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How to Answer: ‘What Motivates You?’ in a Job Interview

A man answering what motivates you in a job interview

Getting asked, “What motivates you?” in a job interview opens you up to a lot of potential answers. Maybe you’re motivated by a job well done or the thought of a hot bath. While there’s nothing wrong with either (or both!) of these, when it comes to answering this interview question, it’s best to stick with your professional motivations.

In this guide, you’ll learn how to find out what motivates you at work and how to explain it to the hiring manager so they understand why they should hire you:

Why Employers Ask ‘What Motivates You?’ in a Job Interview

When a hiring manager asks, “What motivates you?” in a job interview, what they’re really asking is, “What motivates you at work?” In other words, what excites you about your job, and why do you do it every day? 

As Jamie Guilford, associate director of employer relations at York College of Pennsylvania, notes, explaining what motivates you at work helps the hiring manager understand why they should hire you. “When a candidate can effectively ‘tell their story’ about the strengths, skills, and motivation they can bring to a position, the employer — with their understanding of what the job will entail — can better understand what the candidate will likely be able to contribute if hired.”

But there are other things the employer learns from your answer, too. Your response helps the hiring manager see if your motivations line up with the job’s duties and the company’s mission. For example, if you say you’re motivated by helping clients attract new business, but the role has nothing to do with attracting new leads, you’re probably not a good fit because what motivates you isn’t part of the job.

The employer is also assessing how well you handle challenges at work. While the challenges you’ll encounter on the job are specific to the role, the ability to express what motivates you in general helps the employer get a sense of how you might handle all kinds of obstacles.

And finally, the hiring manager is trying to see how well you understand yourself. Being able to describe what motivates you demonstrates that you know what keeps you focused and on task (qualities employers want from their staff). What’s more, it helps them understand how you measure success on the job.

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Other Ways Employers Ask About Your Motivation

While some employers will directly ask what motivates you, others may ask more indirectly, including:

  • Are you self-motivated?
  • How do you stay on task?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What drives you to do your best/succeed?
  • What inspires you?
  • What makes you excited about coming to work?

Basically, anytime the interviewer is asking why you do your job, they are asking, “What motivates you?”

How to Answer ‘What Motivates You?’ in a Job Interview

When framing your answer to this question, the trick is to pick something that truly motivates you but also relates to the job. Here are some tips to help you create your answer.

Think About Why You Do What You Do

Start by thinking about why you do your job or why you selected your major. What is it about the industry or job that excites you? For example, if you’re in accounting, do you enjoy picking apart the intricacies of tax law? If you’re in social services, are you there because you enjoy contributing to the greater good?

Remembering why you’re pursuing not just the particular job but also that specific career path or working in that industry can help you better identify and express your motivations.

Remember Why You Applied for the Job

Then focus on the position. Why did you apply for the role? What jumped out at you and grabbed your attention? Which parts of the job description excited you? 

Focus on Specifics

Once you’ve identified why you’re on this career path and what excites you about the job, tailor your answer to the specifics. Employers want to know what will motivate you to succeed in the role at their company, so your answer should help illustrate what it is about this particular job at this particular company that motivates you.

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Stay Positive

While your answer is specific to you, it’s important to focus on the positive elements of what motivates you. For example, if you’re motivated by looming deadlines, you may not want to say, “I’m motivated by an upcoming deadline because the stress and pressure force me to act.” While some people are motivated by stress, this answer could imply that you tend to wait until the last minute to get things done.

So, reframe your answer to focus on the positive aspects of a looming deadline. “I’m motivated by deadlines. I love looking ahead and planning out what I’m going to do and when. This helps me stay on task and ensure I complete things by the due date.”

Give an Example

In some respects, “What motivates you?” is a behavioral interview question, so you can use the STAR method to help you answer the question.

For example, if contributing to a common goal is motivating to you, include an example of how being part of a team motivated you.

Be True to You 

Because “What motivates you?” is a very open-ended question, job seekers may be concerned about giving the “right” answer. After all, motivation is a very personal thing and what motivates you may not be what you think the hiring manager wants to hear.

However, when it comes to motivation, there is no right or wrong answer, only what’s right for you. While your answer should relate to the role you’re interviewing for, picking something you think the interviewer wants to hear may not be in your best interests.

First, your answer may come across as rehearsed or inauthentic. Second, if you do get the job, you might find yourself unmotivated because you’re not truly a good match for the role or the company.

Consider Your Audience

That said, you also need to consider who you’re talking to.

Your truth may be that you’re motivated by money, status (like the company name or the job title), or benefits and perks (like awesome swag). However, saying that a paycheck or good health insurance is your sole motivation for coming to work in the morning is likely to fall flat.

Employers know that nearly everyone works because they want and need money or health insurance (or both!), and that is a significant motivator for most job seekers and employees.

However, employers want to know what motivates you beyond payday. How do you stay engaged with the job? What drives you to do your best and succeed? Stating something other than the obvious demonstrates that while money does matter, there are other factors that motivate you just as much.

Example Answers for ‘What Motivates You?’

Here’s what happens when you put all the pieces together.

Example 1

I’m motivated by solving problems that help my team accomplish its goals. For example, we couldn’t figure out why revenue dropped on X product. It took some digging on my part, but it turns out that after the last website refresh, some of the pages were changed, and the buy buttons were moved somewhere else. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize this and were using the wrong links on our CTAs. Once we adjusted the links, revenue on the product went up by 30% in one week.

Example 2

I’ve always enjoyed “being the change I want to see in the world.” It’s why I majored in social work and volunteer as often as I can at causes that are important to me. And when I found this job opening, I realized that I could work somewhere that shares the same values I do, and I could make a major difference in a lot of lives.

Example 3

I’m motivated by helping clients achieve their marketing goals. I enjoy digging into the data around what is and is not working with their campaigns and helping them adjust whenever necessary. 

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