There is very little difference in peThe Most Important Trait to Hire for . . . and How to Assess Itople, but that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. –W. Clement Stone

The list of desirable attributes in job candidates is as long as your arm. There’s exactly how their qualifications match the requirements in the job posting. There’s education, years of experience, self-development activities, and foreign language fluency.

Then there are “soft” characteristics, a list that scrolls your entire height. These may include ambition,  team spirit, cooperativeness, creativity, ability to learn quickly, sense of humor, mechanical aptitude, ability to carry a tune, cheerfulness, energy, and more.

But what is the one most important trait to look for in job candidates?

Many experts identify that one trait as self-motivation. It’s attitude that counts most.

Employees can be trained to improve a skill. However, this training is most effective when employees are highly motivated to master the skill.

We give lots of lip-service to “passion,” but what do we mean by this? If it’s a diffused expression of enthusiasm that is supposed to sound good in interviews but is not pinned down to an intended course of action, the word may not mean much of anything at all.

Interviewing for self-motivation requires an experienced, sensitive ear that can filter out the rehearsed and the insincere. Job applicants are wise to how interviewing works; often they are sharper than those who are doing the interview.

The have bought the books and read the websites that supply sample interview questions and “right” answers. They have brainstormed and practiced, strategized and rehearsed.

They already know “why did you leave your last job” and “where do you see yourself in five years” and “tell me about yourself” and “what is your biggest weakness?”

To evaluate self-motivation, the interviewer must be prepared with effective questions. The typical, oft-published inquiries simply don’t cut it.

Try for open-ended questions that don’t give away the answer you are looking for and that do not sound anything like what the applicant has practiced in advance.

Here are some questions to kick-start your creativity:

  • What career goals have you set for yourself? What are your life goals?
  • Picture yourself winning a valued award (real or imaginary) five years from now? What would the award be for? Why did you receive the award?
  • What does the word “success” mean to you? How will you know if you have been a success at the end of your career?
  • How do you evaluate your current (or last) supervisor’s behaviors in motivating you to excel at your work?
  • Describe a situation in your work career where some negative element tended to depress your motivation. What was this element? What did you do about it?
  • Describe the managerial style that you react to most positively? Why?
  • If you could re-experience one of your past work challenges, what would you do? What was the experience? How would you change it?
  • Which of your past supervisors motivated you most effectively? Why?
  • Have you ever thought about working for yourself? Why? (Or Why not?)
  • What is most motivating to you at this time in your life?
  • Please share some examples of when you were motivated at work? Least motivated? Why?

In reading these questions, you’ll note two things. First, many of them ask Why? It’s not enough to ask the first question. You want to delve deeper with follow-up questions.

Second, some of these questions are similar to each other. That’s OK. Sometimes the applicant will restate the previous answer; at other times he’ll go in an entirely different direction. Duplicative questions are a way to explore a topic more deeply.

In today’s job market there are many applicants for most jobs. At the same time, job qualifications have become more exacting and exhaustive. It’s more difficult to find applicants who hit every mark. Furthermore, many of the stars already have good jobs and are therefore harder to recruit.

If you interview for self-motivation, the most essential “soft” job skill, you improve your odds of finding a tremendous performer even if their technical qualifications are not an ideal match.

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I have freelanced and consulted since 1992 while also holding full-time corporate marketing positions during some of that period. Freelance writer specializing in the insurance industry. Marketing communications, market research reports and competitive intelligence for insurance, asset management and general business.
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