Interview Question: "What Motivates You?"

Image shows two images, the first being the two people involved in an interview, the second being a face-on illustration of the interviewer. Text reads:

Image by Emilie Dunphy © The Balance 2019

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, "What motivates you?" The interviewer is looking for insight into why and how you are motivated to achieve workplace goals and succeed at the job. The hiring manager will also be seeking to discover whether the factors that motivate you are aligned with the company’s goals and with the role in which you would be working.

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

This is a broad and open-ended question, which can make it hard to know how to answer. It can also be tricky to figure out the best way to respond. After all, most people are motivated by many factors, including pay, prestige, making a difference, seeing results, and interacting with interesting people.

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

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 work style, helping your interviewers understand you as both a person and a potential employee.

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 independently 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.

How to Answer “What Motivates You?”

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Watch Now: 4 Ways to Answer "What Motivates You?"

Take some time to research the company and the job prior to the interview. The more you know about the organizational goals of the employer, the better equipped you’ll be to respond.

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 mind when conceptualizing your answer.

Examples of the Best Answers

Review these sample answers and tailor your response to match your credentials to what the employer is seeking.

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.

Why It Works: This response works well because it’s focused on achievements and results. It’s positive and it shows what the candidate has accomplished.

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.

Why It Works: The candidate is motivated both by data analysis and by being able to provide information to his team. This shows the interviewer that the applicant has both the hard and the soft skills required for success in the role.

I was responsible for several projects where I directed development teams and implemented repeatable processes. The teams achieved 100% 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.

Why It Works: This response shows the interviewer that the applicant is motivated by several factors—management, scheduling, and teamwork—and has the ability to multitask.

I have always wanted to ensure that my company's clients get the best customer service I can offer. I feel 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.

Why It Works: With this answer, the candidate focuses on why customer service is important, how she develops her skills, as well as how she achieves positive results.

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 goals on time. 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.

Why It Works: It always makes sense to respond in a way that shows you are motivated by your work and by accomplishing goals.

Tips for Giving the Best 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.

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 to learn as much as you can.

Share 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 that 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, completed a project ahead of schedule, or solved a problem for an employee). Telling a story about your achievements is always a good way to show the interviewer your accomplishments.

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. 

Giving an honest answer will also help you see if you are a good fit for the job and company.

Furthermore, 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.

What Not to Say

Don’t make it about you. When you respond, it’s best to focus on work-related motivators. Rather than saying that you like to get a paycheck every week, for example, discuss responsibilities at work that keep you interested and ready for a challenge.

Don’t ramble. Have a clear and focused response to the question. Know what motivates you, and keep your response on target so you don’t confuse the interviewer by sharing too much information.

Keep it positive. Focus on the positive when you respond. For example, you don’t want to say that you’re motivated because you don’t want to get fired for sub-par performance.

Possible Follow-Up Questions

Key Takeaways

Practice a Response: If you write out some ideas of what motivates you, it will make it easier to answer the question during the interview.

Focus on Your Achievements: Focus your response on the motivators that are the closest match to the employer’s job requirements.

Show How You're Qualified: The interview is an opportunity to sell your qualifications to the hiring manager.