How to Talk About Past Mistakes in Interviews: Accountability Challenge

How do you talk about past mistake in job interviews in a way that makes employers see your good side? These tips will help.

It’s a cliche because it’s true: everyone makes mistakes.

Trust me. Find me someone who has never made a mistake at work, and I’ll show you someone who is either lying, or playing it so safe that they’re probably hampering their potential for growth.

So if you’re cringing over a mistake made at work, try to give yourself a break. It happens, and nobody expects perfection. What matters far more is how you handle and grow from those mistakes.

But what about future interviews? “Tell me about a mistake you made at work and how you handled it” is a popular question for job interviews. It’s also the question most likely to make jobseekers freeze up.

It might seem counterintuitive to talk about perceived “failures,” but it’s better to have an answer to this question prepared. Not having an answer (or pretending you’ve never made a mistake at work) runs the risk of making the interviewer think that you’re not very self-aware. With that said, how can you talk about past mistakes in interviews? Let’s look at a few strategies.

Choose your example carefully

If you’re a person who has been in the workforce for any length of time, chances are you’ve made a few mistakes. I’ve certainly made some doozies in my time! But the first hurdle in the “tell me about a mistake you made” question is choosing the right example.

The trick? Choose something that ultimately had a positive outcome. Make sure you can tell the story succinctly in this order: what happened, what steps you took to fix it, what you learned. If the example that immediately springs to mind doesn’t meet those criteria, consider a different example.

Own it without being excessively self-deprecating

Owning your mistakes means being able to own up to where you went wrong or what your part in it was. In other words, don’t try to deflect blame elsewhere or pretend that it wasn’t really your fault. This will make the person interviewing you worry that you’re likely to pass blame, point fingers, or otherwise be difficult to work with.

However, you don’t need to be overly hard on yourself or self-deprecating. In fact, this is likely to come across strangely if you do. Don’t call yourself names (“I was stupid” etc.), berate yourself, or act excessively ashamed of what happened.

The message you want to convey is “this thing happened, I understand and accept the actions I took that contributed to it, and I have grown from it.”

Resist the urge to justify or make excuses

Your justification for making mistakes is this: you’re a person, and people sometimes make mistakes!

You don’t need to – and shouldn’t – trip over yourself to justify your mistake or make excuses for yourself. This will make your prospective employer worry that you’re a person who makes excuses or is unwilling to fully own up to mistakes.

Part of taking ownership is the ability to talk about mistakes without immediately launching into excuses for them.

Talk about how you fixed it

You should explain the mistake and the context surrounding it briefly, and then move on to talking about how you fixed it.

Once you (or your manager) noticed the mistake, what did you do next? List whatever measures you took to remedy the situation and what the ultimate outcome was. Ideally, these solutions should showcase the skills you’d like to show your prospective employer. For example, did you display stellar negotiation skills, amazing teamwork, great customer service, or dedication beyond the call of duty as you fixed the mistake?

As you consider your answer to this question, ask yourself what your answers tell someone about you as a person and an employee.

Speak in the active voice

This is a small adjustment to how you tell a story, but it really does make a huge difference.

Active versus passive voice is the difference between “I lost a customer record” and “a customer record was lost.” The first is infinitely better. Why? Because speaking passively makes it sound as though you are trying to distance yourself from the mistake, presenting it as something that happened rather than something you did.

Focus on lessons learned

This is the most important step in the whole process of owning your mistakes, especially in job interviews. Again, remember: employers don’t expect perfection. Instead, what they want is someone who can learn from mistakes, grow, and do better in the future.

Therefore, when you’ve talked about the problem and how it was resolved, talk about the lessons you learned as a result. Did you make the effort to upskill or improve your knowledge in a particular area as a result of the mistake? Did you implement a new process to ensure you didn’t make the same error again? Did the mistake indicate a wider issue with an aspect of your work, such as your attention to detail, that you’ve since taken steps to rectify?

All mistakes are learning opportunities. If you show yourself off as a person who is able to learn from mistakes and put measures in place as a result, you’re sure to impress your prospective employer.

Don’t stress too much about mistakes

Many people, especially those newer to the workforce, are terrified of putting a foot wrong. They envision being fired or let go the first time they make a mistake. That’s not how it works, at least in functional and reasonable workplaces!

So next time you make a mistake, focus on solutions and rectifying the situation. Then reflect on what you learned and how you can use it to move forward and grow in your career.

You never know when you might need to share the story in a future interview!

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