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How to answer “What motivates you?” (with 5 stand-out examples)

How to answer “What motivates you?” (with 5 stand-out examples)

No matter how much candidates prepare, there’s something daunting about the “What motivates you?” interview question. Our lives are multifaceted, so it can be hard to select just one thing when we have a variety of motivations at any given time. Plus, we want to answer in a way that compels the interviewer to extend an offer. 

Like all interview questions, it’s easier if you break it down and think about what the interviewer is really asking.  If we use our empathy and put ourselves in the interviewer’s shoes, we can see the purpose of the question from the perspective of the hiring manager.

Why does the interviewer want to know “What motivates you?”

Here’s a little secret from my recruiting days – recruiters are scared. They don’t want to make the wrong choice when it comes to selecting someone to fill a position. A lot of people are counting on them and if they don’t find a truly qualified candidate, it can put the department and even the whole company at risk.

It takes years to build a solid reputation and professional brand that inspires loyalty and trust in customers, yet only minutes to tarnish that carefully crafted image. 

Candidates may seem great on their resume, but in person can be a vastly different story. Just think of how many dating profiles were amazing and it seemed like a huge disconnect between the author of that profile and the person sitting across the table.

By asking what motivates an applicant, I gained insights into how the job I was filling would fit into the candidate’s goals. 

Empathy can help you with the motivation question

Yes, it is much better being the one hiring candidates rather than applying for a job, but it is still stressful in a different way. 

As a recruiter, I would sometimes see super impressive resumes, yet when I connected with the candidate, it was clear that they had applied to over 50 jobs and I was 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 hire people who want to be there at that specific company and in that particular role.

Motivation and employee performance research

Research has found that employee motivation can significantly impact job performance, so it’s in the best interest of the hiring manager to find motivated employees who will perform well and have a positive impact on team morale. 

Professor Adam Grant from the Wharton School conducted studies within call centers and with lifeguards and found that when employees can see concrete examples of their work having a meaningful, positive impact on others, these employees are happier and vastly more productive. 

To learn more about additional research on motivation and teams, check out “These 4 motivation theories will help you boost team morale.”

If you think about why the motivation question is important to recruiters, it can help you dig deep and prepare an honest answer to show what drives you (and by extension, how you would be a top performer).

Self-reflection is key

The what motivates you? interview question is unique in that 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 there are tools to help you.

F4S motivations

The foundation of Fingerprint for Success focuses on how people’s motivations and attitudes influence their business outcomes based on 20 years of research. Review your top 5 motivations and see how they can help you not only answer a tough interview question, but also gain personal and professional insights to guide you in taking the next step in your career. 

Understanding developmental aspects of yourself (identity and belief structures) is critical when starting a new job search or taking your startup to the next level of growth.  

Values exercise

Another helpful way to learn about what drives you is to examine your values. If you look at what’s most important to you at this particular moment in your life, that 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 that is close to their home with limited travel due to family obligations. 

Try this Values Exercise which includes around 30 attributes of jobs (for example, Helping People, Location, Intellectual Status, Creativity, Stability, Profit, Excitement) and then select the top 5 that are important to you at this time and rank order these.

Cross referencing your F4S assessment results with the values exercise can help you know which motivations to consider for your answer.

Framing your answer to fit this particular role

As you choose among your Top 5 motivations (for example Goal Orientation, Affective Communication, Shared Responsibility, Power, and Affiliation to name a few), it’s important to think about the specific requirements of this role and which motivation of yours will best align with the special sauce this company is seeking 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 is seeking 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?

Prepare a compelling answer to “What motivates you?”

Here’s a 5-step checklist of what to include in your answer:

1 - Be Honest

Your integrity is something you want to protect and giving an answer you think the interviewer wants to hear will do a disservice to you, your reputation, and the company. You want to ensure your motivation genuinely aligns with the target job. If not, it may be time to keep searching so you will have a better chance at job satisfaction. Sure, you could lie and possibly receive an offer, but eventually the truth would surface and you might be miserable 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; you must provide examples to show how that motivation has had a concrete impact on your behavior and past achievements. In addition, you want to make sure you are not simply restating your resume. Think about the details that you omitted from your resume due to space constraints. Paint a picture with words about not only what you did, but why you did it and how it made a difference.

3 - Look for themes in your past experience

As you consider your motivations, try some of the exercises from “How to answer 'what am I good at?' according to an Ivy League Career Coach,” especially the one about past highs and lows in your life. Look to those high points and think about what motivated you 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 and is a useful way to structure your stories and ensure you convey the 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 what type of company you are applying to join. For example, if you want to join a large tech company that is dedicated to teamwork, and Group Environment is one of your Top 5 motivations, that’s a great place to begin your answer. Keep your answer professional and relevant.

Things to avoid

1 - Generic answers with no examples

The whole point of an interview is to set yourself apart from other candidates and inspire confidence in the hiring manager that you are the person who can do the job, you are motivated to do the job, and they would want to work with you. 

If you give generic answers (I want to help people and have volunteered a lot) without concrete examples (success stories) you are selling yourself short and not differentiating yourself from other candidates with examples of how your motivation led to past success (and would lead to future success at ABC company).

2 - Using someone else’s answer

Your friend or family member may have an amazing answer for an interview question. It’s fine to let that inspire you, but no outright copying. You need the success story to back it up and you could easily veer into embellishing territory, so be careful.

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 it the please love me syndrome because candidates get nervous and start delivering monologues that they hope has a good nugget of info somewhere in there. This makes the candidate look unfocused and dilutes the impact of what they are saying. The CAR method above helps you dive in, provide the relevant impactful info and gracefully close out the story.

4 - Being too blunt

Most people work to provide for themselves and their families, yet saying you are only there for the money could make the interviewer question their sense of dedication and wonder if they would only perform at a baseline level. 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 of the recruiter’s perspective and how you are coming across to this person.

5 sample answers to “What motivates you?”

Sample 1

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. The fall is always a crazy time with lots of evening hours and can initially seem overwhelming, but I have been doing this for seven years and remind myself of past successful programs and how the challenge of this time is exactly why I’m drawn to working at a college in the first place. It’s worth it to stay late knowing that the information our office provides in that workshop could help a student find an internship or full-time job offer. That’s what made this open position stand out to me – the chance to continue helping students.

Sample 2

I have always thrived when leading teams. It started back in high school when I was elected President of the Student Council and throughout college and into 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, as well as 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 also periodic check-ins with each team member to ensure they understood the objectives, had the resources necessary and to troubleshoot as inevitable project challenges 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 just hired us for another even larger project.

Sample 3

Providing an amazing customer experience is what motivates me. It started during a summer job at an upscale hotel in college where they drummed into us the utmost importance of making the customer happy. 

That experience influenced my decision to go into UX/UI because as I create websites, I think of the users as guests and 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 (both in person for support and on the site) was critical as we navigated to our Series A round of funding. In fact, the founders brought me into those pitch meetings with angel investors to talk about our design and how the level of customer service we provide differentiated us in the market. 

I’m happy to say the funding came through and I was glad to be part of the teamwork that helped take the company to the next level.

Sample 4

I am motivated when I have the opportunity to learn new things. In each of my jobs, I have made a conscious effort to focus on professional development because I believe it’s important to continually learn in order to perform at the best level and remain competitive given the constant change within the industry landscape. 

During my meetings with my supervisor, I have asked about future projects and what I could do to prepare in advance. For the last one, it 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 that project. 

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

Sample 5

I am motivated by data because I’m analytical and find it satisfying to evaluate data and find the hidden story and surprises that it often reveals. 

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

This project allowed the company to conduct a comprehensive SWOT analysis and led the CEO to successfully expand the business into new markets that the data revealed as promising. It was exciting to help the company take their business to the next level based on recommendations from the data. That’s why I am drawn to this role that will focus on helping startups expand.

Final Thoughts on “What motivates you?” interview question

It’s worth the effort to take time for self-reflection to gain clarity on what motivates you to do a good job. By thinking back to your high points and when you felt enthusiastic at work, you will be able to formulate success stories based on your past wins that will inspire confidence in the hiring manager that you can ease their pain points. 

They want someone who can hit the ground running and quickly make contributions. The vivid picture you paint with stories about relevant motivations aligned with your target job and company will allow you to make a memorable and positive impression and one step closer to securing that offer.

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