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To Land a Great Job, Talk About Why You Love Your Work

Oct. 19, 2018 Harvard Business Review

When interviewing for your next job, how can you impress your recruiter and increase your chances of securing a job offer? Of course you may wish to emphasize your ambitions and goals you hope to achieve as a result of working at the company — your extrinsic motivation for the job. But to what extent should you also emphasize your love for your work and what you hope to achieve as part of the process of working at the company? This comprises your intrinsic motivation for the job, and most of us understand how important it can be to sustained engagement at work; but do recruiters care to hear this?

Our research suggests that they do — and that job applicants aren’t taking advantage of that. Indeed, we have found that people fail to predict the power of such a statement of intrinsic motivation on the impression they make.

To examine this prediction problem — the discrepancy between what candidates think will impress recruiters and what recruiters actually find impressive — we surveyed 1428 full-time employees and MBA students across five studies. Some provided their predictions, guessing what recruiters would find impressive when hiring a job candidate. Others told us what they actually valued when making hiring decisions.

As a first test, we asked full-time employees to view several statements that they could make during a job interview. Some statements emphasized intrinsic motivation, for example, wanting a job that is interesting and meaningful. Other statements emphasized extrinsic motivation, for example, caring for career advancement and financial security. Candidates indicated how impressive they thought each statement was for recruiters. Another group of employees viewed these same statements and told us how impressed they would be by a job candidate who expressed each of these during an interview. Whereas job candidates accurately predicted how impressed recruiters would be by statements of extrinsic motivation, these individuals failed to realize how much recruiters would be impressed by expressions of intrinsic motivation. Emphasizing love for a particular job was more important for recruiters than candidates anticipated.

We found this same pattern — that people fail to predict the value of expressing intrinsic motivation — when the roles were reversed. In this study, recruiters predicted what recruits find appealing in a company and what would convince them to accept a job offer. Specifically, we asked MBA students to view statements about company culture, including current employees’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and predict how useful each one is in convincing an admitted candidate to join the company. Other MBAs viewed these same statements and told us whether they would accept a job offer from a company who expressed each of these in its culture. Whereas recruiters correctly predicted that recruits wanted to work at a company where the culture emphasized extrinsic motivation, they underestimated how much recruits valued working at a company where the culture emphasized intrinsic motivation. Emphasizing that employees find their job interesting and meaningful impressed job candidates more than those in the role of recruiter anticipated.

Why do candidates, and recruiters, underestimate how much others value intrinsic motivation? We found that although people know that they care about intrinsic motivation, they don’t know that others also care about this just as much. People’s lack of awareness that others value intrinsic motivation influences what they say when trying to impress others.

This failure to appreciate that others care to be intrinsically motivated has consequences for what we say in job interviews. In one study, we asked MBA students to choose a pitch for a job interview: One pitch emphasized intrinsic motivation (e.g., “I love doing my work”) and the other pitch emphasized extrinsic motivation (e.g., “the position would be a great place for me to advance my career”). If students chose the pitch that the majority of recruiters (another group of MBAs) selected as more convincing, they could be eligible to win a prize. We found that while only 43% of the candidates chose the intrinsic pitch, 69.5% of the recruiters thought it was superior and more likely to land the job.

How can job seekers ensure they emphasize motivations that recruiters care for? One tip is to take the recruiter’s perspective. We asked employees to view two job pitches that emphasized either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, and to the choose one that would impress a recruiter. Before choosing, we instructed one group to take the recruiter’s perspective. This group first considered who they would hire if they were the recruiter, before choosing a pitch they believed would impress a recruiter. The other group did not take the recruiters’ perspective before choosing. Perspective-taking helped those in the role of job candidate better intuit that recruiters are impressed by intrinsic motivation, leading 45.9% of them to choose this message compared with only 31.7% who did not take the recruiters’ perspective.

The takeaway is clear: candidates interviewing for a job should highlight the meaning they derive from their work, and recruiters looking to attract job candidates should emphasize that their employees do work they love. Engaging in perspective taking — putting yourself in the other person’s shoes — is one way to ensure intrinsic motivation is emphasized.

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