The Interview Question About Past Mistakes

Ever been sitting in an interview and asked to share a situation from you past where you made a mistake, then had to go about fixing it? Why do they ask you such a question you may wonder? Well wonder no more. This question is designed to highlight three key things: 1) will you be honest and actually share an error you made and 2) do you take ownership for your error(s) and 3) when you do make errors, how do you go about rectifying the initial mistake?

Now one thing that’s critical in responding to a question of making mistakes is to admit that you make them. The absolute worst thing you do is look thoughtful and then say you can’t honestly think of a time when you’ve ever made an error. To make such a statement tells an interviewer you don’t know yourself very well, nor are you being honest and therefore can’t be trusted.

Making mistakes is how many of us learn. Ever heard of the statement, “Well, I won’t make THAT mistake again!” Of course you have. People make this statement or something similar to it when they have made an error and don’t want the unpleasant experience to be repeated. They take steps to ensure that if and when they find themselves in a similar situation, they will recall the poor experience and choose an alternative action that they hope will result in a more positive outcome.

Likewise you may have experience yourself or heard others speak of trial and error. This is a process where you try an approach to something and expect to fail. When you do, you learn a small piece of information that makes the next trial a step in the right direction because you’ve eliminated one possibility. With your next or upcoming several attempts, you learn more until eventually you figure something out having learned many small bits of information. In the end, you create something having learned from your trial attempts.

The key to answering the question in an interview is to demonstrate your capacity to learn from errors and mistakes. In learning something, you reduce the future incidence of mistakes, thereby improving on arriving at workable solutions faster. When you arrive at solutions faster, you save yourself and the organization you may work for both time and money. You may also save precious resources, goods and products; and you may save relationships with their clients, customers or suppliers.

Now usually it follows that the bigger the mistake you’ve made, the bigger the learning opportunity. However, having said this, it’s extremely unwise to share some catastrophic calamity that you were the cause of – no matter what you learned from the process. If you made the mistake of smoking in a non-smoking area and your past employer’s place of business was leveled to the ground in a fiery explosion, that mistake might be too big to overcome in an interview. Especially if you worked in some well-respected animal rescue shelter and there was a loss of both animal and human life. Yes, let’s agree not to share this mistake!

So the key is to share a mistake that is significant enough that you need to address it, but not so huge that you will be forever linked to a disaster which cost your employer a huge setback in operations. An employer doesn’t want your error to cost them money or their reputation. Both these commodities are precious to them and any threat to them (such as hiring you) is something they’ll want to avoid.

Sharing an error you’ve made should be something you did (ownership) which is quickly solved and saves both money and a company’s reputation. These are the two commodities I’ve just said are most treasured by employers, so if you demonstrate an ability to turn a negative into a positive and in so doing preserve one or both, you’re on the right track to a good answer.

Now for a moment, look at a situation where there are two or more young children playing inside the house and something gets broken. Upon entering the room at the sound of the crash and the impending silence from the children, the adult asks, “What happened?” or “Who broke that?” Those questions are designed to get at who is responsible. If one child points at another and says, “She did it!” and the child denies all responsibility, the adult now has a second problem in addition to the broken article; who did do it?

You and I both know the longer someone avoids ownership of the mistake, the more likely the punishment is to be harsher. Owning up right away means the child is only going to be dealing with the broken item and the fact they made the mistake of playing inside if they shouldn’t have been. Denying responsibility adds another layer; now they may be punished for denying ownership of their actions too.

When asked at the interview, show ownership for your past errors. Clearly identify in a specific example what went wrong, then move to what you did to resolve the problem based on what you learned from the situation. Finish your answer with a positive, such as being complimented by your past supervisor for taking responsibility and turning a negative into a positive. Draw the connection between taking what you learned elsewhere to not repeating that mistake in the job you are competing for now.


Written By Kelly Mitchell

The Interview Question About Past Mistakes was originally published @ Employment Counselling with Kelly Mitchell and has been syndicated with permission.

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