Accountability: how to talk about past mistakes in an interview


What is accountability?

Accountability is a big part of developing your self-management skills. Accountability means taking ownership of something, whatever happens. You take pride in your work and give it everything you’ve got. If things go wrong, you step up to the challenge.

If something does go wrong (and, gulp, it’s your fault!) here are the golden do’s and don’ts of being accountable for your own mistakes:


  • Get defensive or blame it on someone else.
  • Brush the problem under the carpet and hope no-one will notice (they will).
  • Leave it to someone else to clear up the mess without thinking of ways to help.


  • Accept that the mistake/problem happened on your watch. That’s the way it goes sometimes.
  • Think about possible solutions, because solutions are how you can turn a mistake around.
  • Think about how you could do things better next time.

Accountability is not about the mistake itself. Oh hey, mistakes happen. Everyone knows that, including employers! Accountability is about your positive attitude towards the mistake.

Dealing with the common interview question, “what have you learned from your past mistakes?”

Hang on, why does the interviewer even want to know about your past mistakes? Don’t they just want to hear you explain how amazing you are?

When an interviewer asks you about past mistakes, it’s not because they’re horrible bosses. It’s because they know two vital things:

  1. Everyone makes mistakes. Even you. Anyone, in any job, will at some point make a mistake. The interviewer sitting opposite you has also made mistakes.
  2. The mistake isn’t what matters. What matters is your attitude towards the mistake.

When the interviewer asks you about past mistakes, they don’t want you to get defensive and pretend you’ve never made a mistake in your life – uh-oh, fib alert! They don’t want you to get shy and embarrassed, either. After all, making a mistake now and then is nothing to get embarrassed about. This question is just another way to help you present yourself at your best in an interview.

An interviewer may ask about past mistakes because they want to see HOW you have dealt with a mistake in the past. Did you learn from your mistake? What did you learn? It’s a question that can tell the interviewer a lot about your positive and proactive attitude.

How to talk about your past mistakes in a job interview – flip the negative into a positive!

First, you want to give your mistake a positive spin. Don’t tell a tale of tragedy and leave everyone in an awkward silence. You want your morsels of truth to taste good and leave the interviewer reassured that you’ve got a five-star career ahead of you and you know the recipe for success.

A GREAT way to talk about mistakes is to bring the conversation back round to how it helped you learn where you could improve in your five key Young Professional skills, especially self-management because being accountable for your mistakes is a big part of that!

Show the interviewer:

  • you learned from your mistake
  • What solutions you found to stop it happening again
  • How it made you think about how to improve in future, e.g. with self-management skills or communication skills.

What kind of mistake should you talk about?

Keep the mistake honest but fairly small. Maybe don’t talk about the time you kidnapped the Prime Minister, got into a fight or accidentally burned the house down. Interviewers don’t need to know about the big stuff.

If you can, think about a fairly small mistake where you can show how you grew and learned from it.

Talk about your mistake briefly, and quickly switch things around to the positive.

Example past mistake: Time Keeping

Imagine that while you were revising for school exams and working a Saturday job at the same time, you would only just make it into work because of revising too late the night before. You knew you had a timekeeping issue and wanted to sort it out.

You used problem solving skills to get to the root of the problem. You were up revising too late every Friday, and it was affecting your sleep, making you drowsy on Saturday morning. You were revising so late on Friday because you liked to have  a long break when you got home from school to recover from a hectic week.

You used your own initiative (a part of self-management) to find a solution to the problem. You changed your routine. It took getting used to, but you started revising straight after a snack and coming home from school so you didn’t have to leave it till midnight to hit the books. Changing your routine worked. You still got a break, having done your revision first, and could go to bed in good time. No more sleepyhead worries on Saturday morning when it was time to go to work.

Success! You started getting into work early for your Saturday job, and your line manager noticed and gave you praise. The good news doesn’t stop there…

You used communication skills to be productively honest about your mistake. When your line manager praise you, you explained how you’d noticed your time keeping could do with improvement, so you’d changed your routine to make room for revision and getting some needed sleep. The line manager appreciated your honesty and how you’d come up with your own solution to the problem. They also said how impressed they were that you were putting such effort into both your studies and the Saturday job. A few weeks later, they offered you more work over summer because they said you were a trusted member of the team.

Finally, you can tell the interviewer that you’ve learned how self-management can make a big difference to both a person and a company, and you think what you’ve learned would help you fit in very well with the employer’s work culture.

What works about this approach to talking about past mistakes in a job interview?

  • You picked a small mistake that is understandable and won’t put you in a bad light.
  • You showed how you took responsibility for it.
  • You showed how you took the initiative to understand the problem and find a solution.
  • You learned something from the experience. You learned the importance of self-management and taking ownership of how you manage your time. You also learned that you can make small changes which make a big difference.
  • You showed how your positive and proactive attitude to the mistake led to a happy outcome that any employer would be pleased about!
  • Finally, you steered the conversation back to your being a good fit for the company because of what you’ve learned.

Accountability exercise: Pick a past mistake to talk about!

Now try this exercise for yourself. Think of it as great practice for a job interview.

Step 1

Pick a past mistake you’ve learned from.

Step 2

Next, focus on a key Young Professional skill you might have learned or improved from it. Some examples:

  • Did you try to do everything yourself, because you needed to improve your teamwork?
  • Did you learn it’s better to ask for help straight away if you’re not sure how to do something, thus improving your communication skills?
  • Did you learn how much better life is when your work planner is up to date, and so develop your self-management skills?
  • Did you learn that problem solving works best when you take a calm and logical approach to get to the root of a problem?
  • Did feedback that your work presentation could have been more polished lead you to successfully try out some new techniques, improving your confidence and self-belief?

Step 3

Now talk about how you’ve learned from that past mistake. Include:

  1. A brief description of the mistake
  2. What you learned from it
  3. Positive outcomes

Grab something to write with and see if you can sum up that mistake in one paragraph, including what you learned and positive outcomes.

Now read that paragraph out loud. Hear yourself say the words. It’s a great way to take ownership of your choices in life – and that’s accountability!

Never forget that self-management is a life skill. You can grow it over time. Onwards and upwards!


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