MBA Career Advice: Mistaken Mistakes People Make, Part 1

In this weekly series, our friends at MBA Career Coaches will dispense invaluable advice to help you actively manage your career. Topics include building your network, learning from mistakes and setbacks, perfecting your written communication, and mastering even the toughest interviews. 

Why do interviewers ask about mistakes/errors/setbacks, etc.? They ask because these are tough questions to answer. While that may seem obvious, we should note that they are not asking to stump you. They are, in fact, trying to get to know you better—they are asking because they want to force you to open up so that they can get to the “real” you. Real people are human; they err; they have moments of vulnerability. Many interviewers say the mistake question is the first one in the interview that really brings the candidate to life. That is why most of them ask some form of this question.

Why can you not circumvent a mistake question? Simply put, if you do not answer a mistake question sincerely, you sound ridiculous. One of the silliest approaches people take to avoid answering is using a  “disguised strength,” typified by the clichéd answer: “I take on too much!” If you respond with a disguised strength, your interviewer will see through it and think that you are playing him/her for a fool. In short, don’t do it.  It won’t help you—it will hurt you!

So, what should your answer be? How about discussing an actual mistake that you made?  The key here is that you need to choose a mistake that hurts a little bit—that leaves you a little bit exposed to criticism—but is still consistent with the values of the firm at which you are interviewing.

Let’s take a look at two answers:

1)      “At the beginning of my career, I was a little bit lazy, and I missed a few deadlines. My boss gave me a terrible review and cited laziness as the reason. This was a call to action for me, and I started to take my work more seriously….”

2)      “I needed a design project done in a hurry, and instead of asking for proposals, I hired a friend. In hindsight, it is clear to me that I should have set a professional tone for our working relationship, but I maintained a casual ‘vibe’ and thus struggled to get the project across the finish line….”

In example number one, our interviewee not only reveals laziness, which is inconsistent with the values of any firm, but he also reveals a complete lack of awareness that laziness was even a problem, because he needed a performance review for it to register with him. Clearly, example one is as bad or possibly worse than “I take on too much.”

What about example number two? Well, this individual acknowledges a mistake (a poor choice and poor management of a relationship, leading to problems on a project), which leaves him a bit exposed to criticism, but his mistake is relatable—many of us have struggled with managing friends in some capacity. Our interviewer is human. He is fallible. And most of all, he is honest with his interviewer, which means that he has opened up and revealed his true self—which is exactly what the interviewer wanted!

For more tips on how to use failures and mistakes to your advantage in interviews and in your personal growth, be sure to check out our fail upwards series on the MBA Career Coaches blog.

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