Open-ended questions like “what motivates you?” can elicit a deer-in-the-headlights reaction from job candidates if they are unprepared. It’s a broad question and can leave the interviewer knowing less about what makes you tick than they did before they posed the question. That doesn’t have to be the case, however. By anticipating the question and planning a response in advance, you can offer a clear, compelling answer every time.
But first, let’s explore why interviewers ask the question in the first place and what they are hoping to learn from your reply. In many cases, the interviewer simply wants to get a sense of your personality. Asking an open question leaves room for individuality. As organizations continue to place a high value on company culture, they will use interview questions to get a better sense of who you are as a person and how you may or may not meld with the culture.
Secondly, the interviewer wants to find out how you react in the face of adversity--and not just the adversity of being asked an open-ended interview question. They want to know how you respond to challenges. Do you shrink back, or do you attack them head on? What do you do if you’re given a task that falls outside of your usual job description or you are given a project that is especially tough? Your reply to “what motivates you?” answers a multitude of questions.
So how do you offer a memorable answer? Here are a few quick tips for what to do and what not do when answering “what motivates you?” in an interview.
Absolute best practices for answering “what motivates you?” when asked in a job interview
1. Even if money is truly your top motivator, be sure that your answer is not all about money or the paycheck you’ll collect. If it is, the interviewer may question your loyalty to the company if a better offer comes along or the job gets tough.
2. Don’t be afraid to offer a personal reason for what motivates you--just use good judgment with the examples you choose and tie it to a professional goal. Making your children, spouse, or a mentor proud of your hard work is an acceptable answer. Making your high school classmates jealous of your success--probably not.
3. Don’t lie or make up an answer on the spot based on what you think the interviewer wants to hear. They will see through it immediately, and you’ll leave them with the impression that you’re disingenuous.
4. Be specific. Whenever possible, connect your answer to a measurable result or outcome from a previous role.
5. Never answer with “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” Interview preparation is key. You should always assume that you will be asked an open-ended question like “what motivates you?” and you should have a good response practiced and ready to deliver.
6. Whatever answer you provide, be enthusiastic. You want to convey that you’re ready for a new challenge and already brimming with motivation to take it on.
The best tip for confidently answering any interview question is to practice until you are comfortable with your responses. Even if the questions vary in your live interview, you’ll be far less likely to be caught off guard if you’ve thought through potential questions and are comfortable tailoring answers to fit your personal narrative. To help prepare for your next interview, here are some sample answers to practice, modify and perfect.
Example interview answers to “What motivates you?”
As you consider the best direction to take with your answer, don’t be afraid to frame your response around your particular strengths. Tying quantifiable results to an abstract question such as “what motivates you?” is a powerful way to get the attention of the interviewer.
Example: Work ethic
Answer: On a personal level, I am motivated to show the value of a good work ethic to my children. No matter how difficult the project, I want them to see that it is important to show up with enthusiasm every day, ready to give your best. That translates nicely into what motivates me as an employee. I am driven by the sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing you’ve given your best to your team each day.
Answer: I thrive on completing tasks and projects ahead of schedule, and I love learning new things and collaborating with a team to work toward a common goal. I’ve learned through the years that there is more than one correct way to complete most tasks, and I am highly motivated to brainstorm ideas before a project begins, to find the most efficient path to completion that will offer the best outcome for the business. As an example, in my last role, my team delivered 100% of our new product launches ahead of schedule and under budget, because we made it a point to brainstorm our delivery plan in advance.
Example: Reaching sales goals
Answer: My primary motivation is to maintain integrity throughout the sales process. From the first phone call, I make it a priority to truly understand the customer’s needs and how I can help solve a problem for them. By staying motivated to solve problems instead of just making sales, I was promoted to Vice President of Sales in my region after just six months. In that role, I had even greater motivation to encourage my team to look at every sale through the lens of customer experience.
Example: Using data to drive results
Answer:I believe that data should drive decisions. Because of that, I love to dig into spreadsheets and reports to get to the information that will make the biggest impact on business outcomes. There is nothing more motivating than knowing that I have the potential to save the company money and help me teammates work more effectively by fueling every decision with the right data.
Example: Managing projects
Answer: I am motivated by the challenge of keeping cross-departmental teams and stakeholders on track to complete a project ahead of schedule and under budget. In my current project management role, I have achieved a record of on-time delivery for 100% of the projects I’ve managed. Seeing the excitement and sense of accomplishment from all members of a project team motivates me to find more efficient ways to complete tasks to keep the team on track.
Example: Driving results
Answer: I am motivated by creating a strategy to reach a goal. It’s a great feeling to design a path to achieve specific results and watch the plan come together each step of the way. Knowing that I was a key part of a strategy that impacts the success of the company as a whole is what motivates me to think outside the box.
Example: Earning trust
Answer:My biggest motivation comes from my interaction with customers. When I make a promise to customers, I keep it. Because of that commitment, I maintained a customer retention rate of 100% in my last role. Earning and keeping customer loyalty is of the utmost importance to me.
Example: Building a team
Answer:I am driven to build world-class teams. I am motivated by the desire to find the right fit between the company and the individual. As a result, my team holds the lowest attrition rate of all teams within my current company.
Answer: I believe that the best leaders are also the hardest workers. I am motivated to show my team that leadership is more than just a pedestal for delegating tasks. It’s an opportunity to work alongside each member of the team to accomplish a unified goal. This has added to my overall work experience.
Example: Career growth
Answer: I am motivated to earn the trust of my management team so that I can grow my career and add increasing value to the organization. I appreciate recognition for a job well done, but I also know that it must be earned and am highly motivated to do so.
As you practice your own interview answers, keep these possible angles in mind to help frame the best question to highlight your unique strengths.
Mentoring or coaching a team— do you have experience in helping others reach their professional goals?
Learning a new skill— incorporate any continuing education courses or certifications you’ve taken the initiative to complete.
Meeting deadlines— do you have a reputation for staying on track with project deadlines? Time management skills are a valuable asset.
Achieving targets or goals— do you consistently meet or exceed the goals you are given? Include specific examples.
Analyzing data— do you have a gift for digging into reports and spreadsheets?
Working as part of a team— have you been part of a team that has earned recognition for completing a project or contributing to the success of an organization?
Ensuring the quality of a product or project— quality management is an essential part of any product or service. Call attention to your eye for detail.
Solving a challenge that seems impossible— what audacious goals have you met in the past? How did it impact the business? Give specific examples of your proudest accomplishments.
Brainstorming new ideas to reach a goal— are you a creative problem solver? Share details of how you helped save money, increase productivity or exceed a target.
Which items on this list give you a feeling of excitement or pride? Do any elicit a memory of a job well done or a project you were particularly proud of? Weave those memories and examples into your response. In doing so, you’ll convey confidence, competence, and authenticity in every interview.