The Dopamine Machine

The race was also memorable because of the emotional response of the entire Williams team after Nicholas Latifi and George Russell scored the team their first points in a long time. We heard George on the board radio saying ‘If you need to compromise my race to help Nicky, do it. Prioritise Nicky’. George is a phenomenal driver. Give that man a race winning car and he will be up there fighting for the title. His emotions after Williams’ first double points finish in years say a lot about his character. But his willingness to sacrifice his own race result for the team, and his emotions afterwards, are not only a testament to George’s character, but also Williams’ team culture.

There are 600+ people working for Williams. Some have never won a race. Some have never even scored points. In business we often talk about ‘finding your purpose’. Why do you do what you do? What makes you get up in the morning? I find Formula 1 teams such a valuable source of insights about culture because they have a clearly defined mission, combining short and long term goals, with an accompanying one-team mindset that keeps their people engaged and motivated. This is mediated by a chemical called dopamine, and a brain network called the reward system. Triggering this system enhances motivation. An unexpected result triggers this system more than an expected one. Considering the number of unexpected events during the race, I’m pretty sure dopamine was surging through pit lane after the race.

The elation of the Williams team after Sunday’s result was the perfect example. They celebrated 8th and 9th (now 7th and 8th) place as if they had won the race. It gave all of us a little dopamine boost! But anyone who’s ever worked in HR will agree that keeping 600 people engaged is impressive even when you are exceeding your quarterly targets. What I find fascinating is that Formula 1 teams seem to have a purpose that triggers intrinsic motivation to a degree that will keep them going through multiple years without these moments of elation.

Sunday’s results show that culture matters. That purpose matters. And that the combination of collaboration and competition in Formula 1 (between and within teams!) creates this giant dopamine machine that keeps us all craving more.

Let’s get the summer shutdown over with quickly, and bring on Spa!