What Motivates You At Work Essay

How to answer the interview question, “What motivates you?”

Need to convince a potential employer of your drive? This is how to align your passion and skills with the company.

A key to being happy—and good—at your job is being motivated.

We know you’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: You should love your job. After all, you spend a huge portion of your life at work. Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, a recent Gallup survey found.

A key to being happy—and good—at your job is being motivated. An awesome boss should be keenly aware of this. “They want to know what it’s going to take to bring out the best work from you,” says Peter Engler, career coach and author of Your Crystal Clear Career Path: Featuring Smart, New and Effective Job Search Strategies.

And when you’re happy with your job, says Priscilla Claman, president of Boston coaching firm Career Strategies, you’ll also get more done.

Consequently, a lot of hiring managers ask job candidates, “What motivates you?” It’s an open-ended question, but there are good and bad ways to answer it—which is why you should prepare your response in advance.

Do a self-assessment

To figure out what your talking points will be, reflect on your past work experience. What projects made you feel energized? What did you like most about your last job? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

One way to jog your memory is to look at your resume. “It’s the easiest reminder of what you’ve accomplished,” says Julie Jansen, career coach and author of You Want Me to Work With Who?

You can also look at past performance reviews, Jansen says. Just be sure to focus on achievements that not only made you happy but also made you a valuable asset to your past employer.

Get a third-party’s perspective

In addition to doing some self-reflection, you’ll want to reach out to former co-workers for their input, says Jansen. (“What is it about me that made you like working with me?”) She also recommends getting feedback from your former managers. (“What were the one or two things that you could always count on me for?”)

How these people respond can give you insight into what motivates you. Plus, “you can incorporate a testimonial into your answer during the job interview,” Jansen says.

Align your motivations with the company’s goals

This is an opportunity to show you’re a good cultural fit for the company. How? It’s actually pretty simple: Look at the company’s mission statement to see what its core values are and then tailor your response appropriately.

For example, if the company says that it’s invested in employee development, you could say, “Learning new things is important to me, and what I love about this job is how many learning opportunities there are.” Then, you’d talk about specific skills that you’ve honed at previous jobs and why having them would make you a valuable employee.

Sample answers

Obviously how you answer this question will depend on what motivates you as an individual, but we still want to offer some examples of good responses. You’ll notice each one starts with “I love.” Why? Because it shows you’re passionate about what you do!

Good answers

  • For a public relations job: “I love talking to new people and building relationships.”
  • For a business analyst job: “I love figuring out how to interpret data and unpack it for consumers.”
  • For a consultant job: “I love helping companies become more efficient and working with managers to find ways to make businesses more profitable.”
  • For an events coordinator job: “I love organizing meetings, conferences, and company retreats. One of my favorite aspects of this industry is that I get to travel for work.”

On the flipside, here’s what you shouldn’t say:

Bad answers

  • “Advancement. I love getting promoted.”
  • “Money.” (Caveat: If you’re applying for a sales or financial job, this could be a good answer.)
  • “Having as much free time as possible.”

The bottom line: Employers want to hire motivated and energetic people who can help create a positive work environment—and it’s your responsibility to show that you fit the bill.

Looking for more insight into the hiring process? Join Monster today. As a member, you’ll get career advice and useful tips sent directly to your inbox. If you’re not already motivated to find a new job, you will be once you’ve got a little expert advice in your corner.


There have been a large number of theories looking into motivation at work and the factors which affect it. In this essay I will be exploring three key theories in the area, each provides a very different angle on what motivates employees at work.

To begin I will look at a need theory of motivation, Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory (1959), as the name suggests need theories concentrate on the need’s of the employee as the main source of motivation. Herzberg built upon Maslow’s hugely influential Hierarchy of Needs (1954). Conducting research on 203 American accountants and engineers he looked at what makes employees satisfied and dissatisfied at work. Contrary to Maslow’s theory Herzberg suggests that motivation is not measured on one linear scale from satisfied to dissatisfied, but rather the two are independent of each other and form separate scales. The first group which determines dissatisfaction (or de-motivation) are named Hygiene factors which include our basic needs such as our pay and safety. The addition or improvement of hygiene factors can only lead to contentment in employees and not motivation.

The second group which determines satisfaction are named Motivators, these include our internal needs such as our need to achieve, to be recognised and given responsibility. A decline or lack of motivators will not de-motivate employees, but adding them can lead to increased motivation. Research on the theory has provided both support and criticism. To begin with the theory is supported by the number of successful replications as reported by Hodgetts and Luthans (1991), these replications have taken place across the world and in a wide variety of different job sectors and still achieved the same results. The main area of criticism for the Two-Factor theory targets the methodology of the research it was derived from. Soliman (1970) pointed out that the tendency of subjects to give socially desirable answers would have impacted the answers participants gave to Herzbergs open ended questions. In addition there is a tendency for people to attribute negative situations to others and positive to themselves e.g.

“I felt satisfaction when ‘I’ achieved and was recognised for it” or “I was dissatisfied when ‘the company’ paid me late”. This biased attribution of satisfying and dissatisfying situations is another example of a problem with the methodology. More problems with the methodology are shown by House and Wigdor (1967). After re-analysing Herzberg’s original results they concluded that factors described as being either a hygiene or motivator were not mutually exclusive. In many cases the addition of Hygiene factors can act to motivate people, likewise a lack of Motivator factors can causes dissatisfaction. However as well as looking at the empirical research on the theory we must also think about its value when practically applied to the workplace.

In support of the theory it does, to a certain extent makes sense. If one month you miss out on pay or are required to do something dangerous you would be dissatisfied. At the same time employees do not feel satisfied or motivated by safe working conditions or being paid on time because it is what they expect. The same goes for Motivator factors, an employee would feel more satisfied if they received a personal compliment from the boss but it is unlikely that they would feel dissatisfied if it didn’t happen. They certainly wouldn’t expect it every day. Yet one key problem with the theory is that it fails to take into account the difference between satisfaction and motivation. An employee may be satisfied at work, they may obtain all the ‘motivator’ factors outlined in the theory but this does not mean they will automatically be motivated to be as productive as they can be.

Another criticism is that the theory does not account for individual differences, employees are not all the same, some may be more materialistic and be motivated more by monetary reward. Some strive for achievement and are willing to do anything to gain the respect of their peers and high status within the business while others may be content with their job and just wish to keep their heads down and get on with it. Put simply, while being given responsibility may satisfy some people others may find it an unpleasant addition to their job. In summary the Two-Factor model and its supporting research have been found to have good re-test and cross cultural reliability but has been heavily criticised for its validity and methodology. Although this weakens the value of the theory it has still been extremely influential and can be practically applied in most organizations as a method by which staff motivation can be monitored and improved.

Next I am going to look at the Goal Setting Theory Locke (1969). The basic premise of the theory is that by setting a goal you can increase a person’s motivation and performance. This increase in performance is due to the motivational influence of goals in 4 key areas (as cited in Woods 2010). The first is that goals help to focus a person’s attention and behaviour in the correct direction. Secondly goals have the effect of increasing the effort a person is willing expend. Thirdly the addition of a goal increase the amount of a time a person will spend on a specific task. Finally they motivate an individual to seek out and apply relevant knowledge and skills in order to complete the goal. This is how the goal setting theory explains why we are motivated by goals. In addition to this Locke and Latham (1990) put forward 5 key features of a goal which determine how motivating it is, to be effective goals must be;

1) Specific, a goal which gives a specific target is more motivating then goals which simply require a person to ‘do your best’. 2) Measurable, a measurable target enables a person to track their progress towards the goal and alter their effort and method accordingly. 3) Time-Bound, applying a deadline to achieving the goal enables a person to better manage their time and effort. 4) Challenging, it is unlikely that an easy goal will motivate a person to put in maximum effort. By making the goal challenging people are push and required to work harder in order to achieve. 5) Attainable, having a goal which is impossible to achieve is likely to de-motivate a person, why would a person put effort in if they have no chance of success. It must be realistically possible to achieve goals. The theory provides a good detailed description of both how and why people are motivated.

It has been one of the most widely researched areas within motivational psychology and is still very much an evolving area. Research by Latham and Baldes (1975) put the core assumption of the goal setting theory to the test in a real world setting. They introduced the goal of reaching 94% efficiency in the loading of trucks (previously at just 60%) to a group of employees in a logging company. The employees were motivated by the goal and successfully achieved (and often surpassed) it and continued to work consistently at the target rate. To have achieved the same increase in efficiency without Goal theory (by purchasing more trucks) would have cost the company $250,000. Another example of research supporting the Goal setting theory comes from Blumenfeld and Leidy (1969).

They found that 55 engineers in charge of soft drinks machines checked considerably more machines when set a goal then when no goal was set. Furthermore it was found that engineers checked more machines when set a challenging goal then if set an easy goal. A key problem with the methodology of both pieces of supporting research above is that there was little control over extraneous variables. For example Latham and Baldes (1975) did show a huge increase in productivity, but this may not have been due to the addition of a goal. Perhaps the competitive nature of the loggers lead to an increase in efficiency, it may also have simply been down to the increased supervision the workers received at the time. Again it is important to look at the theory in terms of its practical application in the workplace. Its key strength is that it does appear to work as a method of increasing motivation, however again the theory fails to account for individual differences. Employees who are already highly motivated at work would benefit from goals being set; it would push them and enable them to prove themselves.

However other less confident employees may not enjoy the competitive nature of workplace goals and targets, it could even cause stress and discomfort and leads to a reduction in motivation. In addition, when you direct a person’s attention and effort towards one specific goal you may get a decrease in performance in other tasks. A goal may not increase motivation but just direct it. For example if you give hospital staff the target of seeing all patients within 10 minuets they may achieve the target but at the cost of service and quality of treatment. This would obviously be detrimental to the quality of work on the whole. A final point to consider is that all employees have different levels of ability so in order for goals to push an employee but still remain achievable they must be individually tailored.

As well as being impractical in a large business Equality theories (discussed next) would suggest that giving some people easier targets than others may actually lead to a reduction in motivation. On the whole Goal Theories are very useful and practical when applied in the right circumstances. Perhaps one weakness of both the theory and supporting research is in its inability to account for causes of demotivation in an organization. However the research shows that goals do motivate people at work, yet when applied to an organizational environment we see possible drawbacks and potential difficulties which are difficult to overcome.

The final theory I am going to examine is the Organizational Justice Theory which builds upon the equity theory put forward by Adams (1963). The Organizational Justice theory has been constructed from theory and research contributed by a significant number of psychologists, certainly too many to list in their entirety. However two key contributors worth noting are Greenberg (1987a) who coined the term Organizational Justice and conducted much of the early research and Mowday (1987) (cited in Greenberg 1990) who has had a significant impact on the theory. The core belief of the theory is that employees can be motivated (or de-motivated) by their perception of how fairly they are being treated at work in comparison to their colleagues. The theory suggests three different types of justice which can be perceived. The first is Distributive Justice, which looks at the extent to which an employee thinks they are being fairly rewarded for the work they put in compared to others, the theory suggest that a person will either increase or decrease their level of input in order to balance out and restore equality.

The second is Procedural Justice, this looks at how fair a person feels the procedures and systems are within a business, for example is holiday date allocation fair. The third is Interactional Justice, this is the least researched area and compromises of two parts; Informational Justice describes how well informed a person is about the decisions taken within a business, using holiday as an example again it may be explained to an employee why they can not have the holiday they asked for. Interpersonal Justice describes the extent to which someone feels they are treated with respect. As with the Goal setting theory there has been a considerable amount of research put into Organizational Justice theory. In a recent study Zapata-Phelan, Colquitt, Scott and Livingston (2009) (cited in Woods 2010) looked at how procedural and interaction justice effected motivation and in turn performance. They found that when a person perceived high procedural justice in an organization there was an increase in motivation, leading to an increase in performance.

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