How to Answer: Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake

Wondering how to answer this interview question if it comes up? Here's how to do it with confidence.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

How to answer "tell me about a time you made a mistake at work"

There's so much competition for the best jobs, and it's hard not to get stressed when you finally land that interview. After all, a typical corporate job opening gets an average response of 250 résumés. Of those, only four to six candidates get an interview, and only one gets the job. There's a lot riding on how you respond to the hiring manager's questions. 

Preparation is key, and you must be ready to answer all of the most common interview questions before you go in. Though it may seem counterintuitive when you're trying to present the image of a perfect employee, this includes talking about a time you failed in your job duties 

The trick is to reveal some of your best qualities in the way you handled that mishap. To help you strike the right balance, we've put together this guide to help you craft the best response to “Tell me about a time you made a mistake at work.” 

Why hiring managers ask this question 

Be prepared to answer several behavioral questions like this in your interview. Hiring managers want to gauge how you think about challenges or problems and how you react to them. These types of questions can tell prospective employers about your work ethic, positive or negative attitude, problem-solving skills, and integrity. 

Hiring managers want to hear that you are capable of honestly reviewing your own work, overcoming your mistakes, and learning from the experience. Your response should always address what you changed in your tactics to avoid this mistake in the future.  

How to prepare a response 

How you answer the question is as important as the words you choose. You don't want to seem too nervous, uncertain, or as if you're angrily playing the blame game. In fact, a study by CareerBuilder showed a majority of recruiters consider arrogance and a lack of accountability to be deal breakers during the hiring process. The best way to tackle these issues is to follow these five steps to prepare the perfect response. 

Step 1: Think about the mistakes you've made at work 

Your goal is to select the “Goldilocks” of scenarios; a mistake that was not too trivial or too catastrophic. An irrelevant email typo that your boss joked about might be embarrassing, but not worth mentioning. On the other hand, you probably shouldn't bring up the biggest mistake you've ever made in a work environment, like that numerical typo that over-inflated profits and triggered a costly company-wide audit. 

Keep it simple and in-line with the company culture. You want something that shows a single mistake, and ideally one that you were able to recover from quickly. It's easier to explain how you learned to rectify being unprepared for a meeting, or forgetting to double-check your work. Stories that involve several failures of due diligence, time management, teamwork, etc. will be a massive red flag to the potential employer. 

Step 2: Define the lesson 

The best answer to this interview question includes an explanation of what you learned from your mistake. Why did the mistake happen? What would you have done differently if the situation occurred again? 

Note the changes you've personally made to prevent this error in future. This could be how you added a step to your process, took a class to improve one of your work skills, or collaborated with a team member to find solutions. Hiring managers want to hear about how this mistake actually led to an improvement in how you work, and hopefully how that improvement helped the company. 

Step 3: Edit for time 

While a question about mistakes at work is a chance to show off your strong work ethic and problem-solving skills, you don't want to dwell on the negative when answering this question. Once you've prepared your response, see where you can edit to streamline it. 

Most importantly, don't spend a lot of time on the mistake itself. Use the bulk of your response time to explain how you fixed the issue, and what you learned from it. Try to keep the entire answer down to one or two minutes. 

Step 4: Practice your response 

One of the best ways to be confident in an interview is to feel like you know the material inside and out. That includes knowing exactly how to share your answers. Practice giving your exact response to a friend who can offer helpful feedback. You can also video your answers and use the playback to gauge your tone and body language. 

Step 5: Prepare a back-up plan 

While you can diligently prepare for an interview, be ready to adjust your answers as you go along. It's important to have one or two additional options ready for a question about mistakes at work. If the hiring manager stresses during the interview that deadlines are the most crucial part of the job, for example, you don't want to share a story about a time you missed a critical deadline. 

Your research into the prospective employer — including analyzing the job description — and looking into how they conduct interviews should be helpful, but sometimes you really won't know the vibe until you're in the room. If you have a humorous anecdote about a mistake at work that's typically a great icebreaker, be sure to have a more straightforward response if the interview is more formal. 

Example answers 

You may be thinking that this all sounds good in theory, but you're wondering exactly what your interview response should sound like. To help you put together the perfect answer, we've listed a few sample answers below to help guide you. 

Example 1: Recovering from an individual mistake 

Here’s how to answer if you’re giving an example of an individual mistake: 

“At my first ad agency job, I earned the opportunity to pitch a digital campaign to one of our small business clients. I was new and wanted to seem confident in the first consultation meeting, so I didn't ask a lot of questions. When I later presented our plan to the client, it turned out I had misunderstood one aspect of their brand identity and the owner disliked the campaign. 

I used some of my back-up ideas to convince them that we could craft the right message for them online, but it wasn't easy. I learned right then how important it is to get that first meeting right.  

After that, I asked to sit in on some of my senior colleagues' consultations to see what types of questions they used to successfully gauge the client's needs. I also learned that clients didn't mind a follow-up call or email to clarify things once I started working on the campaign. It was a valuable lesson, and asking the right questions helped me earn the highest client retention rate in our department.” 

Example 2: Owning up to your part of a team mistake 

Here’s how to answer if you’re using an example of a mistake made by your team: 

“Our company got bought out by a larger firm, and we found out the hard way that the new owner liked to drop by unannounced. When our team was called in to provide an update on what our department was doing, we were all unprepared. The new owner wasn't impressed when we didn't immediately have specific answers about our sales numbers and other statistics. 

After that, I started putting together a weekly report of basic numbers and a more in-depth quarterly report. I made sure it was accessible by any team member and on any device. It was perfect for those surprise drop-ins, but it turned out to be a helpful guide in our team meetings. 

My co-workers were inspired to put together their own reports and being able to easily analyze all the department's data made us more efficient and productive. Our sales numbers increased by 25% over the previous year, and the new owner was so pleased she increased our bonuses and our next year's budget.” 

Example 3: Taking responsibility as a supervisor 

If you were the supervisor, and the team made a mistake, here’s how you can answer to show your responsibility:  

“In my previous position, my first promotion was to oversee eight employees tasked with developing the next release of a popular game series. I noticed there were frequent arguments between team members, but I assured my boss it was a healthy debate that would lead to a better product. Unfortunately, at the first status update, it was clear that division in the group was hampering their progress. 

I realized that in my attempt to respect the process of my creatives, I had missed that there was real dysfunction in the group that also hurt morale. After speaking individually with each employee, I learned that two specific team members were considered valuable contributors, but could not seem to find a way to work together peacefully.  

I split them apart by dividing the group into two teams of four and assigned them each a separate part of the project. Every week, I supervised a meeting of the two groups to be sure they were successfully coordinating their efforts. At every subsequent status update, they had met all their targets, and the game they developed ultimately had the second highest sales of the entire series.” 

What not to say 

As you prepare your response, you want to avoid these deadly interview mistakes that can seriously harm your chances of landing the job. 

  • Don't blame others: Pointing fingers at coworkers makes you look petty and defensive. This interview answer should show how you take personal responsibility and learn from your actions. 
  • Avoid personal issues: Keep your answers focused on work skills. Don't make interviewers nervous with a story that you were depressed over a break-up or were drunk and overslept. 
  • Don't say 'I never make mistakes': Perfection is impossible, so, at best, you sound egomaniacal. At worst, they'll consider you a liar and the rest of your interview responses will be suspect. 
  • Steer clear of self-deprecation: Humility is important, but don't go overboard. Prospective employers don't want to hear how you 'always forget to edit' or are 'terrible at sales pitches'. 

Key takeaways 

As you prepare for this interview question, here are three points to remember: 

  • The focus of your response should be on how you overcame the mistake and improved how you did your job. 
  • Stay positive. Don't get angry or defensive, and don't blame others. Present yourself as calm, introspective, and motivated to learn. 
  • Prepare your answers ahead of time and practice, practice, practice! 

We hope this guide helps you put together the perfect response to convince hiring managers you are a great fit for your dream job.

Need a few more tips? Check out these to ace your interview: 

Have you had to answer an interview question about mistakes at work? Share your story and advice in the comments below! 


Originally published 30 April 2014.