How to Answer the Interview Question "What Motivates You?" 

Updated Dec 21, 20227 min
How to Answer the Interview Question "What Motivates You?" 

How to Answer the Interview Question "What Motivates You?" 

Caroline BantonUpdated Dec 21, 20227 min
How to Answer the Interview Question "What Motivates You?" 

What motivates you? That’s a common interview question and one that will require some thought to answer. “Money” is probably your automatic response, but you might not be as materialistic as you think! Most people seek extrinsic rewards when it comes to their jobs but what really motivates them is an intrinsic reward.

This article demystifies extrinsic reward, intrinsic reward, and motivation. We explain why a recruiter wants to explore what drives you and we’ll guide you through some self-reflection. We also provide some sample answers so you can be creative in forming your own and stand out in your next job interview.

Be Truthful

It helps to answer the interview question "What Motivates You?" truthfully. For one thing, your answer will be unique, and that's what makes you interesting to a hiring manager. For another thing, an interviewer will recognize a disingenuous answer for what it is: uninspired, which could mean the job is not particularly exciting to you. 

That said, while you should be truthful, you don’t want to be irrelevant. You need to align what you say motivates you with what the job entails and what the employer is looking for. For that, you need to read the job description and research the company.

A similar question to "What motivates you at work?" is "What are you passionate about?"

Let’s dive a little deeper into motivation.

What Is Motivation?

A popular topic among behavioral psychologists is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. An example of extrinsic motivation is when someone is motivated to do something for a physical reward. For example, a child who plays soccer to earn a trophy.

An example of intrinsic reward is being motivated to do something because it makes you feel a certain way, not because of a tangible or monetary reward. A soccer coach might volunteer to coach because they get a sense of accomplishment from watching the players and the team develop. A thrill-seeker seeks out risky or scary scenarios.

Motivation, then, can be seen in the context of feelings. You do something because of how it makes you feel. What type of feelings do you hope to conjure from your work? Knowing this might make it easier to find what motivates you. Fear? Coaching others and seeing them develop? Winning a trophy?

Now, consider how to answer the question in a way that links the job with what motivates you in the work environment. 

Examples of Workplace Motivation

The hiring manager wants to know more about you. Most interview questions are posed so that the hiring manager can find out what makes a job seeker tick in the workplace and if they will fit. If you are not a good fit for the role, or the work is not something that excites you, you may not stay long in the position. That's important because if you leave,  the company will have to repeat the costly hiring process.

Let’s say that what motivates you is helping others because you feel that you have made a difference in someone’s life; you would make a great nurse or doctor. Perhaps what motivates you is the feeling you get when you design and build a piece of furniture; you'd be a great carpenter. Perhaps what motivates you is seeing your athletic performance improve and helping others to do the same; you might be a personal trainer.

These are all examples of where the vocation fits what motivates the person. Now, let’s look at two interview scenarios to show how to answer the question, “What motivates you?”

Interview for a Data Analyst

Presumably, a data analyst is in the IT profession because they like computer science, but there are other aspects to consider. For example, data analysis involves looking at data and identifying patterns. It involves using facts to come to conclusions and to make decisions. It involves using predictive analytics and machine learning. So, if a data analyst is asked the question, “What motivates you?” here’s an example answer.

An Answer That Works

“What motivates me is taking a complicated scenario or situation and being able to make sense of the mess whether it be finding a pattern or teasing out information to come to a logical conclusion. I’m detail-oriented, and if I can find a story in the chaos, I feel like I’ve achieved something. Last year, I spent a whole week on one group of data and finally came up with a key trend that made the company change their strategy completely.”

Why This Answer Works

This is a great answer because the candidate shows their passion for data analysis. It’s a good idea to retell an experience so that the hiring manager has some context. From this answer, the interviewer could assume that the candidate will be thorough and find unique insights that others might not. The candidate is self-aware, clearly motivated by a challenge, and will likely perform well under pressure.

An Answer that Falls Short

“I like computers and analyzing data. I have always had an analytical mind, so I like to spend time looking at details and sorting information.”

This answer may seem ok on the face of it. But it is an obvious answer and lacks any depth. Nothing in this answer makes the candidate stand out or explains any motivating factor, such as being part of a team.

Interview for a Marketing Role

Someone in the marketing field is likely to be interested in human behavior and influencing behavior through communication. So, if a marketing professional is asked, “What motivates you?” here’s a possible answer that works followed by one that doesn’t.

An Answer that Works

“I get a sense of satisfaction if I can find a way to communicate a message that changes a person’s opinion or makes them act in a desired way. It’s interesting to understand how people think, and if I can persuade someone to think in a certain way, I feel like I’ve helped them to understand something and made a difference. In my last job, it was so exciting to see how our team members developed campaigns from ideation through launch and how those campaigns affected consumers' habits.”

This is a good answer because the candidate is convincing in their response. The candidate explains why they find marketing stimulating and how their work translates to benefits for the overall team and the company.

An Answer that Falls Short 

“I like to be creative and to come up with strategies that can make a brand more successful. In previous jobs, I have always had unique ideas as to how to sell an idea or a point of view.”

Again, this answer falls short because there seems to have been little thought behind it. It states that the person likes marketing and thinks they are good at it but doesn't explain what it is about marketing that they enjoy or align their past work experience with the company’s goals.

How to Develop a Winning Answer for Your Situation

Each job is different, but fundamentally, the feelings that you want to experience doing a job will be the same. The goal is to align what you want to feel (your motivation) with the job and the company’s mission. Here are some steps to take.

1. Research the company and understand the role completely.

Read the job description, research the company, even talk to an insider to understand how your job will motivate you. Try reaching out to a company representative on LinkedIn, or ask your HR contact if they can recommend someone that you could chat to so that you can envisage your day-to-day role.

2. Think about what aspects of the job are important and how you can align your answer with those aspects.

For some employers, it might be important that you are ready and eager to learn new skills, or that you value dynamic and innovative teamwork, or that you are excited by a risky venture. 

As you research and learn about the role, develop your answer with a view to what type of personality or employee the employer is looking for. Incorporate these important aspects into your answer.

Summary Tips

Here are some overall tips for developing your answer to job interview questions like "What motivates you?"

  • Be truthful – An employer will see through a less than impassioned and honest answer.

  • Research the role and the company – Know what your job will entail to speak to that role and show why it appeals to you.

  • Stay relevant – Link your answer back to the company’s mission and your role.

  • Tell a story – Give a real-life example of a time when you were highly motivated and how your best work benefited the company.

Bottom Line

Fundamentally, if you and your employer are going to have a mutually beneficial relationship, what motivates you at work must be the satisfaction you feel from doing your new job. So, it’s worthwhile giving this question considerable thought and being honest in your answer. On the flip side, an interview should serve both parties, so don’t hesitate to ask questions in your next interview to make sure that the job is the right fit for you.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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