Even though you know the interview question is coming, it’s always tough to feel fully prepared to discuss a mistake you’ve made. In related news, it’s always obvious to the hiring manager when you’re hoping a well-rehearsed answer will help you gloss over the topic and move onto a question where you can shine.
But, here’s a little secret: Being open about a specific example of when you dropped the ball will actually score you points, even with the toughest interviewer.
Given the choice between a potential teammate who is willing to take tough feedback, and another who does everything possible to cover his or her you-know-what after a mistake, most people would choose the former. To give you the ammunition that’ll show The Person in Charge that you’ll work hard and are a great teammate, here are three rules to follow when you’re responding to that dreaded question.
1. Don’t Pass the Buck
Hey, we all make mistakes. And anyone you’ll interview with for any job knows this. But, when you know something was your fault, do yourself a favor and own up to it. Nobody wants to work with someone who’s always pointing fingers, and yet, too many applicants I met with went out of their way to convince me there was nothing they could’ve done differently. This was a huge bummer, especially when I had grown to like the candidate a lot.
When in doubt, choose a blunder you can articulate the details of, and open up as much as possible.
Here’s a fictional, but good, example:
Early in my career, I missed a deadline that ended up costing us a really big account. There were a lot of factors that contributed to this, but ultimately, I was the one who dropped the ball. From that experience, I went back and thought really hard about what I could’ve controlled and what I would’ve changed. It turns out that I was not nearly as organized as I thought I was. I sat down with my boss, asked for suggestions on how to improve my organizational skills, and a few months later I was able to score an even bigger account for the department.
This kind of response covers a lot of bases. But most importantly, it addresses the mistake, the lessons learned, and the actions taken to grow from the experience. It also ends things on a really positive note.
2. Don’t Assume You’re Done Talking About Your Mistake Once You’ve Answered the Question
Any honest answer about a mistake you’ve made in the past will be appreciated. In fact, your honesty will be appreciated so much that most interviewers will have follow-up questions. Whenever I heard a candidate respond openly about a previous blunder, I started rooting for him or her to really win us over—even as I started digging deeper. And too many times, it was hard for people to stay candid.
It usually went something like this:
Q: Tell me about something you wish you had done something differently.
A: I dropped the ball on a report that made my boss look really bad in front of a potential client. It was nobody’s fault but mine.
Q: So, what do you think you learned from that example?
A: I learned those reports are really hard to write.”
Often, I’d go back and forth with a contender until it became clear this was as transparent as things were going to get. And with each response that left me wanting more, I couldn’t help but clench my teeth, knowing that the entire mood of the interview could have been different if the person was just willing to stay candid. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with being open, be as open as possible about all the facets of your mistake.
3. Even if Your Mistake Was Simply Taking a Certain Job, Don’t Blame Your Former Company
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to figure out that your job is not right for you. And while candor is appreciated when talking about previous mistakes, don’t go into a tirade about how much you just didn’t like your boss, your team, or your company. In fact, if those are the reasons your current job isn’t right for you, rethink the way you’re talking about it.
With that said, the people you interview with will understand if there are other reasons you’re not happy in your current role. If you have some unique circumstances, an answer like the one below will score you some extra brownie points.
I’m actually really happy in my job in a lot of ways. My boss is great, the company is awesome, and I work on a really close team. But, I took a job in sales because I wanted to make sure I had enough money to pay my bills and eventually, I got really good at it. But, even though my sales job has been good to me financially, I went to school to be a journalist and ultimately feel like this is the right time to finally pursue my dream of writing for a leading news outlet like yours.
The best part about this answer? It’s honest, but at no point does it utter the words, “taking this job was a huge mistake.” It’s also relatable. Some people land their dream jobs right out of college, but for the majority of us, it takes a little bit of work.
Nobody likes talking about things they didn’t do well. Nobody will ever like talking about things they wish had gone differently, especially when a job is on the line. But, although it would go against conventional wisdom, be willing to talk about the mistakes you’ve made in the past. You’ll be surprised by how this bit of self-awareness will go a long way in making it clear to everyone you interview with that you are the absolute right person for the job.
Photo of sharks courtesy of Shutterstock.
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.More from this Author