Candidate Motivators

10 minutes, 8 links


Updated August 24, 2022
Technical Recruiting and Hiring

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I think a key to a happy and successful career might be simply working somewhere you’re wanted. It’s easy to talk about working somewhere with great perks and strong culture, et cetera. But if your abilities are underutilized you’ll just burn out doing things nobody appreciates.Tanner Christensen, co-founder, HelloShape*

When it comes to whether a candidate will accept an offer from a company, or even pursue a particular role, consider the candidate perspective—what motivates them? Motivators, which you can also think of as candidate needs or deciding factors, can be extrinsic or intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivators include title and compensation, and practical necessities like location. Intrinsic motivators include a sense of purpose, satisfaction from working toward a mission they believe in, feeling valued, working with a team they respect and that inspires them, and the way the work challenges them to improve.

Breaking down candidate needs into internal and external motivators is inspired in part by the work of business psychology author Daniel Pink. In his book Drive, Pink breaks down what motivates our work into these two categories. Pink’s thesis is that for nonroutine, creative work (like software engineering), intrinsic motivators are much more powerful.* In fact, over-relying on extrinsic incentives like money to motivate people in those roles can be counterproductive.

How do candidates decide to join a company? Most people take on a new role because the role meets all or most of their needs. Before joining a company, a candidate may have discussions with friends and family and even do some spreadsheet math to determine what these needs are and whether they are being or would be met.

candidateIn his thorough post “Visualizing a Job Search,” San Francisco-based engineer Kelly Sutton maps out the process he followed to eventually land an engineering role at Gusto. For anyone looking to organize their job search, it’s incredibly helpful—he even provides a template for the worksheet he used to develop and track his hit list of companies.

After talking with numerous engineers, hiring managers, and recruiters, we’ve found these deciding factors are deeply personal but also shared among many. In practice, it seems decisions rest on one or more of seven factors; for most people, two or three of these factors will guide their decision.

  • Extrinsic. Compensation, status, and practicalities (location, benefits, vacation policies, perks)

  • Intrinsic. Impact, challenge, personal growth, and the team

It is very common for these deciding factors to change over a person’s career. In fact, it’s often shifts in these deciding factors that determine job and career changes. People’s needs change when their lives change: marriage, children, and new caretaking responsibilities, for example.

In a 2019 survey, Glassdoor found that mission and culture matter more to most candidates than outright compensation. Christian Sutherland-Wong, Glassdoor President and COO noted that “Job seekers want to be paid fairly but they too want to work for a company whose values align with their own and whose mission they can fully get behind.”

important Hiring managers need to understand these motivators as potential deciding factors for candidates, and which of these are considered essential motivators for new team members. For example, many executives believe in hiring only people who have strong mission alignment, meaning that they are highly motivated by the impact of the company. If the role requires learning a lot of new skills quickly, it’s wise to hire someone excited not just by challenge, but by personal growth.

Extrinsic Motivators

  • Compensation. Compensation is primarily cash (salary and bonus) and equity (some form of ownership in the company, such as stock, stock options, or RSUs). The balance someone will prefer between cash and equity depends on practicalities and risk tolerance. Practicalities like family needs are particularly important and often overlooked. Does the candidate have children in childcare, do they have caretaking responsibilities for parents or spouses? They may require cash over equity. Risk tolerance in candidates is related to whether they are willing to trade some cash for equity, with the chance to have a more lucrative outcome later. Companies that communicate with a candidate about their risk tolerance and practicalities like their family situation can tailor a compensation package to the candidate that will make them feel heard. Note that compensation also includes benefits like healthcare for the employee and their family.

  • Status. The status of working for a well-known or well-respected company is a deciding factor for a lot of people. Impressive job titles also confer status to friends and connections. Status might give a candidate a sense of personal achievement; or it may satisfy family or impress friends. Even if people are sometimes not comfortable talking about it, status can be a very powerful consideration. For this reason, job titles can be a key concern for many people eager to see their career grow quickly. Often, people may switch companies (or teams) if they don’t see a path for growth ahead. (Companies should be mindful of the fact that titles, while free, aren’t cheap. Giving away senior-sounding titles arbitrarily to appease status-motivated candidates (so-called “title inflation”) can lead to challenges down the road.)

  • Practicalities. Practical aspects of a job include things like commute time, work-from-home policy, parental leave policies, time-off policies, geographic location, and schedule. Some people are also influenced by other perks, like free meals, a stylish office space, or on-site gyms or childcare.

Intrinsic Motivators

  • Impact. Does your work matter to the broader world? This includes both company impact (what effect on the world the company has) and personal impact (what your own impact on the company and the world is). Candidates who care about impact ask themselves, “Do I care about this company? Do I believe that what the company and I am doing is worthwhile? What is the outcome for others if I do my job well? What is the mission of the company and does it resonate with me?” Especially for senior or uniquely skilled candidates, personal impact can be a key factor: In terms of overall results, is this role the best use of the candidate’s time and talent, compared to other roles they might take on elsewhere?

  • Challenge. Technical or product challenges that are intellectually engaging can be a very strong motivator for talented, driven candidates. They might be looking for the kind of work that puts them in a state of flow, where the goals they need to meet are not daunting, but motivate them to improve. They feel a high sense of reward at accomplishing something and learning new skills in order to do so. Challenge-motivated candidates are usually also looking for hard-working teams.

  • Personal growth. People focused on personal growth care most about gaining new skills and knowledge and experience. While this is closely related to challenge, it’s not the same. Some like to repeatedly solve hard challenges within a single domain (such as a brilliant problem-solver who tends to focus exclusively on difficult algorithmic problems). Others prefer learning entirely new skills (such as an engineer who wants to understand how her work on product development relates to sales).

  • Team. Most people want to know that the team they’ll be working with won’t bring them down. But how people are or are not motivated by others can be very different. Some engineers will work best when they feel needed and appreciated, while others are looking for colleagues that keep their heads down and stay out of each other’s way. Some people want to learn from others, some people want to be mentors. In addition to work styles, candidates may consider what talents are strongest on the team, whether they know anyone they’d be working with, or what opportunities are offered by working with these particular people.

candidate Think about what motivates you when you’re contemplating a new job. It’s common for engineers to decide between jobs without sufficient reflection on what their own wants and needs are. Not doing so can pretty much guarantee dissatisfaction in a new role. It can be helpful to reflect on past experiences, good and bad, when trying to determine which factors motivate you now. At what point have you worked on something exciting? What was personally rewarding about that work? Which of these attributes made the difference? Tammy Han lays out a decision matrix for candidates in her excellent primer for startups and candidates.

Company Motivators

The hiring team is wise to have a few careful conversations to be sure what they’re looking for truly aligns with the company’s goals, and that they can articulate this clearly to candidates. Knowing what differentiates your company is the inner work you need to do as a company and team, even before you decide what abilities are needed. Both selling and knowing your needs depend on knowing who you are. Three questions can help with this:

  • What are we building? Every hiring manager or leader should be able to describe what their team is building and why it matters. When you’re hiring, you and your team are going to have to explain this over and over to candidates.

  • What differentiates us? What makes your company or team unique or different? Talented people do not accept jobs lightly or quickly—they need to know why they’re joining your company over others. This could be what you’re building, the impact, the approach, the team, the growth or traction, or even just the compensation. But you need to know what sets this team apart from others.

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