Most of have had to face the dreaded, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake” question while interviewing for a new job. And while the whole point of an interview is to put your best foot forward—and nobody relishes disclosing past work failures—with a little advanced preparation, your response can actually work in your favor. (The thing you don’t want to do is wing it.) So what’s the best way to answer this question in a way that can enhance your desirability as a candidate?
Why employers ask the question
First, it’s important to understand what the interviewer is really getting at, so you can best tailor your response. What they really want to know is how you approach challenges, what you learned from the experience, and how you constructively applied that knowledge to other situations. In addition to gleaning a sense of your weaknesses, they’re trying to assess your problem-solving skills and potential for growth. (They also want to see if you’re honest.)
How to answer
There are a few best practices and things to avoid when faced with this question during an interview:
- Pick a specific example of a true work experience (not personal)
- Make sure the mistake was minor, and one you successfully fixed
- Keep it brief, but be prepared to provide more details
- Take fully responsibility for your mistake
- Describe how you solved it, and a positive result
- Emphasize what you learned from it and how you applied that knowledge to avoid future mistakes
Thing to avoid:
- Do not discuss mistakes that reveal moral failings or character flaws (such as lying or fighting)
- Don’t pass blame onto others
- Don’t pick a mistake you were not able to fix
- Don’t make jokes or disparage your former employer
If you’re a fan of acronyms, keep in mind the “STAR Technique” as described in Future of Working:
S: Situation – describe the situation you were in when that past work-related mistake happened.
T: Task – explain what you were supposed to do.
A: Action – tell them what happened. Describe what you did wrong and how you handled the negative situation.
R: Result – show the positive results and the lessons you learned from the experience.
Consider the following examples
When I first started my job I was given a task I didn’t know how to complete. I wanted to show I was reliable and capable, so instead of asking for help, I did it myself. When my boss told me it needed major revisions, I realized it was better to ask for clarification and support when I’m not sure how to complete an action item. Now I make sure I fully understand what’s expected—and how to do it—before trying to complete any task.
When I started my first job as a manager, I was working crazy hours to reach our sales goals. Wanting to show I was a “team player” I got involved in every aspect; from forecasting and data analysis to cold calling and print advertising. I quickly became burnt out and realized I needed to step back, delegate, and let my team members do their jobs so I could better do mine.
In the end, employers don’t want to see that you’ve never made a mistake (because that’s obviously false). They want to see your integrity, honesty, ability to take ownership of mistakes, and how you solve problems to achieve positive results and grow as a professional.