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Answering Interview Questions

Answering interview questions that focus on your past mistakes can either make you or break you in a job interview. Here is the best way to respond to the question:

What was the biggest mistake you ever made...and what did you learn from it?

There is a big difference between making a mistake--we all are guilty of that--and doing something wrong.

Most people don't intentionally go around making mistakes. The important thing is to admit it when you've made one, learn from it, and move on.

Here are the real job interview questions employers would like to ask you:

  • Can you admit to a mistake?
  • Do you learn from your mistakes?
  • Do you always have to be right?
  • Are you humble and open to learning?
  • Do you tend to blame others or circumstances for your mistakes?

These are the thoughts going through the hiring manager's mind as you are answering interview questions like this. Your body language alone can give you away if you try to gloss over your answer.

It is human nature to forgive, provided you are truthful and accept full responsibility for your actions. Look them in the eye, be straightforward, and brief.

If you openly admit to a mistake and have grown from it, you will be viewed positively, and as someone with integrity and character.

The true story below is a great example of how answering interview questions about a mistake can leave a lasting positive impression on an employer.

Photo of pretty sales manager frowning

Jaimee was a sales manager of a leading bus manufacturer. She was a good leader, very competent, and highly regarded by everyone.

One day she made a big mistake that almost derailed her career.

Despite this setback, she learned a valuable lesson from this boo-boo and never repeated it. I'll tell you all about it in a minute, but I want to ask you a question.

Should she risk sharing it with a prospective employer or not?

That is the fear behind answering interview questions of this nature. After all, she did recover and continue to move forward.

Wouldn't she be better off to let sleeping dogs lie?

Maybe not...

Because if an interviewer can get you to reveal a mistake, or an error in judgment, it's the best way to get a glimpse into your true character.

After all, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

If you know this principle, and are at peace about revealing one of your shortcomings with someone...now that's a sign of a good leader.

Let's listen in on Jaimee's interview:

Manager: So tell me, Jaimee...What was the biggest mistake you ever made, and what did you learn from it?

Jaimee: A few years ago, our corporate leaders moved me and my sales team of 6 people to a regional manufacturing center in Pennsylvania. I now reported to the general manager of this operation.

The facility was brand new and there was so much available office space that every sales rep would be able to have their own private office. This was a nice perk and it softened the blow of we all having to relocate.

About 2 weeks into our transition the general manager came into my office and announced that it would be best if the sales group was all together in one large "bullpen" office. He reasoned that if all the sales people were together it would create more energy and teamwork.

I disagreed with my GM and was concerned about how this would affect the morale of my team...especially since everyone had already settled in.

To make matters worse, all the other department managers and staff had their own personal offices. So, in addition to deflated morale, I thought the sales department would now look like second class citizens.

A few days later, the director of sales from our corporate headquarters visited our facility. He asked me how our transition was going and if I had any issues. I told him about my GM's bullpen office plan for our team, and shared with him why I thought it was a mistake.

The sales director agreed with me...AND proceeded to trump the GM's decision. Naturally, my GM was not pleased that I "had gone over his head". Consequently, our working relationship was strained and it took many months to win back the faith and confidence of my GM.

But the dust finally settled, and we were still able to work together and achieve our goals.

I learned from this unpleasant experience to always follow the chain of command. If I have a problem with my boss's decision, I go directly to him/her to discuss it.

After presenting my views, if the GM stands firm, then I move forward and execute the plan without complaining or politicking.

Years later, this approach paid dividends when I was assigned to a struggling division and worked for a tough, autocratic GM who no one liked. We developed a mutual respect for each other and kept our differences confidential resulting in the turnaround of this division.

Answering interview questions like this are always difficult. Handled appropriately, you can actually enhance your chances of an offer.



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