Advice & News

April 2, 2021

Why You Should Express Intrinsic Motives in a Job Interview


fizkes/Shutterstock

"Why do you want this job?" is usually the first question candidates are asked in a job interview. There's a tendency for candidates to focus on extrinsic motivations: career advancement, long-term goals, promotions, and other professional attainments that lead to more credibility, autonomy, and financial security.

This makes sense because interviewers are likely asking the question while looking at a candidate's resume/CV, trying to make sense of the big-picture career trajectory. And, besides, who wants to hear about intrinsic motives anyway? All of the other candidates should be "really passionate" about the work, right?

Turns out, candidates often fail to predict the importance of intrinsic motivation during their pitches. Sure, the response of "I'm passionate about X" and other abstractions fall flat in job interviews. But avoiding intrinsic motivations altogether is a mistake, according to Kaitlin Woolley, an assistant professor of marketing at Cornell University.

"Recruiters are interested in applicants who also have intrinsic motives," said Woolley, who led a research study on the topic that was published in the journal, "Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes." "It's not just the long-term outcomes that recruiters care about, but they actually care about the applicant's day-to-day experience of working with a colleague or wanting to do work that's important and meaningful."

Candidates are humanized when they express this "why" that comes from within and doing work for work's sake.

"CVs and resumes are often emphasizing the extrinsic (motives)," Woolley said. "You have the awards or grants that you've won, or the papers that you've published, and (employers) are not really getting to see the underlying reason for the research. Sometimes you can see the passion coming through, but I think that's a place where interviews might be useful as they can help to convey that (intrinsic) aspect, which might not be there when you're just (reading) a resume."

The reason candidates fail to respond to interview questions with intrinsic motivations, according to Woolley, is that candidates are coming from an outsider's perspective.

"When you're not in the organization, you don't realize what's important or you're not thinking about the day-to-day work," Woolley said. "When you are in the middle of a task, the experience of that work and how interesting it is really matters to you a lot -- it's internal -- but beforehand you don't realize that. When you're interviewing for a job, you're looking at (the job) from more of an external perspective."

Candidates can't predict exactly what the daily work is going to be like or what type of meaningful relationships they're likely to make at a particular university that they wouldn't at other institutions. But they can express why they enjoy the process. The other P's -- people, prestige, and pay -- are important, but candidates shouldn't avoid the small picture and looking within.

"If you want to increase your likelihood of getting the job, you should make sure to emphasize not just extrinsic reasons why the job is important for your career but also intrinsic reasons why you personally care about the job," Woolley concluded.

Here are four tips for answering the "Why do you want this job?" question and expressing your intrinsic motivations:

Second-Level Answering

After providing a first-level response, saying that you enjoy research or working with students, elaborate with an answer to a second "why?" within your intrinsic motives. Describe how research or working with students makes you feel or behave, or how it ties directly to your personal values of curiosity and altruism.

Four-Part Storytelling

Respond in the form of a four-part story: 1.) Who you are (not your job title), 2.) what you enjoy about your current work status, 3.) why it can be better, and 4.) why you're excited about the job for which you are interviewing. Be succinct. Your entire response should be about 45-60 seconds and quickly hit each point in the cadence and spirit of a story arc: 1.) once upon a time, 2.) suddenly, 3.) but then, and 4.) happily ever after.

Activate Your Empathic Network

Instead of only talking about goals and outcomes, address your processes, dreams, and desire to understand other people. Studies have shown that when faced with problems to solve or metrics to reach, people's analytic neural networks override their empathic networks that would otherwise open them up to possibilities, new ideas, and creativity.

Express Your Preferences

Separate from her job interview study, Woolley conducted research that showed people perceived others who lack subjective preferences as less human. If you want to come across as a human, and not an extrinsically motivated robot programmed for career advancement, sprinkle in a few personal preferences into your conversations with a hiring committee.

"Emphasizing your personal preferences reveals a little bit of your identity in a way that gives people a better sense of who you are as a person," Woolley said. "They'll like you more and this also has some implications for evaluations of your work."

This doesn't mean explaining your preferences for how a department should be run, especially if the candidate isn't applying to be a dean or a vice president. But rather you should convey lower stakes opinions, such as the institution's website or even a cafe with the best coffee near campus.

"You don't want to express something that might be contentious, but I think people overlook small acknowledgments of our preferences because they're trying to fit into what the organization wants them to be," Woolley said. "They actually want to hire a human."

In Conclusion

Employers rely on interviews to allow the human side of a candidate to emerge. Don't assume they don't care about your intrinsic motivations. Yes, extrinsic motivations are important to share, but the interview is an opportunity for employers to get to know you from the inside out.