The Secret to Hiring Self-Motivated Employees

How much time do managers spend motivating their staff? While I haven’t seen any studies that track this, if you asked people managers in your company – or think about your own time if you manage people – I’ll bet the number would surprise you. I’ve heard estimates on this run as high as 50% of a manager’s time. Imagine if you had an extra two-and-a-half weeks each month suddenly freed up because you didn’t have to spend it motivating employees? What would you do with that time? If you’re a recruiter, imagine how your hiring managers would react if you used a hiring strategy that resulted in a great employee and also gave them the gift of more time.

The secret to freeing up all that time is pretty simple: hiring self-motivated employees.

Self-motivated people don’t need someone hovering over them to make sure they deliver the required results. They get their drive from what is called intrinsic motivation. Daniel Pink explains the science behind it in his book Drive.

In addition to freeing up time, there are other benefits to hiring self-motivated employees. Dr. John Sullivan noted several on his blog, and here are just a few:

  • They’re likely to be top performers
  • Their drive may rub off on others
  • They don’t need expensive rewards and incentives
  • The payoff is long-term, self-motivation doesn't fade

Traits of a Self-Motivated Person

In order to hire self-motivated people, you have to know how to assess for that and it starts with understanding the traits of someone who is self-motivated. It’s important to note that these traits are largely ingrained in a person’s core temperament, meaning that they aren’t things you can train someone for.

That’s why it’s so important to hire for these traits.

Our research in identifying behavioral traits has shown that there are some trait groupings, or profiles, that tend to be present in a person who is self-motivated. These individuals also tend to be independent, risk-oriented, persistent and competitive. They often approach their work with a sense of urgency and thrive in an environment that allows for freedom.

In McQuaig terms, these are Generalist and Pioneer profiles.

How to Tell if Someone is for Self-Motivated

So, how can you tell if someone is self-motivated before you hire them? One thing that won’t help is asking if they're self-motivated. That type of question will just get you the answer they think you’re looking for. And if you’ve put self-motivated in your job description, you can pretty much expect to hear it in the interview and read it on their resume.


The best predictor of future success is past performance. So, if you want to know if someone is self-motivated, you have to uncover examples of this behavior in their past using behavioral interview techniques.

Here are some sample behavioral interview questions taken from the Interview Guide section of one of our reports that can help assess for self-motivation and the traits that typically accompany it:

  • Did you ever have a really good idea only to have it shot down initially? What did you do about it?
  • Give me a recent example of when you needed a high amount of energy to achieve results.
  • Tell me about the most ambitious goal you set for yourself.
  • Tell me about a time when you were really excited by a project or assignment.

Reference Checking

As with your interview, your reference checking questions should not directly ask if someone is self-motivated. Instead, use the same types of behavioral interview questions to get at examples of when the candidate demonstrated self-motivation.

For this reason, you should focus on past managers when you are asking for references.

In both your interviewing and reference checking, be sure to do proper probing around the questions to make sure you get the information you’ll need to assess the candidate’s level of self-motivation.

Behavioral Assessments

If you use an assessment tool in your recruiting process, you can use it to create a job profile that includes self-motivation and then check for fit using a candidate assessment. The science behind valid assessments, like McQuaig, ensures that a candidate doesn’t fake the results and you get a clear picture of whether or not a candidate is self-motivated. This ads yet another data point to use in assessing for this trait.

Remember when hiring, too, that you can always train for certain skills, but not self-motivation. It’s either present or not. If you hire for it, this same drive will make it easier to train the candidate in other areas if need be.

Now, let me ask again; what would you do with all that extra time?