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If you’re in the market for a job and spend a lot of time practicing your answers to common interview questions, you might find yourself laughing at what your “real” answer to a question may be versus what a solid, professional answer would look like.
One of the questions that this probably happens with is, “What motivates you?”
Money, the prospect of leaving work early, and knowing that happy hour starts at 5:00 aren’t going to impress your interviewer.
Despite the open-endedness of this question, the hiring team is looking for a few very specific things. They want to know how (or if) you will fit into the company’s culture by learning what makes you tick. Will your sources of motivation be offered to you through this position? Companies want to hire those who will be naturally motivated by the task at hand.
For instance, if you’re interviewing for a job as an in-home nurse and you say that you’re motivated by caring for patients on a very personal level, the hiring manager can see a clear reason as to why you would want to seek a career as an in-home nurse. They can also be sure that you will have access to that source of motivation through your patients.
Interviewers also want to see if you have the amount of self-awareness that it takes to know what keeps you getting up and going to work every day. A prospective employee who can quickly and seamlessly answer this question with some specific examples of what drives them to do their best each day is someone who is probably also proactive in their work and knows how to keep themselves on track.
Finally, employers want to hire people who know what they need to get an extra boost of motivation when times get tough. Even the most perfect job is going to have some low points where the job is either difficult or tedious and may feel like a burden to perform. Employers need to know where you turn for inspiration to keep going, even if the work is a struggle in the moment.
There is a large distinction between the prospective employee who is motivated by a strong sense of cohesion within the team and the one who does their best work when simply left alone to problem-solve without distraction. While both candidates may be competent, strong, and an asset to an organization, one of them is probably better suited for the position you have available than the other.
I have always found this question to be tough–because honestly, there are a lot of variables that go into what motivates me, depending on the task or the situation I’m facing. If you’re like me, you will need to stop and consider which motivating factors will be the most helpful for you in this position.
But, no matter what motivates you, there are definitely some acceptable and unacceptable answers to this question. Any great answer will communicate to your interviewer that you’re passionate about the work that you do, and that you enjoy fulfilling the needs of whomever your industry services.
Let’s look at the steps you can take to come up with a great answer to this question and a few things you should avoid doing.
(Side note: One way to motivate yourself is to read something related to your career or the business world. You can do this by joining over 1 million others and start your day with the latest news from Wall St. to Silicon Valley. This newsletter is a 5-minute read that's informative, witty, and FREE!)
Step #1: Do a self-assessment.
When considering what motivates you, you need to first get a solid grasp on what the word “motivate” means. The circumstances or factors that drive you forward to complete tasks may be entirely different from the person sitting next to you. Because of this, you need to think about your unique skills, ambition, expectations, wants, and needs.
What is your own personal mission? Do you dream of making a difference in your community through teaching our future leaders while they’re children? Or, do you want to get involved with local politics to make an impact that can go into effect today? What excites you?
In order for your self-assessment to be effective, you have to consider your professional values, interests, and personality type. Your professional values encompass the beliefs and objectives that are significant to you. This may include job security, prestige, the ability to make your own schedule, working in collaboration with a team, or anything else that you believe is important.
What are your deal breakers for accepting a job? Is it the commute time, having a sense of camaraderie among your co-workers, or maybe having the ability to work from home? Knowing your deal breakers will help you realize what your values are, and keeping your professional values in mind will increase your chance of being satisfied in your job.
Knowing your interests and passions is also a critical component to figuring out what motivates you because your interests can help you determine the type of work that you would and would not want to do. Your interests and passions are what drive you forward.
Consider this: if you have a strong interest in a problem, you’re going to be considering possible solutions all the time. The more you contemplate the issue, the more results you will be able to come up with. And, because companies can profit from their employees’ innovative ideas, they want to hire people who are interested in and passionate about the work.
What motivates you is actually one component that makes up your personality type, along with your social traits, attitudes, and needs. Your personality type can (and should) impact your career choice because certain personality types are going to be more successful in some positions than others. People naturally look for environments that are conducive with their personality types and do activities that make use of their skills and abilities.
Your personality type is also part of your vocational identity, which refers to your interests, abilities, and goals. People who have a strong vocational identity are confident about what they want out of their career and therefore are able to make appropriate occupational decisions.
Alternatively, people who have a low vocational identity are more likely to change jobs frequently because they often make incompatible career choices. For example, if you are introverted and prefer to work alone, you would likely not be motivated by a job in sales, and if you have a strong vocational identity, you would know this about yourself. Doing this type of self-assessment will start to uncover some trends of what motivates you.
Step #2: Reflect on your professional experiences thus far.
In the past, what have you considered to be a great day at work? What have you found to be fulfilling? Maybe you felt like you were thriving when you had opportunities to teach or train other people at your company, or the times in which you were able to land your company a big account. Or perhaps it was on those days that you were able to complete eight hours of uninterrupted deep work.
Look for trends in what a “great day” has looked like to you in the past. Have all of your best professional memories involved solving a long-standing problem or working well with a strong team to achieve a mutual goal? Think about a time in your career where you felt especially motivated and bring that story with you to the interview.
Step #3. Do your research.
Research the company’s values, mission, and goals and consider the skills and abilities that you have that are the best fit for the organization. Everything that you say needs to be tailored to the company for which you are interviewing and the position you’re aiming to be offered.
Think about what made you choose your career field and what the components of this particular job description (and organization) lead you to apply to it. For example, if you are interviewing for a job at a startup company to help create an innovative software application, you could say you’re motivated by the hope of creating something that will allow you to see concrete results from your ideas.
This means that while you may enjoy working in a team environment and you find yourself to be motivated by others who are working together to achieve a common goal, you wouldn’t want to say this if the position doesn’t involve teamwork or if the organization greatly relies on their employees working individually.
Likewise, you may be motivated by selling products that can truly improve people’s lives, such as new medical technology. However, saying this will only sound genuine if the company you’re interviewing for indeed does sell products that can improve people’s lives. Don’t say this is something that motivates you if the company sells energy drinks. Make sure you go to your interview equipped with the knowledge you need to intelligently speak about the company.
Use the company’s website as well as your professional network to find out anything you can about the business that they do. Pay particular attention to any themes that you notice, such as the words that the company chooses to describe themselves or their work environment.
Companies often use metaphors to represent their culture in some way, such as offering platinum service or describing their team as being steadfast champions. These descriptions can often give you great insight into the company’s culture.
Step #4. Prepare yourself with anecdotal examples.
Think of some situations in your professional past that will demonstrate an overlap in what motivates you with the company’s values or mission. Offering specific examples and direct links to the position will help the interviewer envision you as being a future employee and see how the sources of your motivation can benefit their company.
For instance, let’s look at Kickstarter’s mission statement: “To help bring creative projects to life.” If you were interviewing with Kickstarter, it would be helpful to think of a time when you fulfilled their mission in a previous position.
Maybe you worked on a product development team and you’re especially proud of a specific project that you worked on, or maybe you have a lot of experience on the more creative side and you want to share a story about a time you were particularly creative, which helped solve a problem for a former employer.
By showing them that you have been motivated in the past by something that the company highly values, it will not only highlight your accomplishments, it will also help them see how easily you could fit into their organization.
Talking about how your work ethic clearly aligns with the company’s will also show your internal desire for achievement. Companies would rather hire employees who share their ambitions and who don’t need a source of external motivation to do their best work.
Step #5. Get someone else’s perspective.
While you are the expert on yourself, it can be helpful to reach out to former colleagues for any additional insight. Ask them what they enjoyed about working with you or what they found you to be particularly good at doing.
Talk to former supervisors about the things that they know that they could always count on you to do, or even what makes you different from other employees they have worked with. This might help you learn something about yourself that you never realized.
For example, a former boss might say that they would give you less direction when working on a creative project because you could always come up with something unique. At the time, you may have thought that everyone got as little direction as you did, but your boss was able to see that you were particularly motivated by autonomy.
Talking to other people will also help you be able to add a testimonial into your interview, which can give the interviewers some insight into other people’s experiences working with you. If you’re able to say that a former supervisor appreciated that you didn’t need excessive guidance, the interviewers will see that you know how to be autonomous and produce high-quality results.
Step #6. Be honest.
Don’t feel like you need to make up some outlandish answer that will make you look extremely unique. The truth may be a simple answer, and that’s fine. However, if you design an answer that you think is what the hiring manager is looking for, you might come off as being insincere.
Remember, while they are interviewing you, you are also interviewing them to see if this is a place where you want to spend 40 hours a week. This means that being honest with your answer to this question will also help you see if the company will be a good fit for you.
Don’t tell the interviewer that you’re motivated by customer satisfaction if you actually really dislike interacting with people. While it might get you the job, the truth will quickly show once you get to work and you will be miserable while you’re working.
So while it is critical to be honest–know where to stop. Unless you’re applying for a job that makes money off of commission, don’t tell the hiring manager that you’re motivated by money. Most people apply for jobs to make money, so making this statement will not set you apart from the other candidates. If you are truthful with yourself in the first five steps of this guide, being truthful in the interview shouldn’t be a problem.
“What motivates you?” can be a tough question if you’re not prepared with a solid answer. Do the reflection that you need to do on your skills, experiences, and personality to really uncover the things that drive you to perform well at work. Try to find where your passions intersect with the company’s values and take some time to craft a unique response. Doing so will give you an edge over your competitors for the position
Remember, while there are things you should and should not say in your response to this question, there is not a single best answer that anyone is looking for. Your response can highlight your uniqueness and how your remarkable drive to succeed will benefit their company. Take the time to go through these six steps to find what motivates you and when the question gets put on the table, you will be more than prepared to offer an impressive response.
Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.
Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.