Laser-Like Focus: Be Careful What You Ask For

Dan Pink did the closing keynote at the Great Ideas conference this year, and he was awesome. There are some good posts out there recapping his main messages about autonomy, mastery, and purpose (like Maddie Grant and Frank Fortin). But there is one particular part of his presentation that I wanted to highlight.

Towards the beginning of his talk he made some important points about the prevalent assumption that money is a good motivator for employees. Specifically, he pointed to one study done by the Federal Reserve Bank where the results indicated that for tasks that required any kind of thinking, increased financial rewards led to REDUCED performance. Yes, the financial rewards worked for very simple tasks or tasks that had clear instructions or processes, but if you had to think, the money reward got in the way.

 Pink went on to explain that the financial reward gives us a laser-like focus on a task. We block out distractions in order to get things done. This works for sales. But for the rest of us, this slows us down. This prevents us from seeing and understanding the big picture. It inhibits our thinking. We don't ask the right questions. We're less likely to share information or bring other people into the process.

"Laser-like focus" is frequently touted as a good thing, and it is in some contexts, but be careful what you wish for, because in much of our organizational lives it will slow us down.


  1. 18.03.2010 at 12:36 pm

    Jamie — Thanks for this post. It explains to me why so many corporations, led by so many leaders “motivated” with bonus money, performed so poorly. Seems to me that Dan Pink is onto a great reason why all those bonuses (and other bennies) should be given to those at the front lines, rather than the folks in the corner offices.

  2. 14.04.2010 at 12:18 am

    As a sales person, I take exception with the notion that sales doesn’t require thought.