“What motivates you?” is an incredibly common interview question that stumps job-seekers all the time. It might seem simple, but there are many layers to an effective answer.
This guide will teach you how to answer “What motivates you?” so you can use this question as an opportunity to make a great impression.
Table of contents
The Reason Interviewers Ask This Interview Question
During a job interview, you’ll hear many open-ended questions that don’t have an obvious connection to the available position. “What motivates you?” is just one of them! Most people expect to get asked questions that relate to the job. However, one focuses more on who you are as a person and what you have to bring to the table.
So, what are interviewers trying to learn by asking this question?
It’s all about your personal and professional motivators. The hiring manager wants to learn more about your work style and the driving motivators behind your success.
Your answer to “What motivates you?” provides valuable insight that goes beyond pre-rehearsed answers or generic responses. It digs deeper and shows the interviewer what makes you feel enthusiastic about your work. Everyone has intrinsic motivators that keep them going and push them to do the best job possible. Asking this question helps the interviewer figure out what yours are!
The goal of this question is to ensure that your motivations align with the company culture and the open position. You can have the best qualifications in the applicant pool. But if you’re not motivated to do the job, you might not be a good fit.
For example, someone who thrives most when solving workplace challenges isn’t the best fit for a monotonous data entry position. It’s a question that can show interviewers your preferred work style and personality.
Your passions and motivations are essential pieces of the career puzzle. Finding the right fit makes all the difference, and interviewers want to make sure they choose someone who will excel in the open position.
How to Answer “What Motivates You?
There are many ways to answer “What motivates you?” in a job interview. While there’s no right or wrong answer, how you respond could change the direction of the interview and significantly impact your chances of moving forward in the hiring process. Interviewers are looking for a specific type of person to fit the opening in their company, and there are ways to answer this question strategically to put yourself in a good light.
This question requires ample research and plenty of self-reflection. It isn’t one that you should “wing.” Interviewers often catch applicants off guard with a question like this, so use the following tips to prepare yourself and have an answer ready should it come up.
1. Think About Your Successes & Strengths
It’s important to think of your strength when planning how to answer “What motivates you?” Reflect on your previous jobs and focus on the major successes.
Make a note of all the problems you’ve solved and successes you’ve had. Then think about the skills you offer a team, and what are you good at doing.
Those questions can help you develop a fantastic answer. Remember that this is still a job interview. You want to answer the question and provide the details the interviewer wants to hear. However, it’s also an excellent time to talk about yourself and let the hiring manager know that you’re a worthy candidate with a lot to offer.
Talking about your strengths can help you connect the dots while driving the point home.
For example, maybe your biggest successes have been team projects. You might have taken the helm on significant projects in the past, acting as the glue to keep collaborative assignments together all the way to the finish line. If you have a history of success in that type of work, it likely means that you’re motivated by opportunities to work in a collaborative setting.
If the job entails teamwork, don’t be afraid to talk about it!
On the other hand, you could have excelled working alone to support a company’s bottom line. If that’s the case, bring it up.
Use your strengths as a jumping point to talk about what motivates you and the type of work you do best.
2. Be Truthful
It can be tempting to bend the truth a little and say what you think the interviewer is looking for the most. But honesty is always the best policy with personality questions like this.
There are a couple of reasons you want to avoid lying when answering “What motivates you?” First, it does you no favors to smudge the truth. The whole point of this question is to determine if you’re the right fit for the job and company culture. While lying could get you further, you’ll likely realize that the job is not right for you later.
Why waste your time or anyone else’s?
Secondly, lying can make you sound inauthentic. The truth will come out eventually, and lying will only come back to haunt you. Being untruthful on a question like this is a major red flag for hiring managers.
Even if they choose to proceed and ignore that bending of the truth, they might question everything you say moving forward.
Be authentic and answer truthfully. Focus on developing thoughtful answers instead of trying to paint yourself as someone you’re simply not.
3. Provide an Example
When talking about what motivates you, provide real-world examples. It’s easy to list many vague ideas that drive your success. However, interviewers want to hear about how those motivations made a difference in your work performance.
Illustrate the ideas that motivate you through a compelling story. It doesn’t have to be this huge narrative, but providing examples that you can refer to is a great way to talk about your motivations. The “what motivates you” question lends itself well to showing what you’re made of and how much you want this job.
Tell a story and provide real examples of how your motivations helped you reach your full potential on the job. Don’t be afraid to show your enthusiasm! It also makes your answer more memorable and authentic.
4. Explain What Made You Choose This Field in the First Place
One great way to answer “What motivates you?” is to talk about what drove you to the profession in the first place. Everyone has a reason they entered their field. For example, a nurse might have joined the healthcare industry because of an innate desire to help others. Meanwhile, a teacher might have pursued education because they love to watch students excel.
Whatever your reasons for getting into your field of work, talk about them! Dig deep and reflect on your past. Things might have changed in the years since you started your career. But think back to what initially inspired you to go down this path.
This tip requires self-reflection. While not always easy, it’s a great way to reconnect with your purpose. Getting in touch with your early motivations can help you answer truthfully and maybe even reignite a passion you forgot you had!
5. Connect Your Answer with the Company Culture
Our final tip is one that can make a significant difference when answering this question. Don’t just talk about yourself. Find ways to tie your motivations and inspirations back to the company culture!
Here’s where doing ample research comes in handy. Do your due diligence to learn more about the company’s mission and work culture. Understand why the business exists and what the specific role entails.
With that information in mind, you can tie everything together and make a solid connection between your successes and the company. For example, say that the organization’s mission is to be an industry innovator. The company culture is likely full of boundary-breaking creativity and constant inspiration.
A great way to talk about what motivates you is to bring up an experience related to the company’s mission. You could talk about a time when thinking outside of the box led to major success.
Whatever the case might be, forge connections with the company. Paint a picture of how you easily fit into this position and the company at large.
What to Avoid Saying
Now that you know how to answer “What motivates you?” in an interview, let’s talk about what you shouldn’t say! An open-ended question like this doesn’t have an obvious right or wrong question, but the interviewer is looking for a specific type of answer.
Saying the wrong thing can hurt your chances of getting hired. Ultimately, the point of this interview question is to give hiring managers a reason to give you a shot. It’s about compelling them to hire you and putting yourself in the best light possible.
Here are a few things that you want to avoid saying. They could severely hurt your chances and do irreversible harm to how the interviewer perceives you.
Don’t say that money is your biggest motivator!
A great salary is an excellent motivator, and it could be the thing that pushes you to do your job well. But you don’t need to talk about that during the interview (especially when answering this question).
Hiring managers don’t want to hear about how you’re salary-driven. They’re looking for people that will work hard regardless of the compensation. It’s about finding employees who are motivated by things beyond money.
There’s nothing wrong with letting salary and benefits guide your job search. But once you reach the interview phase, it’s better to focus on creating a deeper connection and showing commitment to the job at hand.
Here’s another red flag for interviewers. You don’t want to waste your answer to this question talking about your previous employer. Avoid badmouthing them and lingering on negativity.
It can be tough to keep things positive. Interviewers might frame “What motivates you?” in a way that makes it easy to start expressing your grievances with your previous or current employer. For example, you might hear this question as “What motivated you to apply for this job?”
Being negative with your answer doesn’t do you any favors. It’s not what interviewers are looking for, and talking bad about an old employer could come back to bite you. If you’re willing to badmouth the company during an interview, what’s stopping you from doing the same in the future?
Word gets around fast, and being negative could harm your chances of getting a job anywhere.
One problem that many people face during interviews is staying on topic. A question like this is designed to encourage conversation. It’s open-ended for a reason! The interviewer wants to give you room to tell a story or talk about things that don’t typically appear in applications and resumes.
But don’t take that as an opportunity to go off-topic and discuss things that aren’t relevant to the question. While it is open-ended, there’s still a specific type of answer that interviewers want to hear. Going off-topic only serves as a distraction, and hiring managers might think you’re intentionally skirting the answer.
Practice your answer before you get into the interview. You don’t need to have an over-rehearsed response. However, it pays to have a set of general points you want to make.
Thinking about what motivates you and prepping your answer early makes it much easier to stay on track.
Finally, avoid the incoherent ramblings! Once again, this is something you can avoid with preparation.
If you’ve ever been stumped at an interview before, you know all too well how easy it is to ramble about things that don’t make sense or even matter to the conversation. It’s that “grasping for straws” feeling that so many people experience when caught off guard by a question they didn’t prepare to answer.
Keep your focus and talk about things that matter. While it’s always better to prepare a response early, always breathe and think about an answer before speaking. Pause briefly to gather your thoughts.
Speak slowly and clearly. Don’t let your nerves turn you into a rambling mess.
Also, avoid being overly generic or vague. Authenticity is key. Taking a moment to breathe and collect your thoughts will make your response more put-together and coherent.
As mentioned before, there’s no single correct way to answer “What motivates you? How you respond depends entirely on your personal work experience and motivations! There are many ways to approach this question.
Here are a few examples to inspire you.
This example focuses on the strengths of the job-seeker. The answer harkens back to their past and draws a connection to the open position.
“I enjoy flexing my creative muscles and letting my imagination run wild. I’ve always been passionate about art and design, and I enjoy every opportunity to push my skills further. My dedication to superior artistic expression has guided both personal and professional endeavors, and I’m committed to continuing that push for creative excellence at [COMPANY] if given a chance.”
In our second example, the response does a few things. It highlights what motivated the applicant to enter the field and shows how their passions drive their success moving forward. It also expresses continued interest in the position while showing a commitment to the cause!
“I’ve always been motivated by creative projects that require regular collaboration. The reason I entered the marketing field was to have the opportunity to work with others and put many creative minds together to serve a shared goal. One of the things I loved most about my previous job was watching vague ideas come together into finished products that entire teams were proud to put into the world.
I’m eager to lead teams at [COMPANY] and create more fantastic projects. The opportunity to lead campaigns from ideation to launch was one of the reasons why I was so excited to apply for this position.”
Our final example is about more technical skills and motivations. However, it still shows the applicant’s dedication to teamwork, highlighting their soft and hard skills.
“My biggest motivation is having the chance to dig into hard data. I enjoy sifting through spreadsheets and making sense out of seemingly random figures. The process of figuring out the connection between those numbers is a challenge I enjoy.
I also enjoy helping teams solve their everyday problems. At my previous job, my work was the foundation of analytics. It helped many teams make decisions and set sales goals.
I’m excited at the opportunity to do the same at [COMPANY].”
Now that you know how to answer “what motivates you?” all you need to do is the prep work. Take a moment to think about your answer and how you would like to phrase it. Then, rehearse a few times!
Doing this will not only prevent you from getting stuck if you’re asked this question in a job interview, it will help you make a great impression and improve your chances of getting the job.
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.