“So, tell me, what motivates you at work?”
This is one of the most common interview questions, and it’s hard to answer on the spot.
You aren’t going to land the job if you say something like, “I’m motivated by my paycheck.” True? Sure, but that’s not what job interviewers are looking for when they ask this question.
So what are they looking for? And how can you answer this question in a way that will leave a lasting, positive impression on your interviewer?
I’ll answer all that in this article, including some examples of clever ways to tackle this question.
Why do interviewers ask “What motivates you?”
To come up with the perfect answer to the “What motivates you?” question, it’s important to understand exactly what the interviewer is asking.
Though the answer may differ depending on the job you’re applying to or the interviewer you’re working with, here are a few of the main reasons this is a popular question.
They want to know that you ARE motivated
The first objective of this question is pretty obvious: Your interviewer wants to know that you are going to be a motivated worker. They want assurance that you will show up on time, do the work that’s asked of you, and go the extra mile when you can. Giving concrete examples and insights on what motivates you will prove to them that yes, you will be a reliable and hard worker.
They want proof that you are self-aware
Self-awareness is an important skill to have in life, in and out of the workplace. Being self-aware means you understand why you do the things you do—this allows you to continually improve yourself and manage your own well-being. Answering the “What motivates you?” interview question allows you to demonstrate that you are introspective, you think about why you take certain actions, and you can apply this self-awareness if and when you get the job.
They want assurance that your motivations align with the role
Imagine you’re applying for a job as a lifeguard at the community pool. Your interviewer asks what motivates you, and you say, “I really want to get tan this summer.” While that might be something you can do as a lifeguard, it’s not aligned with the duties of the role you’re applying for. If you said, however, that you were motivated by helping others and educating people about safe swimming, then the interviewer would know you’re a good fit, because your motivations align with what you’ll be expected to do. You can still mention that you enjoy spending time outdoors, but only after you’ve made it clear that your primary motivations are aligned with the job.
They want to hear you talk about yourself and your experiences
The prompt, “Tell me about yourself!” isn’t very useful in an interview. It’s a vague question that can be answered a million different ways. But the question, “What motivates you?” is a more direct way to give the interviewee the chance to talk about themselves, their experiences, and their goals. Those are the factors that matter most when it comes to hiring decisions.
They want to know you aren’t just looking for a means to an end
It’s no secret that people who are looking for a job are primarily looking to get paid for their time. But employers are wary of hiring people who are solely motivated by money. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to tell your interviewer that you’re only taking the job because it might help you get a better job somewhere else later. Instead, you should focus on the skills you want to improve in yourself, and keep the bit about wanting to move on to a different job to yourself.
Preparing for the question: What to think about
Now we know why interviewers ask, “What motivates you?” So how do you come up with an answer that will wow them? Use these questions to start brainstorming.
1. What do you know about the role and duties?
As I mentioned above, your interviewer is hoping you will answer this question in a way that shows your goals and motivations align with the role. It’s a lot easier to do this if you have a firm understanding of what the role is all about.
It’s always important to do research before you walk into an interview. Make sure you have read the job posting thoroughly, browse the company’s website and social media, and if you can, ask clarifying questions about the role before the interview.
Beyond that, take the time to research the company and learn what their overall mission is. This information is usually available on their website—on the About page, or outlined in their list of services. If you can find a way to show your interviewer that your motivations are in line not only with the duties of the job, but the company as a whole, you’ll be much more likely to nail this question when it comes up.
2. What motivated you to apply for this job?
To find your unique answer to this interview question, think about why you applied for the job in the first place. What about the job listing or the company caught your attention? What made you think it was worth filling out the application and sending over your resume?
Of course, part of your answer may have to do with the pay you’d receive or the opportunities a job like this would open for you later on. Try to think beyond that. Do you have experience with the company as a customer? Do you know someone who works there and loves it? Have you heard good things about the company and their mission? All of these things can factor into your answer for this question, as you’ll see in the examples later on in this article.
3. What motivated you to change jobs now?
Your interviewer will want to know why you are looking to change jobs at this stage in your career. It’s never a good idea to trash-talk a former employer during a job interview, but thinking about why you want to leave your current gig could help you figure out your true motivations.
For example, perhaps you want to leave your current job because you know there is no opportunity for growth. You wouldn’t want to answer this interview question by saying, “My current job is holding me back.” But you could say something like, “I’m looking for a job that will let me use my skills as….” or “I’ve been looking for opportunities that would help me learn how to…”
4. What are your long-term goals?
It’s a lot easier to identify your motivations when you have a good grasp on the long-term goals you have for your life and career. An interviewer will be impressed to know that you have thought about your life trajectory and what you want in the future—it means you won’t be likely to start the job and then realize it’s not what you want after all.
If you’re struggling to figure out what your long-term goals are, check out this article: What should I do with my life?
4. What was your biggest accomplishment at a previous job?
It’s always a good idea to come to an interview with a list of your biggest accomplishments at previous jobs, but these examples can also help you answer questions about your motivations. Think about the last time you went above and beyond for your job. Why did you do it? What made you want to do more than the bare minimum?
For example, perhaps the last time you went above and beyond at your job was because you knew that if you didn’t, your colleagues would have to stay late or do something they didn’t want to do. You can give this a positive spin by saying, “I value my colleagues as a community, so I’m motivated to work hard so that my whole team could grow together.”
5. What’s the one thing you want more than anything else?
Sometimes, to answer a big question, you need to think big-picture. Ask yourself, what is the one thing in life you want more than anything else? You might say that you want happy relationships, or to travel and see the world, or become a millionaire.
Once you have your answer, follow it up with this question: Why do I want that? Using the examples above, you might say that your relationships bring you joy, or you love the thrill of seeing new places, or you want to be comfortable and successful. Now we’re getting somewhere—these motivations can more easily be turned into an answer for this question. You can talk about the value of work relationships, or how you like new experiences, or how you get your motivation from a sense of accomplishment and success.
Examples of how to answer “What motivates you?”
Still not sure how exactly to phrase your answers to the question,”What motivates you?” Your response should of course be unique to you and your experiences, but I’ve put together a few examples of good answers to steer you in the right direction.
Example 1: Using previous experience
One of the things that motivates me is learning something new and exciting. At my last job, they offered a free coding course, which didn’t have too much to do with my role. I still took the course, though, because I love learning new things. And to my pleasant surprise, once I started learning about coding, I found that knowing how to code also helped me work more closely with the dev team, and I even designed my own app in my spare time.
Example 2: Having a big-picture discussion
My long-term goal is to eventually become a full-time graphic designer. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback about my artistic skills, but I still have a lot to learn about the other parts of being a graphic designer, like working with customers directly or creating responsive logos. Looking at the job description, I saw that this role would give me a chance to grow those skills while still expressing my creativity, and that made me want to apply for this job as soon as I saw it!
Example 3: Showing you’ve done your research
I’ve been a huge fan of this company for years. I’ve seen the way the business is committed to protecting the environment, and your mission statement about making your products accessible to all communities aligns closely with my main motivations in life. That’s why I volunteer with Habitat for Humanity—I want to spend my time serving my community and improving our planet. It would be an honor for me to be able to continue this mission working in this role.
Example 4: Giving a taste of your personality
I’ve always been a curious person—my mom says when I was little, I never stopped asking questions. I guess I haven’t grown out of that, because solving puzzles and learning new information is what makes life worth living, in my opinion. In this role, I know a big part of my job would be interviewing customers and learning about their frustrations and desires. That’s something that would definitely keep me motivated, because of my curious nature.
Final thoughts on “What motivates you?”
Though this question isn’t guaranteed to be part of your next interview, it’s still worthwhile preparing an answer. The responses you think of can be applied to other interview questions, like “What do you hope to get out of this job?” or “What’s an example you’re proud of from your last job?”
Remember that every job is a two-way street. Your employer expects you to be motivated when you come to work, and you likewise should expect them to be motivated in providing you with a healthy, happy workplace.
Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up interview questions when your interviewer asks about motivation. You can politely ask, “What do you think motivates most people who work here?” or “What are some of the common goals of employees at this office?”
Listen carefully to your interviewer’s response—they should easily be able to tell you why their employees want to come into work each day.
Now that we’ve teased out this question, you are hopefully feeling prepared for your next job interview. Be confident, and go make a lasting impression!