Can you identify a time when you made an error on the job? If you managed to right things in the end and turn the negative into a positive, how did you manage to do that?
I personally have never met anyone who didn’t at some point make a mistake. Be it a lapse of good judgement, misunderstanding a policy, sharing information that turned out to be wrong, missing a deadline; even mixing up the day you have off and staying home on a day you should have been at work; mistakes happen. So given that we all goof up periodically, let’s be honest with ourselves and get past the embarrassment or shame of having made a mistake.
Okay, so it’s not a question of, ‘have you ever made an error?’, it’s a question of what we’ve done to rectify the situation once we realize it. There are two kinds of mistakes; the major ones and the minor ones. The type that fall into the minor category are the type that might be embarrassing but can be quickly remedied and don’t carry long term consequences. I distinctly remember stepping out of my car at work some 90 kilometres from home and suddenly noting as I looked down that I was wearing two different black shoes; a slip on and a lace up! A mistake for sure, but I laughed it off and it was I who pointed it out to my colleagues, making myself the source of amusement and laughter that day. A minor mistake, no major repercussions, easily resolved.
And then of course we’ve got mistakes of the more serious variety. When we make these kinds of mistakes on the job, we are less likely to want to share them with our colleagues. We fret at work, waiting for the summons from the boss, stew over an allegation a customer or client has threatened to raise about our actions, or we feel horrible when we erroneously turn away someone in need only later to find that we could have given them the help they asked for.
On the upside, with every mistake we make, big or small, we have a learning opportunity present itself. If mistakes are inevitably going to occur, it’s not so much then that we make errors, but rather how we learn, (or fail to learn) from them. The bigger the mistake we’ve made, the more significant the learning opportunity. One of the best things you can do when you mess up is acknowledge it quickly, taking full responsibility for it, and take the necessary steps to ensure it does not occur a second time. It’s very hard to come down hard on someone who is contrite, apologetic and who otherwise has a history of positive performance.
On the other hand, attempting to cover up your mistake, blaming others rather than taking responsibility, not showing any signs of remorse, or blatantly overstepping your bounds with little regard to established procedures and policies will surely land you in more trouble in addition to the original error.
Let’s fast-forward then to a job interview. One question that comes up from time-to-time is to share with the interviewer(s), a time when you have goofed up and what you did to resolve it. Some people are understandably nervous about how to answer this question; feeling if they choose the wrong example they will essentially rule themselves out of consideration for the job if too honest. In answering this question, you may feel – and show through your body language – anxiety, embarrassment, even exposure.
The best way to handle this answer is to start with a genuine experience. Don’t invent something on the spot or claim you’ve never made an error of any kind. Neither of these is likely to end well. The key is as I’ve mentioned, to do more than just share the mistake; it’s critical to demonstrate the action you took to both address the consequences of your mistake and learn the lesson. The more authentic you are the better. Of course if your answer centers on some massive error that has disastrous consequences which can never be fully resolved – that may not be the best situation to share.
This question is really designed to both reveal something of your character (how honest you are) and how you react when you do realize you’ve made an error. Remember that even though you are sharing a story about an incident in the past, you are really demonstrating how you are likely to react in the future. This is an example of a behavioural event question; the point being how you’ve acted in the past is the best indicator of how you’ll act moving forward.
Lest you think you’ll use an example from your personal life or a relatively minor mistake like my experience that day with two different shoes, a well-trained interviewer may ask the question a second time, probing for a work-related incident of greater consequence.
It’s only natural we don’t want to voluntarily share anything which could potentially paint ourselves in a bad way and remove us from being considered for a job we want. The key then is to state the error clearly and quickly, but spend the bulk of our answer demonstrating how we responded, concluding with a positive outcome. As you sum up your story, ensure you share what you learned.