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Job interview:
admit your mistakes and show how you deal with them

‘What is your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?’ This question is often used by recruiters during job interviews to attempt to bring you out of your shell. But what mistakes might they mean? Personal or professional? Remember that your job interview is about your potential new job. You should be open and honest about your professional failures and focus on how you deal with your own mistakes. After all, the question is not really about the mistakes themselves, but rather how you reflect and respond to them and what you learned from these less pleasant experiences.

In order to ensure a confident reply to such a question about your professional mistakes, we show you what to consider in your answer in the interview. Remember: mistakes are forgivable – and often unavoidable. Admitting and talking about your own shortcomings and showing what you learned as a result will help you come across as affable and open to criticism – and demonstrates professionalism.

 

When admitting mistakes in a job interview, remember the following:

Give an example to explain where you went wrong

Giving an example to illustrate your mistake is no easy feat during a job interview. On the one hand, you should be careful not to use a thinly veiled success story that is not actually a failure at all. For example, you can be sure that your interviewer will see straight through answers like ‘I exceeded my monthly sales target by 120 percent but I actually wanted to get to 130 percent, so I was disappointed.’ On the other hand, don’t tell them about a mistake that cost a huge amount of time, money or even jobs.

Think of a sincere, transparent example of when you put a foot wrong at work. An ideal case would be where you overlooked or misjudged something and it caused a few ripples – but not a full-blown storm. It could be a deadline you didn’t meet, failed contract negotiations or that month when you didn’t manage to achieve your performance targets. However, your example should not relate to any of the key requirements of the job you are applying for. Once you have chosen your mistake, practise talking about it in advance.

Job interview failure examples

Companies increasingly value authentic employees. The ability to reflect on your actions and identify your own strengths and weaknesses shows recruiters whether or not you are a good match for the company.

Were you unable to hand in a project on time because you were dependent on the input of your colleagues and trusted them to meet the deadline? Result: Since then, you have requested regular interim reports from your team members.

Were you unable to hand in a project on time because you were dependent on the input of your colleagues and trusted them to meet the deadline? Result: Since then, you have requested regular interim reports from your team members.


Were your customers unsatisfied with the quality you provided? Result: You have introduced a quality assurance checklist. This way, everyone knows the main quality criteria to be provided.

Were your customers unsatisfied with the quality you provided? Result: You have introduced a quality assurance checklist. This way, everyone knows the main quality criteria to be provided.


Did you want to show everyone what you were capable of and put a lot of effort into an idea that ultimately failed? Your essence: When you implement new ideas, you always carry out an analysis beforehand, such as a competition or market analysis.

Did you want to show everyone what you were capable of and put a lot of effort into an idea that ultimately failed? Your essence: When you implement new ideas, you always carry out an analysis beforehand, such as a competition or market analysis.


Was a certain colleague always doing something that got on your nerves? And did you address it very directly? What you learned: Since then, you have expressed criticism constructively to avoid ongoing friction.

Was a certain colleague always doing something that got on your nerves? And did you address it very directly? What you learned: Since then, you have expressed criticism constructively to avoid ongoing friction.


Explain how the mistake occurred

Do you know exactly why your mistake happened, where you went wrong or what background information you were missing? In your job interview, talk about the obstacles that prevented you from achieving your goal. This will show that you understand what caused the problem and that you will be able to prevent a similar issue in the future.

Don’t look for excuses

Once you have admitted a mistake in a job interview, be careful not to give reasons that were beyond your control, such as market fluctuations or staff shortages. Every job has uncontrollable aspects that can make it harder for you to achieve your goals. The most important thing is how you understand which influencing factors are in your immediate control. Your interviewer wants to hear you taking responsibility for the instances in which that control slipped away. Otherwise, you may come across as defensive and irresponsible in your interview.

Don’t blame others for your mistakes

When it comes to admitting your mistakes, don’t point your finger at colleagues. After all, employees who cannot take responsibility for their own mistakes at work can quickly endanger the mood and productivity of their team. Use your interview to talk about what you could have done to avoid the error. This will make you stand out to recruiters as a confident applicant.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

Do you find it difficult to forget a particular mistake and continue to punish yourself with thoughts of how you could possibly have let it happen in the first place? Please don’t be overly self-critical. Don’t belittle yourself when talking about your mistake at work; avoid making dramatic generalisations about how you behave as an employee. Instead, stick to the facts and remain as objective as possible. This shows that you can handle your own mistakes confidently and cope well with such situations rather than constantly chewing them over.

Demonstrate that you have learned from the situation

Henry Ford once said, ‘The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.’ In your interview, highlight what you have learned from your mistake and how you now apply this in similar situations to achieve a better result. Mistakes will always crop up in your career. The important thing is to admit this and accept responsibility for your own mistakes in your job interview.

Show that you are generally meticulous, reliable and results-focussed at work and that you can accept criticism and use mistakes to optimise processes or question your own working methods.

So before your next job interview, think carefully about a time you put a foot wrong at work to demonstrate how you deal with your own mistakes.

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