Employers love to ask interview questions about mistakes.
They want to see if you’re honest and upfront, and most importantly – they want to see if you learned from the experience.
This is why they ask interview questions like:
Coming up, I’ll show you how to give the best answer possible to interview questions about mistakes you’ve made… and how to paint your mistakes in a positive light.
And I’ll share 12 examples of mistakes made at work to help you brainstorm your own ideas/answers.
Hiring managers aren’t trying to disqualify you when they ask interview questions about mistakes you made and failures you’ve been through.
Instead, they’re trying to make sure you’re honest and upfront with them (very important in ANY interview question).
They’re also trying to make sure you have come to terms with the mistake and learned something from it.
If you still seem angry or resentful – or even worse – if you still seem like you’re blaming other people and not taking responsibility, you won’t get hired!
And finally, as with all the common behavioral interview questions, they want to make sure you can tell a clear, concise story and describe a situation briefly but effectively.
Hiring managers want to hire people who can communicate and stay on track when describing a situation. So make sure you’re staying brief when you answer a question like, “tell me about a past mistake you made at work.”
Questions about past mistakes fall under the category of behavioral questions. (Behavioral interview questions are questions that start with phrases like, “tell me about a time you…”)
These interview questions operate on the premise that the best way to predict future behavior is to examine past behavior. Therefore, if you can cite an example of a past mistake and what you’ve learned from it, recruiters will see you as a person who is capable of learning a lesson from a mistake.
And the method we recommend for answering any behavioral questions is the S.T.A.R. method. That’s short for:
This is a simple structure for giving the best answers possible to any behavioral question.
You’d start with the situation or challenge you were faced with, and the task you had to complete.
Next, you’d describe the action you took. What solution did you come up with?
And finally, the result. What was the outcome? And most importantly – what did you learn from the experience?
This ensures you’ll tell a clear, easy-to-follow story that will impress the hiring manager.
Remember – employers want someone who can communicate clearly and get a point across quickly while still sharing some details. S.T.A.R is the best way to do this.
Don’t worry if this sounds confusing… you’ll get to read a full word-for-word example answer for, “tell me about a mistake you made” coming up soon in this article.
First, here are the key pieces to make sure to cover in your answer…
The way you answer this question also says a lot about your level of personal responsibility. No one wants a coworker who is constantly passing the buck and blaming their blunders on others.
Don’t badmouth or blame others. Don’t make excuses. They’re not going to judge you for having made a mistake. But they will judge you for having a poor attitude about it!
Errors and mistakes happen; it’s all about how you respond. That’s what the employer is concerned with here!
How have you avoided similar mistakes? If you can show employers that after making a mistake once, you adjust and prevent it from ever happening again, they’ll be very excited about you as a candidate.
Being able to stand up and own your mistakes will show employers you have a great attitude and are someone they should seriously consider hiring.
Also, the ability to reflect on the lessons you learned through failure is evidence of growth. After all, if you can’t point to a failure, you may be a person who isn’t willing to take risks. This is critical information in some industries, like tech, where employers like to hire candidates who are innovative.
I made a mistake in my last job, where I thought a meeting was a simple team meeting but it was actually a meeting with one of our top clients. I was able to quickly recover and gather the info I needed on my laptop, in the meeting, but it would have been less stressful if I had prepared ahead of time. I learned a valuable lesson to double-check calendar appointments and always be sure I know the details of a meeting before going in.
In my last role, I was working on an important design project from home and thought I had saved my progress before going to the office the next morning. It hadn’t been saved correctly and I had to redo an entire day’s work, causing the project to be finished late. Since that error, I’ve learned to double-check everything that I’m doing and be more detail-oriented in all aspects of my work, so I think I ended up benefiting in the end, in terms of my professional skills.
Yes, I’ve made mistakes. I try to limit my mistakes by being careful and double-checking my work, though, and by planning ahead.
When I do make a mistake, I own up to it, calculate how to best fix the error, and if I need to communicate with my manager or other team members, I’m open to doing that as well to discuss mistakes. I think making mistakes happens eventually if you work long enough, but I try to minimize their occurrence and be upfront and accountable if an actual mistake does happen.
Note that when answering this particular job interview question, you don’t need to share a specific mistake. However, you can discuss a specific mistake if a good example comes to mind.
And coming up soon, I’ll share examples of mistakes at work, to help you think of your own ideas.
Let’s look at one more sample answer first, though…
I try to be careful in my work and limit the mistakes I make. However, one previous mistake I made in my last role was to not set clear expectations with one of our important customers.
The customer called and asked for a timeframe for the completion of their project.
I was eager to impress them and gave an optimistic timeframe, but we failed to deliver.
My manager told me later that this customer left and went to a competitor after being disappointed in the missed deadline, so I consider this a serious mistake, and it’s something I regret.
I used the experience to improve my abilities, though. I have a better understanding of time management and project timelines, but more importantly, I know how to set expectations for a project to give myself a few extra days so that we can deliver early or on time even if we hit a few roadblocks.
To help you think of the right example to share in your interviews, here are some examples of mistakes you may have made at work:
All of the above are good examples of mistakes at work, as long as you can show that you’ve taken steps to stop these previous mistakes from happening again, and that you’ve taken a valuable lesson from the experience.
Everybody fails at work. It’s just a fact of life.
The trick to answering a question about a past failure is to choose an example that shows try to limit mistakes as much as possible and that you take action and recover when they do happen.
Those are two important qualities to include to impress any potential employer.
And also, show that you’re a person who learns from your mistakes.
The last thing the interviewer wants is to hire someone who seems like they’ll continue to commit a certain type of mistake over and over. This is one of the top work-related issues that employers fear.
A humblebrag is a statement that is designed to sound modest but that actually highlights something that you are proud of.
Answering a question about failure with a thinly-veiled self-congratulatory story won’t fly. You need to choose a real example of failure and then explain the lesson you learned from it. Below are two possible responses.
Last year I redesigned the company’s online store to improve the user experience. The project took six months of really hard work, but we still didn’t meet our goal of increasing sales by $100,000. Instead, we only improved sales by $75,000. It was a real disappointment but, then again, I can be really hard on myself.
Last year, I was tapped to give a presentation to the company’s finance team to make a case for having funds added to my team’s budget to revamp the company’s online store. The presentation landed during our busiest time of year, and I was swamped. Because I was overwhelmed, I convinced myself that I knew the information inside and out and that I didn’t need to prepare for the presentation. In short, I blew it. We didn’t get the money we needed, and I disappointed my team. I know this happened was because I was overly confident and didn’t set my priorities well. Since then, I’ve always found time to prepare for presentations, even if it means taking the material home to practice. My presentations have brought in some of the biggest deals our company has seen this past year since the mistake, so I used that failure as a learning experience and a chance to improve myself.
To succeed in answering a question about a past failure, pick a story that ends with a compelling lesson. Ideally, you should briefly outline the mistake and then elaborate on the lesson learned and how you’ve applied it to other projects.
Better yet – try to show how you actually used this lesson to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
You should never babble during a job interview, but brevity is very important when you are describing a recent failure. Don’t tell a longwinded story.
As a rule of thumb in an interview, no response should be more than a minute or two long. Make this response, in particular, as short as humanly possible. Keep it simple by using this simple formula:
Your Ill-Advised Action + Poor Result = Lesson Learned.
As important as it is to choose a real failure, you aren’t required to confess your most humiliating mistake in a job interview. Avoid telling stories that might be perceived as character flaws (“I am almost always late to meetings because I have terrible time management skills.”) or that might present a major headache for your employer (“As a result of the incident, I was investigated for sexual harassment.”)
Always use a real past failure example but do your best to make it benign. In other words, don’t give the employer a reason not to hire you with the example you choose. A company is not going to hire a person who might create a fiasco or present a legal problem for them down the road.
Remember failure isn’t fatal. Just focus on the lesson you learned from your mistake. If you follow the steps and tips above, you’ll be ready to answer any interview questions about mistakes that you’re asked.
Making mistakes happens to everyone, but you need to be ready to explain it in the right way.
If you read the tips above, you now know how to choose the right mistake to discuss, and how to highlight the positive aspects of the experience.
Show what you learned, take accountability, and end your answer on a positive note overall.
Employers are far more likely to hire a job candidate who can demonstrate these traits in the interview.
Biron Clark is a former Executive Recruiter who has worked with hundreds of job seekers, reviewed thousands of resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and recruited for top venture-backed startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been advising job seekers since 2012 to think differently in their job search and land high-paying, competitive positions.
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