No one likes to talk about the mistakes they’ve made. However, interviewers want to know about more than just your successes. They want to hear it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly. That includes your mistakes.
This is why I’m surprised when I conduct mock interviews and my participants aren’t prepared for the common directive, “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake.” I explain to my participants that good interviewers will challenge them with questions like this. The best interviewers want to get a full sense of their applicants.
When a candidate can answer these challenging questions about their negative experiences, they demonstrate their self-awareness and their emotional intelligence.
Does that mean you have to share the story of your most egregious failure? Of course not — and I don’t think interviewers want you to. However, telling them about a time when you handed in a report two days late is disingenuous. You have to strike a balance.
Here are four steps to take when answering interview questions about your mistakes and failures:
1. Prepare for Them
Always try to anticipate these questions. For example, let’s say you’re a project manager. You know conflict resolution is a key component to your job success. Moreover, you noticed that the posting for the job for which you are preparing to interview specifically calls for someone with experience in running teams and handling conflict.
In this situation, you would reflect on some times when there were internal conflicts among team members. Choose a story that demonstrates some error in your judgment — but not too much error. Similarly, you don’t want to share a story centered on someone else’s mistake. Remember, you want to show self-awareness by admitting to a time when you made a mistake.
2. Keep Your Example Short
I recommend you keep your answer to 30 seconds. Some people talk much longer than that. In doing so, they provide too much background information, and they often make their mistakes sound worse than they are.
Keep your answer brief by sticking to the problem, action, result (PAR) format. For example:
Problem: I recall a time when one member of our team wasn’t pulling his weight and another member confronted this person.
Action: I didn’t act soon enough. As a result, there was a standoff that lasted for many months.
Result: We were able to meet the deadline for the project we were tasked with, and I was praised by management for delivering a quality product on time and under budget.
3. Explain What You Learned From Your Mistake
Even if your example has a happy ending, your story isn’t complete until you’ve demonstrated your understanding of what you could have done differently.
In the above example, you might say something like:
Even though the team I led successfully delivered the project, it didn’t sit well with me that two of my teammates were at odds with each other. I met with them after the project concluded and helped resolve the conflict, but I now know I should have addressed it earlier.
This example accomplishes three objectives. First, it explains the problem and what you did to address the problem. Second, it shows how you achieved success despite the problem. Third, it demonstrates your self-awareness by outlining what you learned from the experience.
4. Be Ready for Follow-Up Questions
Interviewers will often want to know more about the situation, such as: How serious was the conflict? Did it threaten to disrupt the team’s activities? Why didn’t you act sooner? When you finally met with the two members, how did you handle it?
Don’t be surprised if an interviewer tries to dig a little deeper. This is just a sign that they want to know more. Answer any follow-up questions calmly. As always, you want to be honest, but you don’t want to overemphasize the magnitude of your mistake.
While many job seekers take steps to prepare for interviews, few ever think about how they will present their negative workplace experiences. However, it’s likely the interviewer will want to know about your failures. Don’t take it personally. They just want to know more about you. That’s a good thing.
Bob McIntosh, CPRW, is a career trainer who leads more than 15 job search workshops at an urban career center.