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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

How to answer the interview question “What motivates you?”

15 min read
How to answer the interview question “What motivates you?”
Artwork by:Vika Shibaeva
Every interviewer wants to feel that a candidate can’t wait to get started in the job. While the reasons for their motivation may vary, it is the strength of their conviction that will win the day. What makes you excited about coming to work?

You know those days when you came home from work with a spring in your step and a smile on your face? Memories that you have long bottled and played over in your mind?

It is the collection of these moments that constitutes what motivates you at work. 

When you are looking for a new job, this question is central to making the right choice for your future. You want to find the sort of role, workplace and boss where you can enjoy many such days. Your employer will also want you to feel this on a regular basis. Exploring your motivation is therefore a critical part of any interview. 

In this article, we will consider how to answer “What motivates you?”

  • Why should any interviewer put your motivations at the top of their list?
  • How to answer: “What motivates you?”
  • Example answers and why they are effective
  • Three responses to avoid
Expert tip

Prepare your answer in advance. There are certain interview questions that are guaranteed an appearance. “What motivates you?” is one of them and there is no excuse to answer off the cuff. This is your chance to explain why you turn up for work every day.

Why is your motivation important for an interviewer?

“Why are you here?”

They might not say it in as many words, but this thought will float around a hiring manager’s head for most of an interview. They want to know what makes you tick, why you will keep going when things get hard and how your motivations will rub off on those around you.

Are your motivations a fit for the demands of the job and is the company a place where you have the potential to thrive? The most capable employee can be miserable if the culture is not a fit with their personal outlook.

When they ask: “What motivates you?” they hope to hear an enthusiastic and passionate response that puts the role and the company at the center of their reasoning. If a candidate really understands why they are in that interview room, it is more likely that they will be retained for the long term if they are offered the role.

What motivates you
What motivates you
Expert tip

Talk about both personal and professional motivations. Many of us come to work because we enjoy certain aspects of the role and feel an affinity with the corporate culture. Workplace motivations are common and should be shared alongside more personal aspects of a candidate’s “why.” Motivation is complex – this isn’t a question for a short answer.

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There are many motivations for wanting a new role, but which ones will serve you best in an interview? You can guarantee this question will come up and your answer should provide a solid foundation for the rest of the interview.

How to answer “What motivates you?” 

In terms of assessing your suitability for any given role, this question is critical for both candidates and employers. While candidates can think about their motivations in advance of any interview , they also need to work out whether the role and employer will be able to offer them what they need to feel happy at work.

Consider the following aspects of your motivation for a heartfelt answer:

Be honest

Every workplace is a broad church with people of varying motivations. The nature of your motivation is not that important – it is the depth of feeling that matters. Your future boss doesn’t really care why you come to work – they simply want to understand that you really want to be there. If you construct some invented motivation, you risk coming across as insincere. Be honest.

Think about what you love at work

Look back on your career and think about when you were genuinely happy at work. Not just content, but blissfully happy. Such self-reflection will shine a light on the tasks that you relish. Hearing about these “on the job” motivations will make any future employer sit up and pay attention. Reference the company culture.

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Keep the job in mind

While it might seem disingenuous to reel off a list of responsibilities that you “love” doing, keeping your motivations broadly relevant to the demands of the role will stop any doubts appearing in a hiring manager’s mind. Pick the motivations that fit best with what you will be doing on a daily basis. 

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Share an example

Nothing beats giving a real-life example of how your motivations have made a difference to a previous employer. Motivations pack a punch when the going gets tough and most other people would otherwise give up. Tell them about a time when you achieved something that required genuine mental fortitude. Stories are memorable.

Make it personal 

In the spirit of bringing your whole self to work, sharing what you find personally meaningful at work will allow an interviewer to build a more rounded picture of who you are. Not every question will invite such a personal response, so make the most of the opportunity to tell them what makes you tick. Your answer doesn’t need to contain a personal element, but your motivations will seem a little hollow without it.

Expert tip

Some areas for work-related motivation that you may wish to consider:

  • Acquiring new skills and developing professionally.
  • Meeting commercial targets – feeling that you make a difference.
  • Coaching and mentoring those around you. Developing your team.
  • Optimizing operational processes and efficiently managing projects.
  • Rising to a creative challenge and being backed to implement innovative solutions.
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Example answers for your motivation 

There are many kinds of motivation and there is no right answer to this question, so here are a few example responses that may offer some inspiration:

Talk about something that you find challenging on a daily basis:

Example

“I love the fact that in sales every conversation can unlock a door – online and in real life. You might not be able to walk though it immediately, but when you have put the work in to unlock enough doors you never quite know which one will open next. I am motivated by the inevitable nature of the sales funnel – you might not be winning today, but if you do the right things, you can guarantee that you will win tomorrow.”

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Explain how you make a specific difference to those around you:

Example

“My high-functioning autism drives me to notice trends in the data that others normally miss. I enjoy challenging myself to understand the bigger picture, but I certainly feel that my contributions are valued by a range of colleagues. I am most at home tweaking big data algorithms or learning the latest coding language. I am motivated because I know that my highly specific skill set makes a real-world difference.”

Copied!
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Feeling the psychological safety to take creative risks is a big motivator for many:

Example

“I am motivated by working in a creative environment where my achievements are only limited by the extent of my imagination. Winning an award for innovation at MarTech three years ago gave me the fire to push the boundaries at work every day. I sometimes wonder whether my ideas will be welcomed by my colleagues, so I am looking to work in a company where even bad ideas are welcomed and debated.”

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If you have an emotionally demanding role, it is acceptable to address its challenges:

Example

“Working as an emergency medic brings moments of intense stress when I understand the gravity of life/death decisions. Having seen my father die of an incurable illness, I throw myself into such situations with everything that I have. I will do anything in my power if I can save another relative from that loss. This motivation is the reason for my continued medical studies and helps me to cope with the emotional trauma of the role.”

Copied!
Expert tip

What demotivates you? An intelligent response might also seek to explore what destroys your motivation. Any interviewer would nod along with you suggesting that you don’t thrive in an atmosphere where colleagues shirk responsibility and deadlines fly by like the wind. What things at work make you want to stay in bed in the morning?

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Three responses to avoid when it comes to talking about your motivation

This is one question that you need to smash if you want to secure the job. You can be sure that your interviewer will cringe if your response is along the following lines:

1. Don’t say that you are motivated by money or perks.

Bad answer: “I have always been motivated by money, If I am honest. If the compensation allows me to live the lifestyle that I deserve, I will do anything that is asked of me at work. Unlimited holidays are important to me – I can do the job sitting on the beach.”

2. Don’t make something up. Expect the question.

Bad answer: “Um, well, let me think about that one for a minute. Does a diary not filled with meetings count as a motivation? I do find it hard to get enthused, but I muddle through.”

3. Don’t say the same thing as everyone else.

Bad answer: “I love working with like-minded people towards a goal that we all believe in. Money is not a motivator for me. I simply want to feel like I am making a difference.”

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Key takeaways

  • A powerful response to the “What motivates you?” question will make any interviewer pay that bit more attention to the rest of what you have to say.
  • Motivation is non-negotiable in a new recruit. If you cannot summon up sufficient enthusiasm for a new role you won’t last long.
  • Hiring managers want to find someone who knows exactly what they want out of their next role, so make sure to tailor your response to their needs.
  • If you cannot come up with compelling reasons, maybe the role isn’t for you?
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