Motivation Lessons from Dirty Jobs

Mike Rowe
Mike Rowe

Recently I discovered a fun television show, Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe on the A&E cable network. In this show, Mike travels the world to spend a day with people doing “dirty jobs”. As the seasons have progressed (it’s in the third season now, celebrating its 100th episode on Sept. 5th), the jobs have become more obscure, and needless to say, more dirty. He has done everything from the obvious garbage collector and sewer worker to more obscure jobs such as “avian vomitologist” (owl vomit collector — no I don’t know why).

Mike always gets dirty, always manages to have fun, and is usually a good sport when the people who hold these jobs make him do the most disgusting parts of the job. But most importantly, through it all, Mike always manages to treat the people who actually do the job with respect. As they say in the promos, these are the people who hold the jobs that make modern civilized life possible. So, even though he jokes with them, they always come off as people with dignity — even when covered in poop.

Watching this show is certainly a “dirty little secret” for me, but it’s more than simply that. I find myself watching this show and wondering why the people who do these jobs continue to do them. How do their managers motivate them? What kind of incentives can you give someone to climb in a pen with 250 five-foot long alligators, day in and day out?

Most of the people aren’t just doing this for a summer job from college, they are, often as not, long-time veterans. These are people who not only do these jobs most of us wouldn’t even touch, but they do them for decades. How is that possible? And what does that teach the rest of the managers in the world about motivating our teams?

They have a choice of job and location. They have chosen this work!

I don’t think it’s about the money. Certainly there is evidence that you can get people to endure lousy jobs in horrible places for lots of cash. The oil fields of Iraq or northern Alaska come to mind. But most of the jobs Mike looks at are not these jobs. These are regular folks doing nasty jobs for reasonable money. It has to be about something other than money.

And I don’t think it’s because it’s the only job available, or even the only job they know. Quite often, the people who are doing the jobs are college graduates, who have a choice of job and location. They have chosen this work!

No, these people are doing it because there is something about these jobs they really enjoy. Maybe it’s because they get to work outdoors, or work quite independently, or work with their hands, or work with people they like, or perhaps do something at which they know they are the best in the world.

In fact, I think this show teaches a very important lesson to managers: people choose to work at their job for quite individual and personal reasons. And it’s extremely important for their manager to understand those reasons if they want to keep them happy and motivated in the long term.

It’s truly important that you know what makes your people tick.

As a manager, it can help to ask yourself why you are working there, and try to reflect carefully on why your people are there. Perhaps you work in a non-profit where there are altruistic motives that help, but there are also many other factors: organizational climate, intellectual challenge, comraderie, industry reputation, and yes, money. And it’s different for every person there. It’s truly important that you know what makes your people tick, if you want to keep them there and motivated in the long term.

So, when you are trying to figure out how to make your team run better, perhaps you can take a lesson from Mike Rowe and look for the place of respect. Look for that something in everyone that makes them want to climb out of bed and come to work. And work to make that one thing better for each of them every day.