Insight: How Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff avoids “combat mode” in tense team situations
Posted By: Editor   |  20 Jun 2018   |  3:52 pm GMT  |  65 comments

Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff has shed light on his management style, how his team handles internal conflicts and disruptive characters, and offers tips for success in a new video.

Mercedes has won a lot in the last few seasons, but also had its fair share of internal conflict, not least in the era of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as team-mates.

Speaking to Vinod Kumar, CEO of Tata Communications, Wolff explained that creating an environment where honest discussions can take place has helped tackle one of the biggest problems senior personnel can face; conflict within the team.

“Neuroscience shows us that if there is disagreement, your brain goes into combat mode,” said Wolff.

“Disagreement means that the immediate reaction is ‘I don’t like it’.

“What we try to achieve rather than going into combat mode – and therefore closing up – is approaching is other person with respect, being curious about why somebody might have a different view, and then being brutally honest in the conversations you’re having about it.

“The chassis group might have a different view on performance than the engine group, and there needs to be a protocol, and fundamentally in our team the protocol is lap time.

“For example, the engine could have ten horsepower more, but will have ten kilograms more in weight or have more volume.

“The chassis people will say, I appreciate the ten horsepower, but the volume [increase] is going to cost us more aerodynamic performance.

“You need to be able to provide a safe environment, and we created a motto within the team in order to discover all of our weaknesses, that is ‘see it, say it, fix it’.

“You need to achieve a safe environment where people dare to point at their own shortcomings and mistakes.

“If the leaders are able to admit their own shortcomings, suddenly you create that culture where everybody is able to admit that next time around you can do it better.

“You mustn’t blame the person, you blame the problem.”

Wolff explained that ensuring employees are comfortable with where they work was essential to gaining trust extracting their best performances.

“Only in an environment of confidence where people are empowered and trust you, you can extract the best performance of them and you can only do that if they feel safe.

“You’re having a laugh with your people and immediately the easiness kicks into the room.

“There’s even a management style about making a joke about yourself at the beginning of a tough meeting. It releases the tension.”

Wolff went on to discuss the motivating factors for wanting to be successful which, for him, was due to the early responsibility he had as a child.

“In my case I lost my father when I was very young and I was raised by my mother and there wasn’t any background [knowledge], and from my earliest memories I was pushed into a role of taking responsibility for the family.

“Not great for a child obviously but certainly a big contributor and a driver in my motivation.”

He added that he believed the most successful people aren’t necessarily the ones who are high achievers at an early age.

“I have this theory of ‘early peakers’. My personal experience is that many of the very successful kids I have met when I was a kid – be it in school or be it in sports – didn’t achieve extraordinary careers afterwards.

“Often the support network you need in order to achieve this result is parents that are very pushy.

“I think long term if you want to be successful then the ambition needs to come from within you. It cannot come from somebody else who pushes you into things.

“You see teenagers that are somehow exhausted by the ambition that is projected into them by their parents.

“The overcompensation of the lack of success from the parents into the kids, and I don’t think this is the right way, it should be support, the ambition needs to come from within the kids.”

What do you think of Wolff’s management theories? Leave your comments below

All images: Motorsport Images

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Chris Sturgeon

Ok could he come and run my firm please.



I agree! Enough is probably said about that forgettable affair. Truth is I dont care if he competes in pedal cars, kudos to him, although brobably still trying to play his politics and get some shortcuts against the kids.

Because a vast amount of people postning, having a similar view, you can not blame them for that, can you? It’s not hate


Toto is correct.

Having a culture of blaming people is negative to a good outcome. I work in a business with only 4 employees, but have to deal with up to 60 volunteers, & the only blame I apportion is to myself, for not guiding & encouraging people properly.

Train people so they can leave, but treat them so they don’t want to leave.

No wonder Mercedes are so good at their job.


“Neuroscience shows us that if there is disagreement, your brain goes into combat mode,” said Wolff.

“Disagreement means that the immediate reaction is ‘I don’t like it’.

Neuroscience taught you that?

Not general life experience? Or the Jeremy Kyle show?


And what’s wrong with Nakajima and Buemi, they won Le Mans. So fast, like there was no competition at all…


What do you think of Wolff’s management theories?

. . . Not much is he has time for such psychobabble.


McLaren could learn a lot from Merc’s management.


We Toto won’t be handing out 25p Freddo bars for sure!


Lol! 🐸


Tell me more about your very own special “world” you refer to PaulD, but one should never upset one who talkes about them I’ve heard, so I rather not


Neuroscience shows us that if there is disagreement, your brain goes into combat mode

What we try to achieve rather than going into combat mode

I find it hard to get past the fact that he sounds like Arnold, and then he goes and uses phrases like this…

ring ring

Bernie – “Hello”

Toto – “Bernie it’s Toto, I know it’s late but I would like to discuss a very important matter with you”.

Bernie -” Ah Toto, how are you? Are you going to say it”?

Toto – ” Say what Bernie”?

Bernie – ” You know…California”!

Toto – “Bernie I have not got time for this”.

Bernie – “Cmon say it”!

Toto – “Bernie please, I have have urgent business to discuss”.

Bernie – “Say it”.

Toto – “No Bernie”.

Bernie – “Say it or I’ll hang up”!


Toto – “Ok Bernie…Californya!”

Bernie – “Aaahahahahaah…gets me everytime…go ahead make my day!”

Toto – “That is Clint Eastwood Bernie”.


Wonderful insights these. As i try to manage my own little project with a pea-sized team (compared to Mercedes GP), but talented individuals with big-sized egos. 🙂 I found this worth sharing with my team. and there are important tips for me as well.


Completely off topic but for those who might be interested various Australian media outlets have reported that McLaren have offered Ricciardo $20 million dollars a year to join them. The source of the information is Germany’s Sports Bild.

Helmut Marko has been reported as saying:

“Our Daniel Ricciardo is the king of the market. McLaren offers him more every week,”

Love the “our Daniel Ricciardo”.

Yes, yes I know perhaps another rumour to fuel the conversation but if true does this also mean that Alonso is about to call time on his F1 career?


Sounds more like Ricciardo has got McLaren to help him push up his price. What is Ricciardo on, anyways? The article saying $20m also said that would be a threefold increase. That would only amount to €5m. I think Dan has got to be higher than that already.



I think his current salary is about €6 million.


I was reading about that story at Le Mans in the Paris based 𝘓’𝘌𝘲𝘶𝘪𝘱𝘦 newspaper last weekend, as well as the RB-Honda alliance (someone from Renault had obviously tipped off Parisian journalists unsurprisingly), and both the French media and the Milanese rag 𝘨𝘢𝘻𝘻𝘦𝘵𝘵𝘢 𝘥𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘰 𝘴𝘱𝘰𝘳𝘵 (you can buy it at Le Mans) believe the prospect of an improving yet still down on power Honda PU will mean Ricciardo will leave RB…………

Supposition of course, but I’ve noticed that despite his pole to flag victory at Monaco, Daniel seems to feel somewhat under appreciated at Red Bull and every time they go to a power circuit the RBs get blown away – and with Honda being fitted to a RB tub next year even with the best will in the world, it will take time for Red Bull to fully optimise their new works motors, meaning 2019 is likely to be a “development” year – at best.

Ricciardo at McLaren? A very good fit I reckon.


@Gaz Boy Even with a honda lump my gut feeling tells me Red Bull are gona be more competitive than Macca over the next 3 years overall. It’s an uphill task with Max and the clique at red bull but it will be all the more rewarding if Dan stays and does beat him! I think Renault would even be a better shout than MacLaren at the mo. If it ain’t red or silver he should prob stay put.


The trouble is that McLaren are not a comprehensive team right now, they seem to be behaving like a collection of individuals, and having their esteemed leader saying that it is “…just a few unhappy guys back at the garage” is not going to make it better. Best left alone


There could be some things at least one could do to make the intra team battles more fair. Monitor the specifications of parts in their cars, so they are identical, and other aspects you can look at. But then there are other ways to give one driver the edge. One thing was interesting, The swap of mechanics one season in Lewis’s and Rosbergs’s garage. I could imagine that one team of mechanics often are better than the other. And if yo want to favor one driver you put the best team in that garage. Just a thought


The “fist banging” show some passion I think, which also has to be there. it’s not a over the top outburst far from it, If it’s real, Cheeky Toto;))


I believe fans should really push for driver equality within teams, but i don’t know really how you could monitor that, it’s probably impossible. But I believe i would benefit the team that does that in reality not just talk abut it. It would give such a boost to their image as a racing team, and really good PR, for any team, especially the top teams.


Double the number of teams. One driver per team. Then there’s would be some fire works.


Only thing then are the pit boxes.


…..Meanwhile, back in the real world Chris D……


@Gaz Boy

He will be at the same level as Nakajima and Buemi in the record books, or just below since he was not not the fastes among the three of them, nor did he take the pole. This is a blip in history books and the situation without competition will certainly be mentioned. It may be that those boks will show how many of his wins were fixed.Last of all, history books may not matter nor count for s**t in the future. And the real fans don’t care already about this bogus


Once again someone has to bash an amazing accomplishment just because of a personal peeve against the competitor. To have done what Toyota and the team did was incredible, just surviving in the face of such engineering abuse as a 24 hour race at such pace, is a stunning achievement – and if you’d watched any of it you’d have marvelled at what the teams all manage to put themselves through. After the heartbreak of ‘16 and ‘17, they all showed great courage and true engineering skill and we’re complemented with success. A large part of it for the 08 car was down to Fernando’s speed during his night shift, gaining 5 seconds on one lap, 3.5 seconds another, on the sister car driven by LMS pros. There was nothing expected at all about his win, and he helped deliver it against tough competition on the other side of the garage.


@ Richard…very good post. very true.


From all Toto’s interviews and what I’ve heard about Mercedes I would certainly want to work there. He strikes me as a very good people manager. I work in an engineering company and I firmly believe that if our management was as good as Mercedes and Red Bull (Christian Horner also strikes me as a very good people manager) we would be dominating our market. The fact is we are not. We are third best and losing market share and it is because management is incompetent and does not understand people. We have too much hierarchy and other rubbish that gets in the way of implementing good ideas. If you have good people your challenge as a manger is to utilize everyone to as close to 100% as possible otherwise you are wasting money.


He’s certainly right about children with pushy parents, who shove their ambition onto their offspring rather than let them come to it themselves. The current obsession with grades in UK schools brings out the worst in such parents and does children, even bright children, no good at all. Real education forms the whole person, not a performing seal.


Do you work where I work lol?


see it, say it, fix it, eric


Bill Burr the comedian describes TW as the Illuminati of F1…I love it 😄. He’d make a great evil villain.


‘You mustn’t blame the person, you blame the problem’ that’s plain silly. It may well be that the person is the problem? Then what. I my own experience as a chief executive i believed in firstly, identifying the problem then seek its genesis. If the problem is founded in the employee by way of dereliction of duty then it was necessary to sheet that home and ensure that it is recognised. The next step was to then rebuild the employees confidence and send him off with renewed vigor and intent to do it better.


I’ve seen the two extremes of CEO/Big Boss style.

Depends on the size of business. The “shouty” boss does not work in a big organisation, invariably it’s a “he”, and invariably the previously good senior management slowly get changed into people who are scared to make mistakes, so the middle management lose faith and that is transferred to the coal face. Best ones are the CEOs who empower the correct senior management and cut the middle management, then let them get on with it. Bollockings kept behind closed doors is very important, as you say Kenneth sometimes it is someone’s fault due to negligence, etc.

Worst style I’ve ever seen? My own father 😀 Business with 45 people, run by a curious mixture of shouting, fear, favourites, and unpredictable moods. A very successful business that could be so much better.

Face it, people are way smarter and have many more rights that they’re aware of these days, so the old fashioned “be scared of the boss” just doesn’t have the same effect nowadays.

I’ve watched a few videos of Wolff and Horner as they arrive at the offices and wander into and through the factories. It was interesting in that Wolff seemed genuinely liked and respected as he walked around with a slight hint of fear/respect as meetings went quiet initially when he entered the room, but Horner came across a little like David Brent with awkward jokes and no hint of respect from the staff. I’m sure it’s different day to day with no cameras pointing in people’s faces though, as they are both highly effective proven people managers.

I’m now wondering the management style at local council leisure centre – staff who can’t be bothered to turn a panini machine on 20 minutes before they close, or sweep dirty water onto your feet while you’re at your locker, and Richersounds who could not have been better when I asked if I could get an online pick up at store offer posted “we’ll find a way and call you back”, which they did quickly, and less than 15 hours later I have my item. Not an advert, just very impressed by the service, and wonder what management style leads to the differences.


Even when they were winning, there has never been a lot of visible fun at Williams and McLaren. Whereas Force India have always been up against it, but Bob Fernley is forever smiling. I’m sure he gets the extra mile out of his team.

I’ve seen many kids with pushy parents, who want to live their lives through their offspring. At the first opportunity, the kids are off doing what they always wanted.


Is this a hidden swipe at the verstapen family?


Jos Verstappen was barred by RedBull to join at the last race in Canada. Appeared to work wonders for Max that the bully father was kept away!

Maybe an interesting subject for an article by James Allen, why father figures only works so far in F1? We have now a swarm of younger drivers where their fathers either succeeded themselves or just never came through to the top and how they then impose (or not?) on their offsprings to replicate or do better. You have many from the past like: Andretti, Brabham, Villeneuve, Rosberg. And then you have the current like: Prost, Verstappen, Sainz, Magnussen, Piquet, Schumacher…


@ Chris Severin…Swipe? Did you not read the comments by Horner et al that for the first time that Verstappen was ‘solo’, without pushy Jos and the entourage that Verstappen performed better and didn’t crash out like so many previous times? The message was rather obvious i should think…..


He has the right attitude and can’t fault much of what he had to say. His “say it, see it, fix it” reminds me of the stations “see it, say it, sorted” but nonetheless a good ethos to live by.


Nice theory on leadership though practice is another story. Seeing him publicly bang his fist on the desk when things go south tells me he ‘loses’ it more often than he’d like us to believe.


He always looks so stiff and awkward when he does it that it looks more to me like a robot pretending to show emotion, or a wooden figure in a cuckoo clock or something.


Theatricality….every one has an amount of frustrated thespian lurking somewhere in their makeup.


There are many here who believe Toto’s fist banging is NOT an indication of him losing it…


Lemwill, there are even more who think it’s of bo inportance


Yes, I’m one of them!

Buffalo Hatfield

Wise words. Thank you Toto


Well he must be doing something right….

Tornillo Amarillo

Nice article!

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