A Good Hand: An oil rigger’s insights on management, motivation and making work matter

In 2013, Michael Patrick Smith, in his mid-30s at the time, moved from New York City to Williston, North Dakota, to find work in the oil fields of the Bakken Formation, which was then the epicenter of the fracking industry in North America. Smith, a theater major, playwright and musician, had no experience in that line of work, but he was dissatisfied with his office job and flailing at life in general.

In Williston, it took him a month to land a job as a “swamper,” which is physically punishing work tearing down skyscraper-sized oil rigs piece by piece, strapping them to trucks and moving them down dusty roads to be resurrected at the next site.

There was no formal training, despite the fact that, with cranes swinging metal parts weighing several tons, any mistake could be fatal. Shifts were 12 and 14 hours long in all the weather extremities that North Dakota serves up. The work was more physically demanding than anything Smith had ever experienced. His bosses — as much as there were bosses in the loosely organized hierarchy of the oil field — berated him, challenged him to physical fights and did everything they could to get him to quit.

But Smith stuck it out — often to his own surprise — and when he called it quits nearly a year later, he would look back at his time as a swamper as the most defining work experience of his life (though he had little more in his bank account than when he arrived in North Dakota). He greatly respected the grizzled oil field veterans who cursed at him. He made friends with fellow swampers who were a decade younger than him, and who looked to Smith for insights on relationships, reading and carving out a meaningful life. Most importantly, he reconciled demons from his past, including failed relationships with women and a childhood riddled with abuse and tragedy.

Writing the Book on Swamping

Smith took several years to record what his oil field experience meant in words. The result is his first book, “The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown,” which was published by Viking earlier this year.

When he was interviewed on National Public Radio’s “Marketplace” soon after publication, it felt like Smith had insights to share on management, motivation and making
work matter that would be pertinent to the Sales & Marketing Management audience. His book is a beautifully written account of life in a hardscrabble world that makes the roughness of Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” seem genial by comparison.

Smith himself would not recommend that others adopt the management style of the “Wildebeest,” a caustic and cursing truck driver with whom Smith was frequently paired. But there were aspects of the Wildebeest’s approach that broke through, reinforcing to Smith the importance of every action as well as the value of a day’s worth of toil, sweat and physical pain.

“That particular job and the system around it is set up to be done by rough people. I found myself growing rougher and less nurturing,” Smith told SMM in an extended interview. (Listen to the full interview on our new podcast here.) “But there were always moments of kindness in a place where a person’s identity — a person’s likes and dislikes — were really unimportant to getting the task at hand accomplished. I find that is something in work I highly value. In our culture now there seems to be this premium on what people like or don’t like. To have that stripped away and [replaced by] ‘What we care about is how hard you’re going to work and how much of a team player you’re going to be.’ There’s something in that I find really beautiful and much more revealing of the human spirit than whether you listen to the same music as a guy.”

Becoming a Hand

The book’s title comes from the term that veteran oil field workers bestow on greenhorns once they grow into useful workers. It’s a reminder of how powerful honorifics can be, even when there is no monetary reward attached to it.

“In the oil field, ‘good hand’ was a term used by other field hands. Truck drivers and the truck pushers, who would be equal to a foreman, everybody knew who was a good worker,” Smith explains.

Sadly, a good hand was usually confirmed to be as such outside of their presence. Senior workers would discuss amongst each other which field workers had become good hands. A worker usually found out he’d earned the title only when it filtered back to him informally. That’s a practice that managers in other work environments should definitely avoid. Smith says, “Praise wasn’t easily forthcoming, but when it was said, the thing I heard was people didn’t think I was going to last long but [then agreed] ‘You’ve really become a good hand.’ ”

Smith somewhat reluctantly admits he became a good hand, and makes clear how much it means to him. “To most people
it doesn’t sound like a big deal. To me, it took on a spiritual dimension and a level of importance. One aspect to it is that you don’t make a hand every day. Even a good hand is going to have rough days. It’s something that I take with me with everything I do.”

In his book, he writes, “I thought I came to North Dakota to make money. I didn’t. I came to become a good hand.”

The Importance of Symbolic Awards

Symbolic awards also played a significant role in Smith’s growing into the job. New oil field workers are required to wear a green construction helmet for the first six months so they can be easily identified. After that, they receive a white hard hat (or “brain bucket” as it’s often called). As Smith explained, it’s partly initiation and partly a means for workers to know who in the field is new, as they are more likely to put others’ safety at risk. A truck driver nicknamed “the Viking” determined Smith deserved to receive his white hard hat when he was only slightly past his third month on the job. A dispatcher told Smith he’d have to wait, but the Viking nabbed a white hat surreptitiously and awarded it to Smith later.

“When I got the white hard hat, it was one of the proudest days of my life,” Smith says. “That may sound silly, but it’s true. The guys I worked with were aware of it, and they felt I had earned it. It wasn’t an easy place to earn respect. I was obsessed with the white hat. It became an incredibly important goal to me, and I was proud to wear it.”

Writing for a small business website owned by the Houston Chronicle, freelance writer Zach Lazzari states, “Look at any business model and you are sure to find a company with symbolic rewards that are used in the company culture. In some cases, a pay bonus or actual reward may accompany the symbolic gesture, but the pride in owning the reward is often the sole benefit. The way a company uses symbolism in their work environment ultimately has a major influence on the day-to-day operations and the way employees interact and perform their duties.”

When they could not find any empirical studies on the value of symbolic awards in the workplace — those that only increase status and social recognition and do not come with a material benefit — European researchers Michael Kosfeld and Susanne Neckermann conducted their own study. Their 2010 report states, “the symbolic award significantly increases performance by about 12% on average. The award increases not only the average performance but also the variance of performance.”

Kosfeld and Neckermann add, “status and social recognition alone can be strong motivators for agents to increase their effort in the presence of awards. Our findings corroborate recent arguments emphasizing the important role of symbolic rewards in labor relations that sometimes even outperform purely monetary incentives. The social recognition from an award crucially depends on the reputation and the image of the institution offering the award as well as on the individual achievement yielding the award. In this sense, it may actually be true that awards are better instruments in some domains than in others, and that the power of symbolic awards is affected by the reputation and the culture of the organization as well as by the objective individuals are expected to achieve.”

The researchers point out that intrinsic motivation is undoubtedly a factor in performance as well, but they had no way of measuring the intrinsic motivation of the participants in their study. “The conclusion from our study is not that purely symbolic awards increase performance always and in all circumstances. We hope that future research will be able to show under what conditions firms are well advised to use symbolic rewards to motivate workers and under what conditions symbolic rewards are likely to be ineffective and hence firms (should) also refrain from using them.”

Making Work Matter

Clearly, Smith was self-driven, which is every manager’s dream. “In the early days, I knew I didn’t have the money to leave town,” he admits. “After that, I came to the conclusion that just as a matter of personal pride, I felt I needed to get good at the job. I wasn’t going to be able to look at myself if I knew I had not given this incredibly difficult task my 100-percent all. For me, it was a question of tenacity and a feeling of self-worth.”

In addition to proving something to himself, the work itself became significant to Smith. He writes in his book about returning to New York at Christmas and entertaining his friends with stories about the oil fields over cocktails in a bar.

“I’m soaking it up, this chance to be a raconteur, this attention I’m receiving for my work, this opportunity to tell
the tale. What I do in Williston lands here, I realize, taking in the elegant woodwork and the chandeliers. New York City reaps the benefits of labor done thousands of miles away on
the desolate plains of North Dakota, the labor I do. I feel proud. That is what it means to be a good hand: to do meaningful work.”

Motivation is less about employees doing great work and more about employees feeling great about their work, states business adviser and author Lisa Lai in an article for Harvard Business Review. “The better employees feel about their work, the more motivated they remain over time. When we step away from the traditional carrot or stick to motivate employees, we can engage in a new and meaningful dialogue about the work instead.” (See sidebar below.)

The Inextinguishable Nature of a Good Hand

In his book, Smith recounts a return to Williston after the New Year and working in the oil fields through a frigid winter. He considered making a career out of it, but ultimately decides against it, returning to the East Coast almost a year after he moved to North Dakota.

“I found the work really intoxicating and there was something to the lifestyle. But the whole time, I was questioning who I was and what I was doing there, which is probably why I am a better writer than an oil field hand,” he said. “It became more important to me to think about where I could have the biggest impact on society and whether I should take a gamble on that.”

Lessons that Smith learned stick with him to this day.No one is a good hand all the time, he says. You have to make a hand every day. At the end of his book, he asks, “How does a person in this age of gross overindulgence become and stay a good hand? An ideal that I see requires being of the world but also fashioning that world into something better, bigger, greater than the self. In a society that worships leisure, how do you maintain the fortitude to get up every day and go to work?”

A large part of that constant striving is intrinsic. Managers should look for signs of self-motivation when hiring. Ask prospective hires for examples of when they took initiative, how they sought learning opportunities, and whether they acted on feedback they received in previous positions.

Managers should also be mindful of motivation techniques that drive performance. Praising worthy performances in public, presenting symbolic awards and taking steps to make work meaningful for team members are all essential, whether one is supervising swampers in an oil field or pushing sales reps to hit quarterly goals.

Michael Patrick Smith thought he went to work in the oil fields of North Dakota purely for money, but discovered the job meant a whole lot more.

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