Job Interview Question: What Motivates You?

Man at job interview
••• Peepo / E+ / Getty Images

When you’re applying for a job, you’ll hear a lot of interview questions — some trickier than others. One that’s pretty common, but might catch you off guard, is the job interview question, "What motivates you?"

This is a broad and open-ended question, which can make it hard to know how to answer. After all, most people are motivated by many factors, including pay, prestige, making a difference, seeing results, and interacting with interesting people.

By answering in an honest but thoughtful way, you can impress your interviewer and demonstrate that you are the right person for the job.

Why Do Interviewers Want to Know What Motivates You?

In asking this question, interviewers hope to figure out what makes you tick. The hiring manager wants to know what drives you to succeed. He or she also wants to determine whether your motivators will be a fit for the job duties and the company culture.

Honest answers can help reveal what circumstances help you feel excited and enthused (another common variant of this interview question is, "What are you passionate about?,” which also tries to determine what makes an interviewee excited and fulfilled). Providing insight into the forces that motivate you at work can be a window into your personality and style, helping your interviewers understand you as both a person and a potential employee.

After all, there's a big difference between the candidate who's motivated by building teams and establishing strong relationships with coworkers, and the candidate whose best day is working on a report that improves the company's bottom line. Both candidates bring with them strong advantages, and this question can help interviewers narrow their pool down to the individual who is the best fit for the position and the company.

Tips for Answering Questions about Motivation

Prepare before your interview. It can be hard to think of a good answer for this question on the spot since it requires a bit of self-reflection.

To prepare your answer, think about the jobs you have held in the past:

  • What happened during your best days?
  • When were you most looking forward to a day at the office?
  • When did you come home from work bursting with stories, and feeling enthusiastic and excited?

Whether it was a successful meeting with a client, a complex project wrangled into submission, a new skill you mastered, or anything else, keep these positive moments in your mind when conceptualizing your answer.

Keep the job in mind. When preparing your answer, also think about the skills and abilities that will be the most useful in the job. Try to highlight these in your answer. For example, if you are applying to be a manager, framing an answer around relationship-building and helping others succeed and meet goals might be a stronger answer than a discussion about learning new things or working with clients.

Also consider the company culture. If the company emphasizes the camaraderie of its staff, for example, you might mention how achieving goals as a group motivates you. If you don’t know much about the company culture, do some research before your interview.

Use an example. You might want to include an example from your previous job to explain the kinds of projects or tasks that motivate you. For example, if you say you are driven by results, give an example of a time you set a goal and met (or exceeded) it. Make sure the example demonstrates a time you used your motivation to add value to an organization in some way (for example, perhaps you saved a company money, or completed a project ahead of schedule, or solved a problem for an employee). This will help the interviewer see how your motivation can benefit the company.

Be honest. When you answer this question, be honest. If you tailor your answer to exactly what you think the employer wants to hear, you will come off as insincere. This question will also help you see if you are a good fit for the job and company, so it is worth telling the truth.

However, also keep your audience in mind. While you may be most motivated by receiving a regular paycheck, that answer is not very inspiring from an interviewer's perspective.

Examples of the Best Answers

  • I'm really driven by results — I like it when I have a concrete goal to meet, and enough time to figure out a strong strategy for accomplishing it. At my last job, our yearly goals were very aggressive, but I worked with my manager and the rest of my team to figure out a month-by-month strategy for meeting the year-end numbers. It was a real thrill to accomplish that.
  • I'm motivated by digging into data. Give me a spreadsheet and questions, and I'm eager to figure out what's driving the numbers. At my current position, I prepare the monthly analytics report around sales. The data from these reports help drive and determine how the company charts its next steps and makes sales goals for the following months. Being able to provide that essential information is really motivating.
  • I was responsible for several projects where I directed development teams and implemented repeatable processes. The teams achieved 100 percent on-time delivery of software products. I was motivated both by the challenge of finishing the projects ahead of schedule and by managing the teams that achieved our goals.
  • I have always wanted to ensure that my company's clients get the best customer service I can offer. I feel that it's important, both to me personally and for the company and the clients, to provide a positive customer experience. My drive to constantly develop my customer service skills is the reason I earned top sales at my company two quarters in a row.
  • I have always been motivated by the desire to meet a deadline. Setting and reaching deadlines gives me such a sense of accomplishment. I love creating an organized schedule for completing a task and achieving my deadlines. For example, when I ran a fundraising event last year, I set multiple deadlines for a variety of tasks leading up to the event. Achieving each milestone motivated me to keep working, and helped me to ensure that the event ran smoothly.