sounds a note of caution regarding the recent buzz around “flat” corporate structures. Management schemes such as holacracy — which replaces top-down decision-making with a horizontal network of self-organizing teams — promise a pragmatic, rational antidote to ego-driven office politics. However, our Formula One findings suggest that leaders intending to promote an egalitarian culture by flattening hierarchy, removing job titles, and so on may inadvertently exacerbate competition, rather than reining it in. Trying to banish distinctions among colleagues may have the unintended consequence of increasing competition.

Regardless of intention, though, any move that casts status into doubt, such as a merger or restructuring where groups are suddenly thrown together, may boost the likelihood of destructive conflicts between colleagues.

But the effect is not immediate. Our findings reveal that crashes between status-similar peers in Formula One were more likely later in the racing season. It takes time to pack the powder keg. Tension gradually builds as rivals become aware of their similar status, size each other up, and square up for battle. It’s especially important, then, for leaders to keep a watchful eye on how any status shake-up within their purview plays out over time.

We also found, somewhat to our surprise, that the association between status-similarity and crashing was nonexistent in poor weather conditions. We theorize that when poor weather adds an extra element of danger to the race, it prevents drivers from getting carried away by status anxieties. They keep their focus on personal safety entirely. Thus, one way to get competitive employees off a collision course may be to remind them of dangers looming on the horizon: rival companies gaining in the rear-view, treacherous technological shifts in your industry, or whatever they may be. This may inspire employees to put their grievances with one another aside, as they recognize cooperation is essential for mutual survival.

If you are the one who feels destined to collide with a colleague who’s close in status, remember: You’re in control of the car. You can practice what social psychologists call anticipatory self-discipline. Before walking into an encounter with your rival, e.g. a meeting he or she is sure to attend, exert a conscious effort to bring your behavior into line with core principles such as professionalism and integrity. Remind yourself before the fact of why you’re there. Don’t let your conflict with this one colleague overshadow the tasks and problems confronting the organization. Be mindful of the difference between being aware of your antagonist and becoming obsessed with them. Even as you guard your lane, stay focused on the finish line.

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