Updated 5 June 2020
As straightforward as it may sound, this interview question can be quite tricky. The difficulty lies in the definition of motivation.
The best way to think of motivation is as the reason that makes you do what you do. It could be as simple as waking up early so you have time to make coffee before leaving the house, or as personal as applying for a job at Google just so you can prove a point to the teacher who always called you an under-achiever.
Another reason why this question is challenging for a lot of candidates is its scope for misinterpretation. To avoid getting it wrong, you’ll need to understand why this question is often asked in an interview, so you can respond along the lines of what a recruiter will expect. Read on...
‘What motivates you?’ is particularly popular in strengths-based interviews, which evaluate your suitability for the role by assessing what you do well and what you enjoy doing.
As competency-based interviews generally form part of all applications, regardless of the role, it’s likely you'll have to respond to this question at least once, often early in the application process. But what does it actually mean, and why will the interviewer ask it?
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Finding a satisfactory answer to ‘What motivates you?’ has perplexed many an interviewee. Endlessly broad and seemingly vague, it can feel like a bit of a trick question. In reality, it is purposefully designed to find out a range of information about you, including:
Although many of these factors may also relate to your career, the interviewer is trying to find out what motivates you in general, what kind of personality you have, and what driving forces inspire you in your everyday life. Put simply, the interviewer is not trying to know you as a professional, but as a person.
An interesting answer from you might even spark a conversation between you and the interviewer, which is an excellent opportunity for them to find out a little more about you as an individual. Keep in mind that just because a person is a great performer does not equate to them being a great fit for a role.
Although it may appear to be doing so, ‘What motivates you?’ is not asking:
Nor is it solely a career or role-based question. You will be making a mistake if you answer only in the context of the job you have applied for or the profession you want to join.
Think of it more like you are walking down the street, when a reporter with a cameraman stops you and ask you, ‘What motivates you in your life?’ While it is best that you answer this question as naturally as possible, do not delve into negativity and start describing things that don’t motivate you.
The key to answering this question is to think about what you’re good at, what you really enjoy (whether at work, university or socially) and how it could be of benefit to the role and company you’re applying for.
As a starting point, it can be useful to review your CV or recent coursework to help you remember times when you’ve felt really motivated and enjoyed a project or task. This will also ensure you can give examples to support your answer. The main points to consider are:
Your answer should be a mix of you telling the interviewer about your motivations as a whole, which also includes your profession. When answering in terms of profession, think of your past achievements and recall the factors that motivated you to make those achievements. Real examples help to strengthen your answers.
Think of your passions and hobbies to recollect the motivations in your personal life. Do you play a particular sport? Do you like gardening? Do you often help the homeless? Figure out the reasons why you enjoy doing these things, and express that.
Keep these pointers in mind while answering the question to stay on track from the beginning of your answer to the end.
You can only answer questions about a particular product when you know that product. In a similar way, you have to know yourself to answer this question aptly.
If you are reading this, you are already doing the preparation. Don’t revert to generic answers because you haven’t done sufficient prep beforehand.
Don’t forget that you are talking about motivation. There should be enthusiasm in your voice and passion in the way you talk. An answer given with enthusiasm has the interviewer half-convinced already.
Don’t make things up just to make your answer impressive. The conviction in your voice when you speak the truth makes every word a powerful statement. When you don’t speak the truth, you crush that conviction.
And don't do any of these:
Employers want to see that you’re well prepared and enthusiastic, so ensure answers are precise and give real examples to support them.
Salary is important, but mention it as your main motivation and you risk turning employers off. The exception to this is if you’re applying for a sales or commission-based role. Even then, it should still be one, not the only, factor you mention.
Your answers should always be honest and reflect who you are, to ensure you are the best fit for the role. Lying gets you in trouble because you don’t remember more than half of the details five minutes later. What you often end up doing is giving conflicting and confusing answers.
The best answers will generally focus on three points - challenges, results, and recognition – and will cite real-life examples that show how you can be of benefit to the company and role you're applying for.
“I’m motivated by building and coaching a successful team to ensure we meet and exceed targets.
"For example, I worked closely with one of my junior sales team in my previous role to ensure he developed the sales and negotiation skills he needed to succeed. He’d been struggling but, as a result of the work we did together, for the past quarter he’s exceeded his targets by 30%.
"This has not only boosted his and the entire team’s overall performance, commission and morale, it has also given me a real sense of pride to have been part of his professional development and success.”
“I’m motivated by growing our repeat client base by forming successful relationships with new clients.
"Last summer, I attended the TNT Travel Show and made contact with 40 potential clients. Of that number, 25 went on to book at least one trip with me – 8 of which were round-the-world itineraries.
"Since their return, 16 have approached me to discuss booking further trips and have recommended myself and our agency to their friends and family, 4 of whom have already booked on a cruise with us next July. That gave me a real sense of achievement.”
“I’m motivated by working with my team to solve complex coding issues and guarantee improved customer satisfaction.
"For example, last month we discovered a bug that stopped online payments being made via our new app outside of the UK.
"Working together, we broke down the issue, analysing the code and attempting different fixes until we found the solution. Because we work well together as a team, we were able to solve the issue in 24 hours, limiting the financial impact on the company and helping resolve the frustration felt by our customers, who were then able to place their orders successfully.
"Combining problem-solving with tangible results for the company is a great motivator.”
“I love assisting people with financial challenges and helping them overcome those challenges.
"For example, one of my friends wanted to develop a gaming application. He had the team and the expertise to accomplish his goal but he did not have the money to finance this project.
"I knew a friend of my father who was looking to invest in a small company. I helped them get in touch and finalize a deal. My friend got the money and my father’s friend got a share in the profits from the app.
"The application is doing pretty well, both the parties are happy and I am proud of my achievement.”
“I have always found myself interested in helping people who have troubles managing their money.
"My father has a small business but he was never able to make any profits from it until I offered him my help with accounts.
"While it took me some time to get my head around everything, I was able to point out several tax-deductible expenses that my father hadn’t even considered. I saved him money on his taxes and even pinpointed the expenses that could have been avoided or shrunken because they were eating away his profit.
"I am happy that my knowledge of accounts helps me see things that are often invisible to other folks.”
So now you know how to tackle the question ‘What motivates you?’ There are plenty of other head-scratching interview questions out there though.
For more examples, see: