How to Get Candidates to Open Up About Their Mistakes

Everyone will make a mistake at some point. The question isn’t whether someone will make a mistake but rather whether they can admit, and learn from, that mistake. Of course, the only candidates your company should hire are the ones who have the confidence and self-awareness to own and improve upon their mistakes. Otherwise, what you’re hiring are blamers and complainers.

While it might seem like this is a tough quality to assess, the truth is that job interviews are generally perfectly designed to evaluate whether someone has the wherewithal to admit and own their mistakes. And all you have to do is ask candidates, “Could you tell me about a time you made a mistake at work?”

In most job interviews, candidates desperately want to portray themselves in the best possible light, and for many candidates, that means eschewing their mistakes and focusing only on their successes.

However, if someone is really describing their mistakes and what they learned, they’ll often use first-person pronouns and past tense verbs. For example, they’ll say things like, “I had a time last year when I made this mistake, and here’s what I learned from it.” 

By contrast, someone who is refusing to admit their mistakes, or blaming others for those mistakes, will often say something like, “When you make a mistake, what you should do is absorb the information and learn from it,” or, “There were others on my team that made mistakes and I had to fix their errors.”

In the Leadership IQ study, “Words That Cost You the Interview,” we learned that interview answers from high performers contain 21% more “I” language (e.g., I, me, or my) than answers from low performers. And answers from high performers contain 38% more past tense verbs than those from low performers.

Here’s a real-life example of an answer from a high performer when they were asked the question, “Could you tell me about a time you made a mistake at work?”

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“I made the mistake of responding to an email hastily and with too much emotion during a particularly stressful and exhausting week of back and forth with a client. I did not say anything too inappropriate; however, I used too much sarcasm for email correspondence with a client customer representative. I made a quick phone-call apology and our working relationship actually improved from the mistake, but it was still a mistake nonetheless and one I am careful to prevent going forward.”

Notice how this candidate talks personally, with first-person pronouns, about the mistake that they made. Also, notice how they use past tense verbs to describe a particular situation in which they made a mistake. Whatever you think of this candidate’s particular situation and solution, there’s no question that they acknowledge the mistake and describe what it means to them.

Now let’s look at an answer from a candidate that was considered a low performer: 

“Communication about a mistake can be difficult. It is basically three jobs in one and making sure you are capturing 100% of everything is a circus act. There are many times that a mistake wasn’t made, but rather, it was an issue of unclear expectations. There are many times when the client expects A but you were told to deliver B. That looks like a mistake, but really it’s just a communication issue. You should always make sure to learn from those situations and ensure that expectations are crystal clear. That’s the best way to avoid making mistakes.”

Notice how this answer uses no first-person pronouns. This candidate literally does not describe a particular situation in which they made a mistake, preferring instead to speak hypothetically about how one should prevent mistakes. This does not sound like someone who is admitting and owning their mistakes, and thus, is more likely to be a blamer and complainer.

Assuming you ask incredibly open-ended questions, candidates will always tell you who they are in job interviews. The test for recruiters is whether you’re willing to listen to those answers.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.