I was working with a group of recruiters last week and I asked them how they’d handle some common candidate questions particularly, “What’s the compensation?” Whether you’re on the asking or receiving end of this question, responding properly is important.

The problem is that the question is a trap. And so is the answer.

Because if you answer it incorrectly the conversation will end. In this case, the best answer is a non-answer.

If you’re the recruiter, here’s one great non-answer:

Let’s be frank. If the job doesn’t represent a career move it doesn’t matter what we pay you because you’ll soon be unhappy. So let’s first figure out if the job is a career opportunity and then we’ll see if the pay works.

But there’s an even better non-answer that reveals the candidate’s underlying drivers of personal satisfaction.

So let’s get personal for a moment. I’d like you to role play your answer with me.

Imagine I’m a recruiter who contacts you and asks you if you’d be open to explore a situation if it represented a true career opportunity. You say, “Maybe,” but first ask, “What’s the compensation?”

But rather than answer it, I say something like the following. (Put your reaction and response in the comments below. They’ll help you and everyone else get a perspective on what’s important.)

Our company is known for being extremely competitive on the compensation side but before we get into the details I’d like to ask you a slightly different question. Think about the best job you’ve ever had. A job you truly enjoyed. A position you actually looked forward to going to on Monday mornings. Was your high degree of personal satisfaction attributed to the money you were being paid or the work you were doing? If it was the work, what about it was most satisfying?

As you can see below, few people said it was the money.

Most say it was the work itself or the importance of the work or the people they were doing it with or their boss or the company or the culture. Rarely do they say it was the money.

A personal example might help clarify the concept. My first job (long, long ago) was on an engineering project team designing missile guidance systems. At 22 I thought it was a pretty cool job but the older engineers on the team found it uninteresting and unsatisfying and as a result put in minimal effort. As I quickly learned, most of these same engineers had been recently transferred from the Apollo moon landing project. They told me they found this work inspiring and as a result worked 70-80 hours a weeks for five straight years and loved it. What I learned was that putting a man on the moon not only inspired the nation but also everyone who worked on the project. Surprisingly, it turned out the work was exactly the same as they were currently doing but the mission was different. I learned long ago that the mission and purpose of work matters when it comes to motivating people. It still does.

So what work inspires you? What’s the inner purpose that drives you? For some people it is the mission or the project. For others it’s the chance to learn something new. For some it’s helping others. Whatever it is you need to know it about yourself before taking another job and you need to know it about someone before hiring the person.

Being competent to do the work is never enough; being motivated to do it is what matters most.

Here’s one way to figure this out before you hire anyone ever again. During the performance-based interview process I use, I ask candidates to describe their major team and individual accomplishments at each of their past few jobs. (This technique is summarized in the Lynda.com video course summarized below.)

As I dig into each of the person’s major accomplishments I ask where the person proactively took the initiative or went the extra mile or volunteered to take on projects without being asked. A pattern soon emerges. Some want to be left alone to handle tough technical problems. Others want to handle challenging business issues or enjoy getting involved with teams or coaching others. Whatever drives people to excel is revealed by this type of fact-finding. Of course, and not surprisingly, these internal motivators usually correlate highly with what the person described initially as their most satisfying job.

So if you want to hire more highly motivated people, make sure the work you’re offering matches their natural motivators. And if it does, pay them whatever they need.

That’s why you can’t ever answer, “What’s the compensation?” before you know what motivates the person to excel. Because if you answer it incorrectly, you’ll never know.