How best to answer “tell me about a mistake you made”

By Lavin D'Souza
In Lavin D'Souza’s penultimate article, she discusses how to answer one of the most difficult questions that interviewers ask while giving examples answers

With a little preparation, your answer can work in your favour.

Most of us have faced the dreaded “Tell me about a time you made a mistake” question when interviewing for a new job. And while an interview aims to highlight your best assets—and no one is happy to reveal past job failures—with a little advanced preparation, your answer can benefit you. So what’s the best way to answer this question to ensure it will increase your chances of being favoured as a candidate?

Why do employers ask the question?

Firstly, it’s important to understand what the interviewer means, so you can better tailor your answers.

They really want to know how you approach challenges, what you learned from the experience, and how you constructively apply that knowledge to other situations. In addition to making a sense of your weaknesses, they're trying to assess your problem-solving skills and potential for growth. (They also want to see if you're honest.)

How to answer the question

There are a few best practices and things to avoid when faced with this question during an interview:

  • Pick a specific example of a true work experience (not personal)
  • Make sure the mistake was minor, and one you successfully fixed
  • Keep it brief, but be prepared to provide more details
  • Take full responsibility for your mistake
  • Describe how you solved it, and a positive result
  • Emphasise what you learned from it and how you applied that knowledge to avoid future mistakes

However, several of things that you should avoid doing, including:

  • Do not discuss mistakes that reveal moral failings or character flaws (such as lying or fighting)
  • Don’t pass the blame onto others
  • Don’t pick a mistake you were not able to fix
  • Don’t make jokes or talk down your former employer

Use the STAR technique

If you’re a fan of acronyms, keep in mind the “STAR Technique” as described in Future of Working

Situation: Describe the situation you were in when that past work-related mistake happened

Task: Explain what you were supposed to do

Action: Tell them what happened. Describe what you did wrong and how you handled the negative situation

Results: Show positive results and lessons you have learned from the experience.

Consider the following examples

  • “When I started my job, I was given a task that I didn’t know how to do. I wanted to prove that I was trustworthy and competent, so instead of asking for help, I did it myself. When my boss told me he needed a major overhaul, I realised that it’s always better to ask for clarification and help when I don’t know how to complete an action. I now make sure I understand what is expected and how to do it before attempting to complete a task.”
  • When I started my first job as a manager, I worked frantically for hours to achieve our sales goals. Wanting to prove myself as a team player, I got involved in all aspects; from forecasting and data analysis to cold calling and print advertising. I quickly burned out and realised that I needed to take a step back, delegate, and let my team members do their jobs so that I could do my job better.

Employers don’t want to see that you never made a mistake. They want to see your integrity, honesty, ability to admit mistakes, and how you solve problems to achieve positive results and grow as a professional.

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