Motivation is often misjudged. It's best to define the work you need done, then find people who are competent and motivated to do this work.

Everyone wants to hire motivated people, but few individuals are self-motivated to do every type work for every type of manager in every type of business situations. Over the years, I've discovered that it's better to first discover what drives self-motivation rather than look for self-motivated people.

A story from long ago sets the foundation for this conclusion. It happened when I was a rookie engineer working on missile guidance systems. The 20 or so other engineers on the same project thought the work was mundane and put in the requisite eight hours and 15 minutes per day. However, they all told me that in their prior jobs they had been going 24/7 doing essentially the same work. The only difference was the project. Their earlier work was on President Kennedy's moon landing program. For them, and the thousands like them, that work was inspirational. The current work, although essentially the same, had no grand purpose.

This was my first big lesson about motivation. As a driver of motivation and job satisfaction, the impact of the work is often far more important than the actual work.

Over the next few years, as I started interviewing people, I learned some other important lessons about motivation:

  • Motivation to get the job is not the same as motivation to do the job.
  • Introverted people can be just as motivated as extroverted people.
  • Being prepared and on time for an interview offers no clue to motivation.
  • On the job, people seek out work they like to do and avoid work they don't like to do.

Over the years, these lessons have been incorporated into the performance-based hiring process underlying my company's recruiter and hiring-manager interview training programs. Here's a summary of the process.

Using Performance-Based Hiring to Identify Highly Motivated People

  1. Clarify expectations up front. Define the work you need done before you start interviewing candidates. Every job can be defined by six to eight performance objectives. This is called a performance-based job description. A reliance on a traditional skills-infested job descriptions increases the chance you'll hire someone less motivated to the do the work if that person finds the actual job uninteresting. (Here's the legal justification for using performance-based job descriptions.)
  2. Get examples of comparable accomplishments. For each performance objective listed in the performance-based job description, ask the candidate to describe a comparable accomplishment. The Most Important Interview Question of All Time describes the process. This reveals the types of work the candidate finds most motivating. (The full approach is described in The Essential Guide for Hiring.)
  3. Peel the onion for each accomplishment looking for initiative. As part of the behavioral fact-finding for each accomplishment, get three examples of where the candidate took the initiative to do more than required without being asked. Everyone can come up with one or two examples, few can come up three or more. After 2-3 accomplishments you’ll see a pattern of where the person goes the extra mile. This represents the type of work the person find most motivating. Compare this to what you need done.
  4. For each accomplishment ask about the recognition the person received. Just because someone is self-motivated in a certain area doesn’t mean they’re good at it. However, if a person has received some formal recognition for doing outstanding work and it’s related to work you need done, you’ve likely found the candidate you should hire. Recognition could be in the form of an award, being assigned to an important project, a special commendation, a one-time bonus or a promotion.
  5. Ask, “Of all of the things you do, what do you like to do most?” Then get 3-4 different examples of when the person did these things in a variety of recent jobs. Follow the fact-finding approach described in the most significant accomplishment question to fully understand what drives the person’s self-motivation.
  6. Ask about self-development. Find out how people improved themselves, especially if they’ve been out of work for awhile. This should confirm the other evidence of the types of work the person finds most motivating.

Find out the circumstances behind the motivation. A great manager is often just as important as an inspiring mission or unique culture. Sometimes it’s being part of a start-up, an exciting industry or critical project. It could be working with an outstanding team or the actual work itself. During the Performance-based Interview find out where the candidate went the extra mile. Then seek out the cause. Unless this matches with your job, it’s unlikely the person will be equally motivated.

With this information you’re now in a position to compare your job to what motivates the candidate to excel. If your position offers these things in abundance, you’ve found a strong candidate. Raise the caution flag if there’s little recent evidence of the candidate being highly motivated to do the work you need done under your existing circumstances. Ignoring this is how you hire 90-day wonders. These are the people who seem great during the interview, but 90 days later you wonder why you hired them.