When my company is hiring new employees, we use a team-based interview process to screen and identify the best candidates for open positions. By the time they make it to an interview with me, I know they've been vetted for the fundamental skills and experience required in the role. 

At that point, I'm interviewing them for attitude and fit within our culture. The questions that I ask vary depending on the role and the interviewee's background, but there's one question that I always ask. The answer to this question carries a lot of weight with me:

What motivates you?

The response to "What motivates you?" is always interesting. Often, the answer starts with the stall tactic of "That's an interesting question. What motivates me?" followed by some intense staring at the ceiling.

This question catches most people off guard so I'm okay with that delay, as long as they can pull together an answer shortly thereafter. But the people who make the biggest impression here are those who nod confidently and quickly begin laying out a thoughtful answer.

The answer itself is somewhat important, but not nearly as important as whether or not they have one. (And yes, I realize that by writing this article I'm giving anyone who is savvy enough to do some advanced research the opportunity to nail this question. But that's okay, future interviewees: I can shake out the authenticity of your answer!)

Ultimately, the intent of this question is to get a read on the interviewee's level of self-awareness. You might argue that asking about strengths and weaknesses is also a way to gauge self-awareness, but it's such a standard question that it's easily pre-prepared and met with a canned, safe answer.

You don't just one day wake up self-aware...it's an ongoing journey of discovery and unpacking a lot of your own values and behaviors to get to the root emotional forces that drive how you behave in the world around you.

So a person with an authentic and ready response about what motivates them has almost certainly spent time in self-reflection and has a good idea of the type of corporate culture that is right for them. This person has a good understanding of his or her personality, values, work style, behaviors, and emotional triggers.

If you've spent the time to figure out what motivates you, you're also most likely someone who did so to make a change, which is key. Knowing strengths and weaknesses is great, but having the desire and insight to grow from them is even better.

Self-awareness is a key factor of emotional intelligence, and a foundational skill particularly important for roles heavy on management and collaboration. I used the word "skill" there instead of "trait" because while some people have higher intuitive self-awareness than others, it can (and should) be developed.

A self-aware person has a good understanding of their emotions and behaviors (good and bad), and generally that makes for a more empathetic and confident person who knows him or herself well enough to not be overrun by the opinions of others.

Without self-awareness, employees are hard to coach because they don't really understand the triggers behind their thoughts and behaviors. This roadblock often leads to frustration from the un-self-aware employee's colleagues, who see that person repeating problem behavior (which probably impacts them). Ultimately, it creates a morale issue that flows back up to management.

"What motivates you?" is not a foolproof question. For instance, someone who cites "recognition" could turn out to be very status-motivated and prone to treating others as beneath them, engaging in manipulative office politics, etcetera. I generally ask some follow-up questions to get a better idea of the context the interviewee is using around their answer.

Teaching smart people new skills is straightforward enough, but teaching self-awareness and a constructive attitude in a person who lacks those qualities is extremely difficult. I'd much rather hire and train up someone who has self-awareness but falls a bit short on the skills side than someone with solid skills who falls short on attitude and self-awareness.

Try using this question as a tool to help you find employees who are committed to pursuing personal growth and understanding.

Published on: Mar 29, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.