At your job interview, everything seems to be going well. Your resume is impressive, and you have enough experience under your belt to feel confident about your qualifications.
Suddenly, your interviewer asks, “What motivates you?” How do you respond? Do you find yourself freezing up, or furiously racking your brain for a response?
If you have a series of job interviews lined up, you might quickly find yourself in this hypothetical situation.
In this article, we’ll help you prepare to answer the brain-stumper, “What motivates you?”
Why Do Interviewers Ask This Question?
Businesses take a lot of care in hiring people – taking on a new employee can be a risky investment.
- So, employers have to be sure that those they hire are the best suited for the work at hand.
- They also look for potential employees whose personalities and personal goals fit in well with the rest of the company.
Work experience and a great resume can get your foot in the door.
However, what employers are really looking for are people who know where to find motivation when the going gets rough.
Even dream jobs have their rough spots, where the work is boring or difficult, and can be a chore to accomplish anything.
Companies want to know how you find inspiration and continue forward even when the work isn’t fun anymore.
Neal Taparia, founder of Spider Solitaire Challenge, explains “I want to know what makes you tick. How will your motivation translate into exceptional work at my company. If you can show me you’re motivated to make a difference in my business, you’re the type of candidate I want to consider.”
Similar Questions to “What Motivates You?”
Not all interviewers use the exact words “What motivates you?” They may use a variety of different questions that all end up asking the same thing.
For that reason, you can easily modify your potential answer to fit any of the following questions:
- What makes you tick?
- What inspires you?
- What influences you to do your best work?
- What are you passionate about?
- What drives you every day to achieve better?
However they ask, the key part of the question is figuring out what drives you.
For instance, how do you keep going when things get tough? What parts of your work do you look forward to? What is the carrot you dangle in front of yourself to motivate you?
How NOT to Respond
Your resume and cover letter can get your foot in the door, but the interview makes or breaks your chances of getting the job. Therefore, it is crucial that you do not fall victim to some of these common blunders:
Don’t Talk about Money
“What motivates me is money. I mostly want to live a comfortable life without having to worry about money. I worked hard throughout school to get a well-paying job to achieve my goal. I measure my success in life by how much money I earn, and my motivation is mostly bought.”
Do not ever mention money when talking about your motivations. Money motivates everyone, to some degree.
- Ignoring that you might come across as greedy, amoral, and facetious in your answer, you also won’t set yourself apart from a vast majority of the human population.
While at your interview, you should try to put your best foot forward and differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack.
- Securing a well-paying career might fit into your overall goals, but that isn’t what businesses want to hear.
- They’d rather know how you fit into their work culture and the way you work under pressure.
In general, you likely shouldn’t bring up money during the interview.
Unless they’re offering you a job right then, salary negotiations and money talk are strictly off the table. Even if the job’s money is important to you (and it likely is), you’ll have no chance of getting that money if you practice bad interview etiquette.
Don’t Be Vague
“I’m motivated when I have goals.”
Don’t be too general when answering. This is an opportunity to open up and share something about yourself that didn’t fit in your job application or cover letter.
- The interviewer isn’t trying to get you to confess to a crime, so don’t treat it like a hostile interrogation.
Clamming up and keeping your answers impersonal might make it seem like you don’t have much to say or that you don’t really want that job position.
Expanding upon your answers with specific experiences and goals you have will definitely leave a better impression.
When you practice, try to answer the question within two minutes. That might seem like a short amount of time at first, but use a stopwatch when practicing your interview answers.
The average person speaks somewhere between 125 and 150 words a minute – so you’ll have enough space to fit a decent amount of information in those precious seconds.
Don’t Make a List
“I’m motivated when I set goals for myself. I am also motivated when I help others. I also am motivated by healthy competition. I am also…”
While being vague can make you seem closed off, just rattling off a long list of motivators can seem like you either don’t know yourself well or you’re just hoping you’ve mentioned something the interviewer may like.
- You may also fall into the trap of just mentioning things without expanding upon them, which leaves a significant chunk of the question unanswered.
- Remember, the interviewer isn’t interested in hearing what might motivate someone; they want to know what specifically motivates you.
When you walk into the interview, you should have one or two motivators in mind with a couple anecdotes as examples.
Really dive in deep when answering the question. Remember, interview questions should be answered like short essay prompts: with one main point, and a significant chunk of evidence to support your answer.
Don’t Overly Cater Your Response
“I am motivated by the idea that I might attend your prestigious company. I want to honor your business’s high standards for excellence, and I push myself so that I will be accepted for this position. Your company website says…”
If your answers are more about the company than yourself, you may come across as a little insincere and untruthful.
- Mentioning certain aspects of the company’s mission and about pages can be a great way to demonstrate that you’ve done your research and you’re genuinely interested in their company, rather than just a job position in your field.
- However, your interviewer primarily wants to know about you, not the company.
It’s fine (and encouraged) to mention how specific parts of the company’s culture or achievements align with your passions, but make sure that your answer covers the full scope of your experiences and professional aspirations.
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Well, How Should I Answer “What Motivates You?”
Most of all, you should be authentic when answering.
The first step to being authentic is self-reflecting. Sit down and really think about what excites you about your work.
- What achievements are you most proud of, and why?
- Identify why you’re proud of them.
- For instance, you might be proud of building a drone, managing a CMS integration or raising thousands of dollars for your former employer.
Then, you want to discuss what makes that accomplishment so special. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Were there any obstacles that you had to overcome?
- Besides a desire for job security and a paycheck, what inspired you to push yourself and overcome said obstacles?
- Name the things you learned from these challenges.
- How did you build a bond with your team members?
- What made you look forward to a day at work?
- What accomplishment left you feeling enthusiastic about your impact within the company?
- Maybe there was a club or class in which you were responsible for putting together a project.
- Maybe you helped organize a fundraiser or improved a nonprofit’s website.
- What motivated you to complete the project?
Here are some great examples of motivators for people:
Great Idea #1: Teamwork
“I consider myself a team player at heart. In my last position, I was responsible for managing several teams developing new marketing strategies. We all had different ideas about how to approach the goal.
Collaborating with my coworkers, bouncing new ideas, and fine-tuning others kept me invested in my work because I found that I was always learning something else. It also kept me motivated by holding me accountable to contribute just as much to the team as anyone else.”
Teamwork is a great skill to talk about because you’ll likely be required to work within a team at your new company. Culture is such an important part of professional life that companies are willing to hire and fire based on the value of teamwork.
An answer based on teamwork demonstrates your ability to embrace company goals.
Great Idea #2: Helping Others
“I love helping someone solve a problem. When I worked in customer service, I frequently changed my customer’s mood from frustrated to pleased because of my quick thinking polite attitude.
In sales, I feel motivated when a customer leaves the conversation excited about their purchase. In my last job, I made sure that each and every customer I spoke to felt respected, and didn’t feel pressured to go through with a transaction.
In fact, many of them were satisfied and made repeat purchases. My approach to sales increased our district’s earnings by 27 percent, which drove me to continue working on improving customer satisfaction.”
Companies in competitive markets need to serve their customers to the best of their abilities. That’s why customer service is such an important part of doing business.
Employers want to hire team members who prioritize happy customers and clients. This is good for their bottom line.
Giving an answer on wanting help others is a great way to demonstrate your potential value to the company, its customers, and its growth.
Great Idea #3: Completing or Achieving Something
“I’m a goal-oriented kind of person. I regularly set challenging but attainable goals, and I push myself to complete them by the deadline.
At my last position, I was in charge of a software development team, and we were working on a huge project. I broke down the project into manageable weekly tasks and divvied up the work equally between all of us.
My management kept our team ahead of schedule, and we were able to release our product well within our deadline. Seeing a project to completion is always the biggest motivator for me.”
Speaking about your desire to achieve something in life is a great way to demonstrate your work ethic and ambitions. Companies want to hire people who don’t need external motivation to go the extra mile.
The best employees don’t need excessive direction or guidance. They know how to get things done on their own. They know how to produce high-quality work.
Great Idea #4: Interest and Innovation
“I just love finding new and better ways to write program code. I often strive for perfection, and finding more efficient algorithms or creating more intuitive user interfaces for our clients drives me every day.
At my previous job, I worked on the front-end development to improve the usability of our software. As a result, our clients loved it so much that they recommended it to others via word-of-mouth and social media.
Our sales nearly doubled, and many customers continue using our software and downloading the updates. I’m always interested in finding creative solutions to old problems.”
Passion drives human beings forward. Harboring a love for something is one of the best ways to find solutions to a problem.
Think about it.
If you’re really interested in a problem, you’re going to think about it all the time. The more you think about it, the more solutions you’ll find. Companies make money when their employees think of better products for their customers.
That’s why companies love hiring dreamers and passionate individuals.
Great Idea #5: Personal History
“I didn’t grow up with much. I was born in a small town in southeast Ohio – my dad was a sheet metal worker and my mom died when I was young. It was just my dad and me growing up.
I remember eating grits all the time and not having health insurance. Luckily, I earned a scholarship to Ohio State, which is how I was able to study political science and learn more about the problems plaguing our communities, like the one I grew up in.
As I move up in my career, I want to work for nonprofits and companies that place ethics and values above profits. Everyone can chase money, and money’s important. We can also chase the idea of making our country a better place. I want to work with people who want to do better for those that get left behind.”
Connecting your personal history to a problem is a great way to show why you’re so invested in a field. Hiring managers and CEOs want to hire employees who are invested.
You can discuss your personal history with the following, plus more:
- Food allergies
- Ocean cleanup
- Mental illness
Personal connections make your story relatable, so think of why you’re motivated as a result of your past.
Advice from Experts and Employers
We’ve included advice from people who have been directly responsible for hiring.
They also know what works best when answering this interview question. Enjoy!
From Barbara Watts, director of career services at Sweet Briar College:
It’s important to understand that an interviewer is asking you this question because they want to better understand what makes you tick and what drives you to succeed. It’s critical for them to understand whether your motivators are going to be a fit for the job duties and culture of the organization. Answering this question gives them a window into your personality.
Use specific examples from your work, academic studies and/or extracurricular activities to give credibility to your answer. Your answer needs to have direct tie-ins to the position you are applying for. Providing this context allows an interviewer to see you not just as another applicant, but as a future employee of that organization.
More than anything, be honest in your response! This benefits you and the employer in helping to determine if the position is a good fit for both of you.
From Nate Masterson, HR Manager of Maple Holistics:
It’s common for an interviewer to ask what motivates you, so you’ll want to have a good response prepared. But really, the best way to answer is based on the truth, so take time to consider what actually does motivate you.
Depending on the situation, you might be driven by the pursuit of knowledge, a desire to help people, or the desire to be a problem-solver. Consider an anecdote that can help you demonstrate your point, and use it to highlight the strengths, skills, and passion that you can bring to the institution you are applying to.
But always make sure to present things in a positive light. So, for example, if what motivates you the most is simply deadlines quickly approaching, a good way to phrase this is to say that you are motivated by the desire to get a job done in a timely fashion.
From Michael Leonard, creator of Inspire Your Success:
The best way to answer is the question is truthfully and honestly. But that means putting in the work behind the scenes to know what truly motivates you. And it’s not something you should just do for an interview question, it’s something you should do to improve the quality of your life.
If you’re clear on your “Why” then you can answer this question effortlessly. Find time and put in some work on your own growth and development by journaling, writing down your goals, and doing things you’re passionate about.
The more you do this, the more clear you’ll get. Ultimately, you want to have everything you do align in your life so everything is motivating you to achieve your goals.
From Jonathan Faccone, managing member and founder of Halo Homebuyers L.L.C.:
As an employer, I always love to hear stories where an individual’s motivation is derived from selflessness. An example could be that the reason why an individual works so hard is because they want to give back to their parents, or they don’t want to squander an opportunity their parents have worked so hard to provide them.
Additionally, intrinsic motivation is something that every employer should come to learn about you.
If you are a person who genuinely takes pride in their work, speak about this. If you like to work with people and concerned about taking care of their needs by doing the right thing by them, this is also a great selling point to an interviewer.
An employer will not only come to learn that you want to do the right job and are capable of doing it, but they can also trust you in front of their customer as well.
From Brett Helling, who runs Ridester and has been mentioned in Entrepreneur, Inc., Forbes, and Reader’s Digest:
Motivation is an internal force that allows you to perform your daily or specific tasks more efficiently. It can be related to any physical attribute or spiritual entity. But, being working and maintaining to achieving your goals is the best motivation to go further than anyone can have.
Interviewing or being interviewed are two very different things, an interviewer must first understand the individual from a piece of paper that can be a cover letter or its resume. Judge a person by the piece of paper is not the right way to asking brutal questions.
The interviewer should adjust itself towards the individual who’s being interviewed and maintain eye contact and make them comfortable with first knowing them.
A person who’s being interviewed should be prepared and conceptualize the situation before going in. A knowledge about the company and its management can score higher rather than having a blank mind. Being interviewed can be the toughest situation, but having a sound knowledge about what you are and what you can do, can make a much better candidate for that specific position.
The best motivation for me is to allow myself to conquer the most difficult task in an easy way. It doesn’t matter you win or lose, it’s the experience that counts and can make you a much better person in life and in a career.
From Janet Ferone, president of Ferone Educational Consulting:
Tell a story. If what motivates you is to teach students who struggle with learning, don’t just say you are motivated to help all children learn. Add a story that links to when you first discovered your passion and why.
For example, if you are motivated to help students who struggle, tell a story of how you struggled in school and felt inadequate, and then suddenly in 4th grade, your teacher connected with you in such a way that you finally saw the light and began to excel. Explain how you now want to be that teacher for others.
Make sure your motivation is about what you can offer and how you can make a difference. While good pay and lots of vacation time are motivators, don’t use that as your sole criteria. You can certainly say that you have a passion for caring for animals and do so for your friends and family for free, so you would love a job where you could put your expertise to use for pay.
Think about the employer! It’s not all about you and what you want.. Answer in such a way that you show that you would meet their needs, not just yours. In the case of the teacher who wants to work with struggling students, elaborate that you will connect with students in a way that will improve attendance and test scores, for example. Do your homework to know what the employer needs.
Connect on a human level. Make eye contact, smile, and call people by name. Make sure you research who the interview team members are, if possible, and the goals and values of the organization.
Show your interest and ability to connect with people. Employers can teach job skills, but not people skills, so show you are social and collaborative. If it fits your personality, a little humor goes a long way and can put everyone at ease.
Be authentic in your words and also in how you present yourself. Young folks often think they must dress older and more conservative, and then appear ill at ease at the interview.
Of course, dress professionally but don’t be afraid to wear a unique color accent or scarf or jewelry that will make them remember you. I have a business card case from my husband’s country of Malaysia and it’s a great conversation piece, as when I reconnect with someone I can reference Malaysia, so they will remember me in a sea of candidates.
Conclusion: How to Answer “What Motivates You?”
These are just a few examples of how to approach the question, “What motivates you?”
If there’s something completely unrelated to any of the categories above that makes you giddy about going to work, go for it. Whatever makes you enthusiastic is most likely a great answer.
The interviewer primarily wants to get a feel for your personality and how you work.
In your answer, be cognizant of the job you’re applying for.
- For instance, if the job you’re applying for is performed primarily in a cubicle with minimal interaction with others outside of meetings, playing up your drive to be a better team might not fit in with the position.
- Similarly, if you plan to say that you’re inspired by innovation and reinventing the wheel while the company you’re interviewing for strongly believes in the phrase, “don’t fix what isn’t broken,” you might want to reconsider your answer.
If you’re prone to interview anxiety, try writing down and rehearsing some potential answers with a friend.
You may also consider imagining yourself as an esteemed guest on a late night talk show. Watch the guests’ relaxed frame and cheerful disposition, and try to emulate that in your interview.
But overall, try to stay relaxed about the interview. You’ve impressed the hiring manager enough to make it to an interview – now’s the time to play up all of your good sides.