“So, What Motivates You?”
This is one of those gray interview questions that can throw you after your runs through a list of black-and-white ones. This question demands a bit of introspection, a dash of eloquence, and a whole lot of intuition about what the interviewer is looking to hear.
You may recognize some of its equally vague, open-ended cousins:
- What makes you, you?
- What makes you tick?
- What are you passionate about?
Without a bit of forethought, it’s tough to come up with an inspiring and coherent answer, but you may find it helpful to answer this one honestly to yourself first. That forces you to refine your search and discern whether a job truly aligns with your passions and goals, which will genuinely answer the question for you.
Or, in the words of William Shatner, “I sometimes find that in interviews you learn more about yourself than the person learned about you.”
The key to masterfully answering this question is realizing that it’s really two questions in one:
The interviewer’s goal with both questions is to figure out what drives you as well as how you approach and view success. What motivates you as an individual is directly related to your ambitions, and hiring managers want to know what you like doing and why you like doing it.
Hint: the answer is not “money.”. It’s never, ever money… even if it is.
Here are some things to remember when formulating the best answer, courtesy of Alison Green, author of How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager and writer for Ask a Manager.
“Interviewing people is hard work. It’s even harder if you have to drag answers and relevant information out of a candidate.”
Like many of the toughest interview questions, this question is as difficult to answer in front of a mirror as a hiring manager because there is no “right” answer for everyone.
But it presents an opportunity for you to tell them what you want and who you are as a person. You and your parents know you’re a unique snowflake and not just another employee.
You’ll learn to tell the interviewer how by asking yourself:
This demands honesty, and your interview will typically be smoother if you tell the truth the whole time. That way, you don’t have to remember any lies. Interviewers have heard all of the canned answers you can Google (except the sample answers I’ll give you at the end).
But as much as honesty is appreciated, you can’t look your interviewer dead in the eye and say:
“We want you to help us figure out why we should hire you. After all, we have a vacancy on our team, and we’re highly motivated to find someone who’s a great fit to fill it.”
Interviewers choose questions for strategic reasons, and you need to answer with your motivation in a way relevant to the position. You may banter and trade jokes, have a super sleek padfolio and creamy resume paper with an elevator speech fiercer and more eloquent than a Beyoncé and Shakespeare rap battle.
But if you don’t answer the question in a way that builds you up because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or try just to say what they want to hear, you’ll sound disingenuous and unconfident.
If it’s a non-profit, focus on feeling good about helping people. If it’s a sale position, talk about satisfaction from exceeding goals.
“You can help us see that you’re right for the job by coming prepared with real-life examples of how you’ve excelled in the areas the job requires.”
Mentioning hobbies is an excellent way to subtly describe yourself as an individual, but relate them to professional situations. But make them work for you. Here are some if-then-examples for you.
If you are the leader of a local political group or volunteer organization…
Then you’re the type who gets a kick out of building a team, coaching others and watching them succeed.
If you compete in obstacle course races or find pleasure in attempting elaborate recipes you’ve never tried, even if you fail…
Then you view daunting tasks as obstacles to overcome and opportunities to grow, handling challenging projects where you can apply your skills in a target-driven situation.
“We know candidates aren’t always completely candid in interviews. We’re wondering what you are revealing.”
You want to tell your interviewers just what you want them to know, and they want to know everything. The unfair part is that the interviewer gets to be vague, but you don’t. Give concrete answers. This is reverse Tom and Jerry, and the cat always gets the mouse.
“We won’t always tell you what we really think. Part of interviewing is encouraging people to reveal themselves, which often means not showing any judgment during the meeting.”
Just as it’s important to be open and enthusiastic with your interviewer, don’t carelessly answer in a way that is not aligned with the company. Be economic with what you say.
And don’t assume you’re on a roll just because the interviewer maintains the same cordial smile and nods the whole time. While not necessarily antagonistic, interviews are a form of verbal chess.
“Because interviews are stressful, it’s easy for a job candidate to start feeling like the interviewer is an adversary, but it’s really the opposite—interviewers go into every interview hoping you’ll be the right candidate.”
Keep in mind that while the interviewer is trying to see if what motivates you is a dealbreaker, she’s also hoping that what motivates you is ideal for the position. Do yourself a favor and give her what she’s looking for.
“Hiring isn’t just about who has the best skills to do the job; it’s also about who will fit in best with the workplace. Interviewers think about the fact that we’re going to be around whoever we hire quite a bit.”
What motivates you in your personal life is relevant here. They also want to know what you do when you’re not obligated, as this is a better indicator than rehearsed answers.
Essentially, they want to know what you’ll be like to manage and if you can get along.
Specifically, they’re wondering:
“No matter how skilled you are, we’re not going to want to hire you if you’re arrogant or whiny or otherwise unpleasant.”
Don’t wax poetic on how you like to be better than anyone, if what you really mean to say is that you derive satisfaction from breaking records and exceeding goals. And don’t just spend time bashing your last boss if you’re potentially looking at your future one.
Also, have I mentioned that people who make it clear that they’re only in it for the money are unpleasant to work with?