Knowing how to explain what motivates you tells an interviewer that you not only can do the job - you'll enjoy it, too

When a recruiter or hiring manager asks, “What motivates you?” it sounds like a simple-enough question and one that should be easy to answer - but this is another one of those open-ended questions that need a bit of preparation to answer effectively and keep you in the running for the job.

While there might be many things that motivate you, your answer must be crafted to align with the specific position you're after and the company hiring you to do it.

Why do interviewers ask “What motivates you?”

This question is similar to asking “What makes you unique?” It's meant to discover whether or not you're the right fit for the job and, more importantly, if you'll fit within that company's particular workplace culture and goals.

It provides insight into how and why you're motivated to be a successful employee, as well as what fulfills you in your job or career, which in turn offers some additional insight into your personality and approach to work. All these things - plus your skills and experience - help the interviewer to determine whether you're the best person to hire.

It is important to remember that employers who ask what motivates you are not asking you why you've decided to pursue your career options or apply for their open position. They are simply trying to figure out your motivations and drive to do a great job, achieve your mission, and contribute to your employer's success.

“What drives you?” and other ways this question is asked

Some interviewers won't ask this specific question. You need to recognize it when it's asked in different ways, so you can still provide the answers they're after. Instead of “what motivates you?” you might hear:

  • What inspires you?

  • What drives you to meet challenges?

  • What excites you about your job (or about working in general)?

  • What drives you to be successful?

  • What makes you want to get up every day for work?

How to prepare an answer to “What motivates you?” 

As with all interview preparation, begin by researching the company in detail. The more you know about the company (and the position), the more you can tailor your answer to match the company's needs. Try to learn about the employer's mission and values, as that can be critical in framing your answers.

In most cases, the hiring manager is asking this in the context of your work life, not your personal life. Most importantly, don't start off with the obvious answer of “a good salary” or “excellent benefits.” It's a given that these things are generally part of everyone's motivation for taking a job and, for the right candidate, these discussions come later in the hiring process.

Possible motivations to focus on as you develop your answer

  • Taking on or overcoming challenges

  • Developing new skills

  • Working with others

  • Working independently

  • Having little (or more frequent) direct supervision

  • Being part of, or leading, a team

  • Teaching or mentoring others

  • Creating new processes or improving existing ones

  • Learning new things

  • Being innovative or creative

  • Having challenging goals and deadlines

Aligning your answer with the position you're seeking

As we noted, it's important to know as much as possible about the employer and the job you're seeking, so that you can tailor your response to align with the position. For example, if you're seeking a job dealing with data and analysis, you should try to include those concerns in your answer. You can find an example of this type of data-focused answer in our sample answer section below.

One way to ensure that your answer aligns with the position is to review the job description. Figure out which responsibilities seem to inspire you and build your answer around those duties. Remember to be honest with yourself as you do this, since your response will be more believable if it truly conveys your motivations.

It's also important to not stray too far from that alignment. If the job you're seeking requires a great deal of collaboration with others, then you shouldn't respond by talking about how much you love studying spreadsheets by yourself in a corner office.

Other factors to consider as you create an answer

  • Consider your strengths. Generally, what motivates someone is also what they're good at, so your answer can highlight skills as well as motivation.

  • Reflect on the past. Think back to one of your best days at work. Why was it such a good day? What were you doing? Who were you working with? What made you happiest?

  • Use actual examples. Sharing a specific example from your current job or a previous position means backing up your motivation with the skills that will also make you successful in the job. This often makes a recruiter sit up and take notice.

  • Keep it short - or as short as possible. Be sure your answer isn't too long or rambling. Keep it as short as possible while still getting across what motivates you the most.

  • Stay positive. Don't frame your answers using negative examples about you or about others. Share the things you enjoy doing and show how they've helped you to be an excellent employee in all your jobs.

  • Be honest. Hopefully, you're applying for a position that you really do feel is a good fit for your skills and abilities, as well as for what drives you to be successful. That said, it's important to be honest about your motivation for a job, or it's quite possible you won't have the job for long once your employer discovers you're not a great fit. For example, being motivated by leading a team and consistently interacting with others is not the same as being fulfilled by working mostly on your own crunching numbers or researching data. Neither is good or bad. It's just a question of which one is best for you and that specific role.

  • Use the STAR method. Describe your motivation examples around Situations, Tasks, Actions, and Results. The benefit of this method is that it can show how your motivation ultimately benefited your past company or could benefit a future one. What's more, you end up telling a story rather than just rattling off an answer. That approach can make you sound more interesting and make the interviewer more interested in you.

  • Practice. Share your answer with a family member or friend and get their feedback. Practicing will help you to answer confidently and concisely.

If you're interviewing for your first full-time job, talk about what motivated you while working in an internship or volunteer role. The outcome should be the same: to convey what's meaningful to you in a job and help the company to see that you'll be a motivated employee who's a good fit for their role.

Sample answers to “What motivates you?”

As you develop your answers, consider the things that attracted you to your current career or specific job. Think about why this kind of work feels right for you and how you've become even more talented over time.

Hopefully, you'll discover more about why you're after any specific position and, in turn, be able to clearly communicate that to the hiring manager or recruiter. Here are some examples to get you started:

Example of someone motivated by learning and skill development

“Learning new skills really motivates me. It's so satisfying to see myself improve as I gain more knowledge about a job or market sector. In my last job, I consistently signed up for training or courses that would grow my skill set, paying for some out of my own pocket. I really believe that ongoing learning makes you more innovative and valuable in the workplace.”

Example for someone motivated by a desire to solve problems

I've been coding since middle school, when I was first exposed to it. My mom is a Software Developer and helped me whenever I needed it. Coding has been “it” for me ever since and I've become an expert in Java and C++. I think about coding from the minute I wake up until I go to sleep. Solving problems with code is what challenges me, motivates me, and drives me to be successful.

Example for someone who loves organizing projects and activities

I'm addicted to planning! Being organized at work and at home drives me to make sure I have enough time to achieve my goals and give my best in all I do. It ensures that I don't overtask myself, so I can focus on doing quality work and not get burned out by working long hours on any one project. Good time management helps me to maintain consistently excellent standards.”

Example for someone who's motivated by serving others

Providing outstanding customer service is what drives me. I worked as a Mobile Sales Associate for a local credit union. The days were hectic with solving customer issues and answering questions. I worked hard to understand their queries and explain the how and why of our processes and operations. It really motivated me and upped my confidence whenever customers gave me a great review and a high rating.”

Example for a team player or leader

“I was a Team Lead in my last position, managing a team of 10. Our task was to improve outcomes, so the team had to work efficiently and deliver consistently accurate results. I made it my goal to streamline the team's processes and be more productive with less “busy work.” Working with a team to complete tasks accurately and ahead of schedule was and is what drives me every day. I want to help any company I'm with to always meet their bottom line.” 

Example for someone who's driven by managing successful teams

“I've been responsible for directing software development teams and implementing repeatable processes for a variety of companies. My teams achieved 100% on-time product delivery for six straight months. The challenge of finishing the projects ahead of schedule and successfully managing teams to reach our goals is the kind of thing that's always motivated me.”

Example for a person who's driven to get results

“I'm motivated by results. I'm always excited when I have a tangible goal to meet and enough time to develop a sound strategy to accomplish it. In my current job, we have very aggressive quarterly and yearly goals. I was tasked to work with my manager and my team to create a month-by-month strategy to meet our quarter-end and year-end numbers. Accomplishing that was a great thrill and made me even more result oriented.”

Example for a person who's motivated by data

“I love numbers. Analyzing data and providing results really drives and motivates me. I love getting my hands on a spreadsheet to figure out what's driving the numbers and sharing my conclusions. In my current position, I generate our monthly sales analytics reports. Being able to provide this essential information is really motivating because the data from these reports helps the company to determine its sales goals for the upcoming months and clarifies how the organization will move forward, and I know I've made a big contribution to that.”

Proper preparation can help you approach your interview with greater confidence

Knowing what motivates you means you can clearly and confidently convey to an interviewer that you not only have the skills to do the job but that you will also fit well with the company's culture and values. As long as you've done your research and preparation, you'll conquer your fear of this particular interview question and be ready to promote yourself as the best candidate to hire.

Your motivators are simply what you love to do and, as the saying goes, “find something you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life.”

Learn how to ace every part of your interview with our expert interview tips, and let our free resume review make your resume shine!This article was originally written by Lisa Tynan and has been updated by Ken Chase.

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