"What motivates you?" How to answer this critical interview question

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No matter how well you prepare, the common interview question, “What motivates you?” can be daunting. But, what if you had a better understanding of the interviewer's motivation behind asking this?

And, what if you prepared ahead of time by figuring out your motivations in work and in life? Imagine how much more confident you'd sound responding to this question and how much more detailed your interview answers would be.

In this article, I'm going to reveal the secrets I learned during my recruiting days, plus share some research-based tips for understanding your work motivations.

For instance, are you energized by turning your ideas into action? If so, you'd check the box of a job role for a "self-starter." Or are you excellent at predicting potential problems and coming up with plans to avoid them? If so, you're a good fit for a role that calls for "problem-solving skills." Armed with this information, you'll ace the answer to "What motivates you?" with a level of self-awareness that'll wow your interviewer.

Keep reading to find out how you can answer this tricky interview question and land your dream job.

Table of contents
Why do interviewers ask “What motivates you?”
What are the different types of work motivations?
Tips for giving a stand-out response
Don't forget to prepare follow-up questions
Motivation significantly impacts job performance and career outcomes
Examples of the best answers for "what motivates you?"
What motivates you? Take our quiz

Why do interviewers ask “What motivates you?”

Because if you know a person's motivations, you can better predict how they will act in work situations and which roles would be better suited for them. Remember, the purpose of interviews is to ensure that the employer finds the best person for the job. To do that, they need to evaluate if someone has the necessary qualities to do the job well and stay loyal to the company. Asking what motivates you is one form of evaluation.

As a recruiter, I saw many super impressive resumes. Yet, when I connected with the candidate, it was clear that they'd applied for more than 50 jobs, and I was the one who called back. Their answers were generic and could have applied to any company.

Like the Cheap Trick song, I Want You to Want Me – recruiters feel the same way. They want to find candidates who are deeply motivated to secure their roles.

What are the different types of work motivations?

Work motivations, also known as preferences, styles, or attitudes, directly impact business success. Below are some of the different types of work motivations that you could use in an interview to prove you're the best person for the current position.

Initiation

Initiation refers to one's energy for turning ideas into action, without waiting around for someone else to take charge. Highlight this motivation in the interview if you're applying for a job position that's looking for a "self-starter."

Achievement

What motivates you to work hard? Achievement refers to how focused someone is on achieving results and acquiring recognition or rewards. This is an excellent motivation to have if you're applying for performance or commission based roles like sales.

Breadth

Also known as "big picture thinking," Breadth refers to one's propensity for macro, abstract thinking. Breadth ensures you don't get lost in the details so you can bring a vision to life. If you're interviewing for a job whose description calls for a "strategic thinker," be sure to highlight your motivation for Breadth!

Depth

Depth is the opposite of Breadth. Depth (also known as "attention to detail") means you thrive on zooming in and seeing the finer details of work and life, a great trait to have if you're applying for roles in quality control, auditing, or coding.

Group Environment

Group Environment, or "extroversion," means you feel energized working with other people on a project. You might feel particularly at home in an open-plan office where you can easily socialize and collaborate with your coworkers. This is a relevant motivation to highlight if you're applying for a role suited for a "team player."

Solo Environment

Feeling energized by a Solo Environment means you thrive in an environment where you can work without others around you. Social interactions can drain you of energy. This is a great motivation to highlight if you're applying for a remote position, as you'll be able to point out that working alone at home is actually what will make you more productive.

Pioneering

People with a high motivation for Pioneering aren't afraid to jump into new environments or face rapid, drastic change—in fact, they're energized by these things. If you're applying for a job that's described as having a "fast-paced and innovative environment," be sure to mention to your interviewer that you're highly motivated with Pioneering.

People

Having a People orientation means you pay attention to the inner worlds and feelings of others, and you feel energized by making sure others feel good. Naturally, this lends well to sales positions or a role in  customer service or healthcare.

Problem-solving

Someone motivated by Problem Solving will feel excited by scanning the horizon for potential pitfalls and coming up with plans for safety. This motivation is well-suited for roles in quality control, strategic planning, and auditing.

Tips for giving a stand-out response

1. Be honest

You want to protect your integrity and avoid giving an inauthentic answer. This could harm your reputation and the agency or recruiter putting you forward for the role. Ensure your motivation genuinely aligns with the role and organization to ensure greater job satisfaction. Lying may lead to an offer, but eventually, the truth will surface, causing potential misery in the role.

2. Use storytelling to bring your resume to life

It's not enough to say I'm motivated by helping people or being creative. To show how motivated you are, give specific examples of how it has changed your behavior and led to past successes in your career. In addition, you want to make sure you're not simply restating your resume. Think about the details you omitted from your resume due to space constraints. Paint a picture with words about what challenges you faced, how you tackled the problem, and how your solution made a difference.

3. Look for themes in your past experience

Use exercises to understand what you're good at as you consider your motivations. Especially the one about past highs and lows in your life. Look to those high points and think about your biggest motivation at that time. Construct your success stories around those high points.

4. Use the CAR Method

As you consider what motivates you and construct a success story, you want to be concise and keep your answer focused. The CAR method stands for Challenge, Action, Result. It is a useful way to structure your stories and ensure you convey pertinent information and focus on your impact. To see more details about this, check out the Greatest Hits exercise.

5. Articulate your experience in a way that is meaningful to this particular employer

Consider the industry and company when showcasing your motivations. Use relevant examples, such as why you want to work in a group setting. This allows you to show that you're a good fit for a large tech company that values teamwork. Keep your answer professional and relevant.

Things to avoid

1. Generic answers with no real-life examples

The whole point of an interview is to set yourself apart from other candidates. You want the hiring manager to feel confident that you can do the job, that you want to do the job, and that they would like to work with you.

If you give generic answers without concrete examples, you're selling yourself short. You're also not differentiating yourself from other candidates.

2. Using someone else's answer

Your friend or family member may have an amazing answer to an interview question. It's fine to let that inspire you but avoid outright copying. You need the success story to back it up, and you could easily veer into embellishment territory, so be careful. It's best to come up with your own memorable answer.

3. Please love me syndrome

Limit your responses to interview questions to between 90 seconds and 2 minutes. Any longer, and you could start rambling. I call long-winded answers the ‘please love me’ syndrome. Candidates get nervous and start delivering monologues that they hope have a good nugget of information somewhere inside. This makes the candidate look unfocused and dilutes the impact of what they're saying. The CAR method above helps you dive in, provide relevant, impactful information, and gracefully close out the story.

4. Being too blunt

Most people work to provide for themselves and their families. Yet saying you're only there for the money could make the interviewer question if you'll be a dependable employee. Think back to a time when you had a project that meant a lot to you, and you needed to bring on additional help. Which answers would make you want to hire someone, and which answers would raise a red flag? Think from the recruiter's perspective and consider how you're coming across.

Don't forget to prepare follow-up questions

Sure, you might be interviewing for the job, but believe it or not, interviewers want you to ask questions too. It shows you're interested, have been paying attention, and actually want the role.

To wow your interviewer, ask follow-up questions like:

  • "Based on what you've learned about me so far, do you have any concerns about whether I'd be a good fit for the role?" It's a bold question, but it shows that you have the confidence to address issues upfront. Plus, this is your chance to reassure them by putting to rest any question about your suitability for the position.
  • "What motivation do you feel is most important for this position?" Their answer will lend you insight into any motivations you may have missed. Additionally, if you forgot to mention this particular motivation, you can chime in to reassure them that you do have this motivation.

On top of follow-up questions, don't be shy about following up after the interview. Thank them for their time and reiterate your qualifications and interest in the role.

Motivation significantly impacts job performance and career outcomes

Self-reflection is key

So you look good on paper and you've landed the interview. Preparing for the motivation question is critical. It calls for more introspection than most other behavioral ‘Tell me about a time when…’ type questions. You really have to know yourself for this one, and you want to give an honest answer. Luckily, at Fingerprint for Success we have tools to help you reflect.

F4S is a performance and collaboration platform built on 20+ years of research into motivations. After a free and simple test, you can instantly deep-dive into the 48 unique motivations and how they influence your work.

We're on a mission to make professional growth and personal growth accessible to anyone with an internet connection. With our help, you can uncover what type of work will be most fulfilling for you. You can also develop any areas you need to improve; we call them blind spots.

Start learning more about your unique motivations by taking the free F4S assessment. It only takes 15-20 mins and it will help you understand what drives and motivates you at work. You'll immediately receive a detailed report on your account dashboard that reveals your top motivational traits. These refer to the ways you're invigorated at work. You'll also learn what is most likely to drain your energy.

F4S dashboard shows what motivates you at work
F4S dashboard

Next, you can connect with your AI coach, Marlee. Marlee uses your motivational data and makes suggestions and insights based on your goals and areas of improvement. There are free coaching programs for areas such as emotional intelligence, creativity, leadership, and communication skills.

Personalized insights for your goal

Pioneering new things
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You like some variety, radical changes, doing new and different things in some of your work or business.

100% Match
Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
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With a little bit of development you can become more socially aware of yourself and others.

61% Match
Take the free assessment

Knowing your strengths, aka your top 5 motivations, can help your professional and personal life. You can use this information to help:

Our findings show that when a person has a good attitude and is motivated, they're more likely to be successful, happy, and enjoy their job.

It's important to know about yourself and what you believe in when looking for a new job or growing your business. Understanding these things can help you make good choices and be successful.

Values exercise

Another helpful way to learn about what drives you is to examine your values. Looking at what's most important to you at this particular moment in your life will shed light on your motivation. This can change over time with your life circumstances. For instance, a 22-year-old just starting a career may value gaining experience and travel. While someone in their 40s may require a higher-paying job close to their home with limited travel due to family obligations.

Try a Values Exercise that includes around 30 attributes of jobs.3 Then select the top 5 that are important to you at this time and rank order these.

F4S assessment results and your values exercise in combination can help you choose the right motivations to talk about in your interview.

Framing your answer to fit this particular role

When selecting your top 5 motivations, consider which ones match the needs of the job you're applying for.

F4S dashboard shows what motivates you in the workplace

Make sure your motivations align with the qualities the company is looking for in a candidate. For your information-gathering phase, try these steps:

  • Let the job description be your guide. Ask yourself, what are the competencies this employer seeks for this role? Which of your top 5 motivations are related?
  • Check out the employer's mission statement and values. Do any of these relate to your top 5 motivations?
  • Align your personal motivations with company culture, values, and goals to showcase that you're the perfect candidate.

Examples of the best answers for "what motivates you?"

This job interview question can be tough to answer. But it's important to have a good response ready. Here are 5 sample answers to inspire you. For each, we supply the underlying F4S motivation behind the answer.

We recommend taking the F4S assessment before your interview so that when the "what motivates you?" comes up, you can use evidence-based data to back up your answer.

Example 1: Cultivating relationships and helping people grow

F4S Motivation: Affiliation

People who score high in Affiliation are motivated by creating connections, building relationships, and belonging to a group. They yearn to have a positive impact on others.

Answer:

"Working for a larger purpose motivates me to do a good job. I take pride in my work no matter the context, but I find that I perform best when I'm in an environment where I'm making a difference. I spent the majority of my career working in academic administration. I love the energy of college campuses because students are coming there to change their lives and open up a new world of possibilities.

As an advisor, I have had the opportunity to connect with thousands of students and provide clarity for their journey, which has given me a sense of accomplishment in my career journey. The fall can be overwhelming with lots of evening hours. But I have been doing this for 7 years, and I remind myself of past successful programs and that the challenge is why I'm drawn to working at a college. Staying late to provide information in workshops that could help a student find an internship or job offer is worth it. The opportunity to have a positive impact is what made this open position stand out to me. I want to continue helping students."

Example 2: Leading teams

F4S Motivation: Power

People who love to lead teams are likely highly motivated by Power, which is about asserting influence, authority, and control in situations.

Answer:

"I have always thrived when leading teams. It is one of my biggest motivators. It started in high school when I was elected President of the Student Council. Throughout college and my professional career, I found myself drawn to positions managing people. That's why project management has been such a great fit. It's the intersection of my ability to connect with people and bring out the best in them and my organizational skills.

At ABC company, I was the youngest manager. Promoted after only a year (which traditionally took 2 years or more). During that time, I led our team through a successful project with one of our biggest clients transitioning from a legacy system. I not only had group meetings, but I also checked in with each team member on a regular basis. I ensured they understood the goals, had the resources they needed, and could solve problems as they arose.

We completed the transition to the new system within budget and a week ahead of schedule. It's a testament to the team and how hard they worked. The client was really happy with the results and hired us for another even larger project."

Example 3: Engaging directly with people

F4S Motivation: People

If you have People orientation, you'll likely thrive in sales roles, customer service, or human resources. This motivation speaks to your level of interest in working directly with people and attending to their thoughts and feelings.

"Providing an amazing customer experience is what motivates me. It started during a summer job at an upscale hotel in college, where they taught us the importance of strong customer service skills.

That experience influenced my decision to go into UX/UI because as I create websites, I think of the users as guests. I want to provide them with the ultimate experience with the company website.

At the hotel, we learned to anticipate needs and really listen to people. At the startup where I worked, that level of customer service was critical as we navigated to our Series A round of funding. In fact, the founders brought me to those meetings with angel investors to talk about how our design and customer service set us apart in the market.

I'm happy to say the funding came through, and I was glad to be part of the team that helped take the company to the next level."

Example 4: Learning new things

F4S Motivation: Information

People who score high on Information seek to be well-informed by acquiring facts, statistics, data and knowledge.

Answer:

"I am motivated when I have the opportunity to learn new things. In each of my jobs, I've made a conscious effort to focus on professional development. I think it's important to keep learning to perform well and stay competitive.

During my meetings with my supervisor, I asked about future projects and what I could do to prepare in advance. The last one involved Python, which I had never used before. I was able to take a few online courses ahead of time, which helped me dive into the project.

My thirst for learning new things also helps me navigate change well. I see it as an opportunity to broaden my skill set and bring more to my role."

Example 5: Using data insights to make decisions

F4S Motivation: Systems

Systems thinking people are highly interested in the interrelationships between functions, processes, roles, and procedures. By finding patterns, they can leverage that information to make changes that optimize the system.

Answer:

"I am motivated by data because I'm analytical and have strong technical skills in evaluating data to find hidden stories and insights. The satisfaction of discovering meaningful patterns and insights through data analysis drives me.

In my last role, I was brought into a 50-year-old family company that wanted to start focusing on analytics. First, I extrapolated years of data (both digital and hard copy invoices before 2000). Then analyzing the results to help the company see areas of vulnerability and strengths.

This project allowed the company to conduct a comprehensive SWOT analysis. This led to a successful expansion into new markets based on data-driven recommendations. It was exciting to contribute to the growth and company mission. That's why I'm drawn to this role, which focuses on helping startups expand and align with their mission, leveraging my data analysis skills."

What motivates you? Take our quiz

In F4S research studies spanning more than 20 years, we've been able to gather enough data to pinpoint the motivations that predict future success or failure. We analyzed entrepreneurs and business builders across the globe and created an XFactor Model of the top performers, which enables us to benchmark data against your F4S assessment results.

By taking the F4S assessment, you can see where you rank now and how those critical motivations can lead to career or business success. If there's a particular blind spot that you need to turn into a strength for a specific role you're interviewing for, F4S provides evidence-based coaching to help you do just that.

When you have your F4S assessment results, you can use those to speak to your strengths during an interview when they ask, "What motivates you?"

Discover the scientific answer to "What motivates you at work?"

In 15 minutes, uncover what gives you energy and fulfillment at work so you can successfully answer “What motivates you?" in your next interview. Cross-compare your F4S results to the job description and pinpoint which of the 48 motivations will matter most for this role. That way, you can highlight your strengths during the interview!

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1. Authors: Gifty Naa, Boafoa Okine, George Yaw, Asare Addeh, Babalola Emmanuel Olusola, Isaac Asare, George Yaw Asare Addeh. (2021). Employee Motivation and its Effects on Employee Productivity/ Performance. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/355735499_Employee_Motivation_and_its_Effects_on_Employee_Productivity_Performance_a#:~:text=The%20results%20of%20the%20study,the%20employee%2C%20the%20benefit%20decreases

2. Adam Grant. (2010). Putting a Face to a Name: The Art of Motivating Employees. Available at: https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/putting-a-face-to-a-name-the-art-of-motivating-employees/

3. https://www.uwlax.edu/globalassets/offices-services/aaccs/academic-advising-center/workvalues---univ-of-denver.pdf

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