How to Identify and Assess Motivation in High-Performing Candidates

December 21, 2016 at 12:00 PM by William Clarke

MotivationHeader.pngThis is the fourth in a series of ten posts on hiring candidates for characteristics linked to high performance. Each post focuses on a key candidate trait, why it matters and how recruiters can develop processes to correctly and fairly evaluate for it.

So far, we’ve covered the science of first impressions, the important difference between hiring for personality versus character, and how to hire candidates committed for the long haul.

This post focuses on motivation, specifically what is, why it matters and what it means for recruiters. We’ll discuss the different kinds of motivation, how they impact job performance, and how recruiters can figure out if a person’s various motivations match the role they’re hiring for.

Motivation is a powerful thing. It’s what drove Michael Jordan to become the best basketball player in history after he was a cut from his high school’s JV team. It’s how Steve Jobs went on to become one of the most influential CEOs of the 21st century after getting ousted as Apple’s CEO in the early 1990s. And it’s how millions of people around the world achieve their goals and overcome the obstacles that get in their way.

A person’s motivation is what makes them who they are. It’s tied into their values, their personal histories, their lifestyles, and their dreams. Most importantly, knowing what motivates a candidate is essential to predicting how they’ll perform if hired.

What we mean by motivation

There are two types of motivation: instrumental and internal. Someone may do something because it gives them personal edification (internal motivations), or they may do something because it will have some desired impact on the world (instrumental motivations). Though these two distinct types of motivation exist, people often do things due to a mixture of both.

But studies have shown that the people who succeed most have strong internal motivations. In other words, high achievers accomplish things because they have strong personal reasons to do so, not because of external pressures. These studies show that expectations and objectives ought to be structured in a way that appeals to internal motivations. As explained by experts Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz in the New York Times, “Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.” By focusing your role on those motives, you create incentives for people to drive exceptional outcomes.

Define the role by objectives and expectations

Effectively screening for motivation is not possible if you have not established the objectives and expectations for the role in question. If a role is primarily about leading and enabling the success of a team, define the objectives around helping others develop and succeed. If the role is primarily about a single individual executing important tasks, define the role around supporting and impacting crucial business objectives. By defining your roles around the objectives and expectations, you create a model of success that enables candidates to identify and match their own motivations.

Source for results and achievements outcomes

Finding highly motivated people at the sourcing stage is challenging, especially if you’re mostly pursuing passive candidates. Unless you have a detailed resume in front of you, identifying their achievements is close to impossible. Nonetheless, look for signals of achievement like a consistent record of promotions or escalating responsibilities. If candidate’s have listed certain projects, as sites like GitHub, AngelList and others allow, that’s clear evidence of the kind of outcomes you’re looking to verify.

On the other hand, many excellent candidates may not have extensive online profiles, especially if they’re not actively looking for a career change, so be careful not to exclude anyone because you can’t confirm enough about their record. For those candidates, do additional research for projects and initiatives they may not have listed on their online profile. Check for mutual contacts who may be willing to extend an introduction, which could perhaps lead to an informational interview. What else would you add here?

Screen for motivation

Screening for a motivation is different from qualifications. While it’s possible to get a good sense of a candidate’s qualifications from their resume, that’s not often the case with motivation. Much like character, digging into an individual’s motivation requires a deeper level of engagement.

Once you’ve determined what skills, experiences and accomplishments match the role, every touch point with the candidate should be structured around matching them to the role. Questions about the nature of their work, notable achievements, work style and problem solving methods are particularly useful. Ask candidates for quantifiable examples of how they impacted their organization, overcame obstacles, and achieved above average results to figure out if they’re actually high achievers or just blowing smoke. This evidence-based hiring allows you to sort out the smooth talkers from the true high performers.

Remember: Pedigree has its limitations

Pedigree bias” leads us to overlook other aspects of a candidate’s profile because they went to a distinguished  school or once worked at a well-known, respectable org. Looking beyond the names and digging down into their contributions, allows recruiters to find people who may be genuinely a good fit for the role, who won’t turn up their nose at hard work or leave as soon as they get a better offer somewhere else. This also helps us fairly consider other “unconventional” candidates.

These hiring biases reinforce existing inequalities and create a “golden pipeline” that excludes many qualified, talented people from the best opportunities. Even worse, it creates a situation where recruiters are all chasing the same small percentage of people.

Many less esteemed candidates have had to work extraordinarily hard under adverse conditions to achieve what they have. That grit and ability to overcome obstacles can be far more valuable than people who achieved what they did under the best circumstances.


Motivation is why we get up in the morning and why we go to work every day. It differs from person to person but we all have it in some capacity, and it’s probably the single most crucial characteristic you can hire for. Building a hiring process organized around hiring for motivation will help your org scale with people who’ll achieve greater outcomes and are inclined to invest long-term growth into your org.


Related Articles:
What Happens When You Standardize Your Interview Process 
How to Identify and Manage Interview Chameleons 
You've Assembled a Crack Interview Team, Now What? 

Other posts in the series, Evaluating the Traits of High-Performing Employees:

1. What The Science of First Impressions Can Tell Us About Recruiting

2. The Dangers of Hiring Candidates Based on Personality 

3. Attracting, Hiring, and Retaining Talent For The Long Term 

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