How to Answer: What Motivates You?

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A Guide to Answering a Common Interview Question

Along with a few other questions — such as “what are your strengths and weaknesses,” and “where do you see yourself in five years” — the question “What motivates you?” is one of the most common interview questions job candidates receive. And it’s a tricky question, too, because it’s both open-ended and open to interpretation. How can you answer it in a winning way? That’s what this guide is all about. Here, we’ll explain why “What motivates you?” gets asked, how you can prepare for it and what you need to say to wow your interviewer.

Why Interviewers Ask "What Motivates You"

There are a lot of reasons a hiring manager or interviewer might ask this question, but you can count on at least two things they’re getting at — they want to know if your personality will fit the open position, and see if you know yourself well enough to explain what drives you.

When it comes to the former, a potential employer will try to see if your values — as well as the way you work and the incentives you like to receive — align with what they can offer in the job.

As for the latter, knowing yourself well is an indicator that you are a clear-headed, proactive, thoughtful person — the kind any company would gladly want to add to its team.

Why Interviewers Ask "What Motivates You"

How to Prepare for "What Motivates You"

This is not an answer you want to wing. Ramble on, and you could turn a hiring manager off. But there are two easy steps you can take beforehand to knock this answer out of the park.

Do your research. First, read the job description and its requirements over and over. If you’re familiar with the job, then you can tailor your answer to better fit the position. For example, if the job description says that the employer is looking for a person that is “a self-starter and a resourceful problem solver,” then saying you’re motivated by the opportunity to be proactive and work independently in a position might sit well with the interviewer. It's also worth researching the company's mission and values to see if you can align your answer with them — for example, if you're interviewing with a nonprofit, you might say that you're motivated by the chance to make a difference in the world.

Prepare an anecdote. It’s one thing to say that you’re motivated by the chance to work as a problem-solver, but another entirely to share an anecdote about how your quick thinking saved the day during a previous work crisis. When you answer "what motivates you," explaining your motivation as well as providing an example of that motivation at work is a winning combination.

How to Prepare for "What Motivates You"

How — and How Not — to Answer "What Motivates You"

Sometimes, the best way to answer a question well is to know which answers just don’t work. Really bad answers might include:

  • “I’m looking for a big home, and the only way I can afford it is to make more money.”
  • “I am motivated to perform so I don’t lose my job.”
  • "I'm motivated by the idea of moving up the corporate ladder."

Unfortunately, talking about personal, surface-level motivations doesn’t — excuse the pun — motivate an interviewer to hire you. On the contrary, it makes you sound as if you're only showing up for the paycheck, and what kind of hiring manager is looking for that? 

Instead, when you answer this question, you must connect what motivates you to the job or company itself, in order to highlight how you would be a beneficial addition to the team.

How — and How Not — to Answer "What Motivates You"

Sample Answers to "What Motivates You"

With all of this in mind, some good answers might be:

  • Working together as a team and contributing toward something greater than myself are my two biggest motivators. At this company in particular, I think I would be constantly motivated by the highly collaborative environment and your mission of bringing people closer together through technology."
  • “I’m motivated by the opportunity to identify challenges and help people overcome them — for example, at my last company I led an effort to evaluate and overhaul our onboarding process, which resulted in 20% higher satisfaction scores at 90-day check-ins across the entire company."
  • "What I find the most motivating is setting ambitious goals for my team and coaching my direct reports so that we can achieve them. In my current position, we set a target of booking $2 million in revenue during Q4, which we knew would be challenging, but doable as long as we continuously pushed ourselves. The feeling of coming together and hitting our quota with a week left in the quarter is something I'll never forget!"

Most hiring managers are far more interested in a potential employee whose motivation is position- or company-centric versus the “feel good” answers some are compelled to give. Remember, authenticity is key!

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