During a job interview, employers will likely ask both straightforward and open-ended questions. Usually, open-ended questions are used to better understand your personality, work style and qualifications and identify whether you would be a good fit for the role, team and culture. “What motivates you?” is a popular open-ended question that you should be ready to answer.
Because you likely have multiple professional and personal motivators, take some time to consider which motivators are most relevant to the job for which you’re interviewing. In this article, we'll outline several ideas to keep in mind to help you prepare your response, plus example answers that you can make your own.
- Consider what interviewers are looking for
There are a few things employers typically want to find out about you when they ask this question. Your answer should be unique to your experience, but it should also follow a general formula so that you provide the right information to the interviewer.
- Be thoughtful
It helps to prepare your answer before an interview, so you have time to identify what a specific employer might want to know, come up with an honest answer and bring focus to your talking points.
- Show your relevant qualifications:
While it might be tempting to discuss a variety of passions when answering this question, you’ll find the most success if you limit your answer to one or two specific motivators that also demonstrate your qualifications for this job.
Why interviewers ask “What motivates you?”
There are two main reasons hiring managers ask this question:
1. Employers want to know whether your sources of motivation align with the role.
The best candidate for a job will be naturally energized by the responsibilities and experiences associated with the position. For example, if you’re interviewing to be a news reporter and you share a motivation for deadline-focused, fast-paced work, the interviewer can draw clear parallels between the job and your ideal work environment.
2. Employers want to determine whether you are self-aware enough to know what drives you
Much like asking about your greatest strengths and weaknesses, interviewers ask what motivates you as a way to learn how well you know yourself. A candidate who can quickly provide a well-crafted, natural explanation of what keeps them motivated on the job is someone who is likely also a self-starter and knows how to stay on track.
Other variations of this question may include:
- What drives you to do your best?
- What inspires you?
- What are you passionate about?
What makes you excited to come to work?
How to answer “What motivates you?”
Like any job interview question, the best way to make sure you leave a positive impression is to develop your talking points ahead of time. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you formulate your response:
What did a great day at work look like in previous roles?
Take a moment to reflect on your professional history and what you considered fulfilling about each job. Try to identify any trends. For example, you may realize your favorite memories from each of your previous positions involved reaching a difficult goal or solving a complex problem. In this case, you can say you’re motivated by being pushed out of your comfort zone or having the opportunity to overcome a challenge. If you’re new to the professional world, consider what motivated you to do your best in internships, volunteer positions or classes.
What made you choose your profession or field?
Think about the reasons you were drawn to your line of work, aside from compensation. Maybe you enjoy having the ability to assist others or putting your creative skills to use. A teacher, for example, may draw motivation from helping students learn something new and witnessing them excel. Compensation may be a strong motivator for you but it’s typically not a motivator you want to share during a behavioral interview.
What prompted you to apply for the role when you read the job description?
Review the job description and determine which job responsibilities persuaded you to apply. For example, if you liked the prospect of working at a startup to build a new software application, you might say you’re motivated by the opportunity to create something innovative or see the tangible results from your efforts.
Examples of best answers
When answering this question, be sure to be as specific as possible, provide real-life examples and tie your answer back to the job role. Here are a few examples of well-crafted responses:
“As a marketer, I’ve always been motivated by creative projects, teamwork and being able to draw a connection between my efforts and the organization’s bottom line. One of the things I loved about my last job was witnessing the results of our team’s campaigns and watching as the leads we nurtured became customers. Having the opportunity to lead campaigns from ideation through launch was one of the reasons I was so excited to apply for this role.”
Why interviewers like this: This candidate shows the interviewer that they have a strong desire to execute the role responsibilities. Their specific example conveys their depth of experience with and passion for the job. In addition, it’s always helpful to include how your motivations would drive your future with the company.
“The gratification of overcoming an obstacle is my greatest motivator. For example, math has never been my best subject, but I opted to take calculus in college, even though it wasn’t required for my major because I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. The course wasn’t easy, and I spent many nights studying late, but I passed with an A. The feeling of accomplishment that comes with exceeding challenging goals is what drew me to a career in sales.”
Why interviewers like this: This answer gives the interviewer a good preview of how the candidate would perform at work. It let’s the employer know they’re self-motivated and willing to leave their comfort zone to meet ambitious goals. In this case, the interviewer could infer that because the candidate is motivated by a challenge, they’ll likely perform well under pressure and help the company thrive.
“I’m motivated by the fact that, when I leave work at the end of a shift, I know I’ve helped make a difference in the lives of my patients and their families. Seeing the smiles on their faces and watching them improve makes me look forward to work. That’s why I became a nurse, and why I’m pursuing a position in pediatrics.
Why interviewers like this: This answer shows that the candidate is intrinsically motivated which is especially useful in fields such as the medical industry which can be physically and emotionally taxing. By showing their willingness to provide quality care in order to see others succeed, the candidate indicates how their motivation makes them a passionate and dependable employee.
Tips to answer “What motivates you?”
1. Keep it relevant to the job
The most important strategy is to keep your answer relevant to the role requirements. While you may be motivated by many factors, this is the time to discuss the motivations that illustrate your fitness and potential for the job you’re interviewing for.
2. Make it personal if you can
If possible, discuss how your personal passion relates to your professional motivation. This shows interviewers that you may have a deeper dedication to the role. For example, if you’re interviewing for a recruiter position, you might briefly discuss your previous struggles with finding the right job and how that further motivates you to help others in their job search.
3. Be specific
Address one or a few specific motivations and discuss a particular experience that demonstrates how it positively impacted your work. This gives credibility to your answer. The more specific you can be about the situation while still keeping your answer concise, the better.
4. Show how it fits into your future trajectory
If you see yourself growing in this position long-term because you are passionate about the job responsibilities, be sure to explain that. When you tie your motivations to the evolution of your career with this employer, it assures them that you’ll be a committed employee.
5. Ties it back to the company’s mission or vision
If possible, discuss how your motivations align with the employer’s mission or culture. For instance, if the company’s mission is to connect the world through social media, you might share a story about a personal or professional connection you made through the platform and discuss why that inspires you to contribute to their success. Or, if you’re applying to a role at a startup company, you might talk about why fast paced work environments motivate you.
What not to say when answering “What Motivates You?”
While interviewers generally aren’t trying to fool you, there are a few tricky situations to be aware of when answering this question. Understanding common mistakes can help you avoid them during your interview. It can also help to remember that your answer should support your ultimate interview goal: compel the employer to hire you.
- Stay positive: Avoid discussing any negative motivators as that’s typically seen as an undesirable quality. This can be especially challenging if the interviewer uses slightly different phrasing, such as, “What motivated you to apply for this position?” Rather than expressing doubts about your current job or employer, talk about why you’re passionate about the new role responsibilities.
- Stay focused: Keep your answers work-related and focused on a specific experience. Advanced preparation can help with this. If your answer is too vague, rambling or generic, you might risk sounding inauthentic and unprepared.
- Stay relevant: Take advantage of the opportunity to show how your motivations make you the most qualified candidate for the job. While it’s okay to be motivated by a high salary or generous benefits, employers usually seek to hire candidates who have a deeper connection and commitment to the actual job.
Essentially, asking “what motivates you” is another way to assess whether you’re passionate and excited about the position and how you ensure you’re always doing good work. By identifying and expanding on your motivations, you can leave the interviewer with a positive impression and clearer expectation of how you’ll be as an employee.