Why killing Sweat Angels is the most valuable work I do all day

Most readers of this blog probably sit behind a desk all day, like me. Sipping tea in nice surroundings with nice people. They don’t have to push a mop around the floor cleaning up after others.

Dreaming about the dignity of labour and the simple honest toil of the working class is patronising rubbish, and you’ll look a bit of a dick to someone who already does this work for half your salary.

But I’m going do this cos I’ll do anything for the right metaphor.

At 7:30am this morning I was mopping up a stranger’s sweat off the floor.
It was the most fulfilling work I’d do all day.

I go to a gym that has black rubber flooring.

This is cushioning for barbells that are dropped from shoulder height, and cos it’s quite tiring, when you’re finished you yourself drop to the floor as well, covered in sweat.

So after a gym class there’s lots of “sweat angels” left on the rubber floor, black human silhouettes left in sweat.

Part of the tidy up routine is everybody helps put away everybody else’s equipment, doesn’t matter who’s, and some people go around the room spraying the sweat angels with floor spray and mopping it all up again.

It’s just what you do, tidying up so it’s good for the next lot of people. This isn’t what you’d do in a “normal gym” but it’s part of the social contract in this type of gym. You don’t just put YOUR stuff away, it’s not about your own obligation, it’s about restoring the gym for the next set of people to come in. It’s a communal obligation that you fulfill as a group for another set of people.

Cleaning up is a part of the whole session. It is expected and as fundamental as attending and listening to the coach.

So why is this task not onerous, but actually satisfying to me?

When I am working with others, mopping up a stranger’s sweat I am solving a problem (manky floor) and helping people (a clean floor for people in the next class to flop on themselves when they’re all tired and sweaty). This makes me “happy” for want of a better word.

When I am making a scorecard of measures with targets and up and down arrows I am not solving problems or helping people. This makes me “sad”, for want of another more useful word.

What I get from mopping a floor is what I want from a job. I want to work with others to solve problems and help people.

There is a large and flourishing literature on “what makes a good job”. I’m not thorough enough to do any of it justice, but the thing that best explains the difference in satisfaction caused by mopping the floor and creating scorecards is this fellow here…


Herzberg is famous for this very systemsy quote. He established the factors in work that predictably make a BAD job.

Things like:

  • work conditions
  • supervision
  • salary
  • relationship with peers and management

But if these are the causes of dissatisfaction, and make a BAD job, it is not enough to take away from a job theses things that make it annoying, miserable and hard to do.

The opposite of dissatisfaction is not satisfaction.
The opposite of dissatisfaction is NO dissatisfaction

These are so called “hygiene factors“. They’ve got to be right, fixing them removes things that make a job bad, but they don’t make a job good. They are necessary but not sufficient.

To make a good job you’ve got to put into it things that are not currently there. These are called “motivators
Things like:

  • challenging work
  • responsibility
  • opportunity to do something meaningful

These are factors intrinsic to the work itself. Not factors applied to the person doing the work, like salary or praise.  They provide internal motivation, as Dan Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose video neatly shows….


So when I’m solving problems and helping people, I’m doing work that provides me with internal motivation. Note that I didn’t say what I wanted to earn, or what the job title would be. These are factors of external motivation that just get you through the front door of the office every morning, they don’t help you do a good job when you get there.

I have found that the most fun work, the work that provides the most satisfaction, you might not even recognise as work. A few months ago I was on Reddit and saw a post where someone was asking plaintively…

“I have to predict how many customer calls we are likely to get next year over the holiday period. I’ve got 3 years of data, but no idea how to do this properly. Could somebody help?”

So I did. He put the data on a shared spreadsheet on Google Sheets, I did some rudimentary stuff with a chart, explained what it meant and how confident you could and couldn’t be with the analysis. I solved a problem and helped someone. I did work for free and didn’t even notice that it was work at all.

Ironically the thing I did for free and was fun is the very actual thing that a performance person should do but rarely if ever does when at work.
This is one of the main reasons why I’m fan of systems thinking/ deming/ Sneddon/ Whatever you want to call it. These approaches to changing work make work work. Not just in a process improvement type of way, not just a clever clogs striding around with post-it notes composing a “to-be” map, but in a real fundamental way. Snit gets real. Finally you get to solve the right problems and help people.

Most jobs in normal ordinary command and control organisations are not like this though.

This is why mopping up a stranger’s sweat is the most valuable work I do all day.

This entry was posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, purpose, systems thinking, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Why killing Sweat Angels is the most valuable work I do all day

  1. bazhsw says:

    Just left a meeting where people spent 90 minutes thinking of reasons why they won’t / can’t help people. So called ‘transformation’ people. Makes me bloody angry!


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Can’t won’t shan’t! The public sector managing cuts to their budgets has turned the purpose of their system to ” tell people to clear off using digital technology preferably”


      • bazhsw says:

        Bang on. If ‘making savings’ is the purpose of a public sector the obvious answer is to buy a giant padlock, lock the gates and sack everyone – if we deliver no services at all then surely that is a great efficiency saving. People think I am mad when I say that, not as mad though as when I ask as to the purpose of a system…

        The public sector now tells the public ‘we are doing the bare minimum’ (getting the legal bods to scrutinise what counts as statutory) whilst internally telling staff to ‘go the extra mile’ (you public sector types love the public so we’ll get you to work harder, under constant restructure / redundancy threat).

        We tell people to continuously improve their service but also fill in those daily / weekly / monthly dashboards with the unwritten rule to bullshit why something is ‘red’.

        Sorry for ranting, it’s been one of those days….


  2. johnar says:

    I used to work for an ICT Department that spent hours and hours working out why people couldn’t use certain technologies. It was totally scandalous…but it also wasn’t… it was what was expected. The battles were often merciless, costing the Council £000s in effort…to prevent work getting done the way people wanted to do it.


  3. Chris D. says:

    Just in from a meeting on Transformation. Now to off to the box. I’m Crossfit Bath. You?
    (I changed my thinking about food and exercise through seeing a class do the work and feeling the intensity, then tried and never looked back. (6 stone later….). If only I could…


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