On this topic, one could easily get into a debate about nature v nurture, or determinism v free will, or any number of highfalutin and touchy topics really, but instead, let’s assume for a moment this fundamental maxim: we’ve all made mistakes.
Making mistakes is usually unpleasant and oftentimes embarrassing, especially for those who hold themselves to unrelentingly high standards. Therefore, when past mistakes or failures are brought up in an interview, it can make some squirm and shut down; it can also make others elicit a pre-conceived answer which isn’t actually an acceptance of fault.
As you might have predicted from the tone of this article: both are bad responses.
Let’s walk through what to do when you’re asked about past failures in an interview and what we can learn from failure more generally to have a more fulfilling and successful life.
An Internal Locus of Control
Locus of control is a relatively simple psychological concept. To put it simply, for diagnostic purposes, patients either exhibit an internal or external locus of control. An internal locus of control is where the person predominantly attributes success and failure to their own actions. An external locus of control is where the person predominantly attributes success and failure to external factors.
An internal locus of control is correlated with higher levels of motivation and ability to learn, whereas an external locus of control is correlated with higher levels of anxiety and lower motivation and learning capability: why bother if you have no control over your life? It is obvious which locus would be more desirable to an employer. It should also be obvious which locus would be more desirable to you, as a person, doing whatever you do.
This is not to say that one should always turn inward to explain why a bad thing has happened: sometimes meteors fall from the sky, sometimes a pandemic happens, various force majeures will occur. When you are asked about past successes and failures, a healthy response is to exhibit features of both loci; just make sure to attribute some value to your own impact on proceedings.
Decision Making in Anarchy
The word anarchy is derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘archon’. In ancient Athens, an archon was one of nine chief magistrates which ruled the city. Anarchy was the term used to describe a time when there were no archons; in other words, no leadership.
For those interviewing for leadership positions especially, it is important to show that when the proverbial hits the fan, in a time of anarchy, that they have the poise to manage fear and failure.
Interviewers look for people who acknowledge a ‘bad’ event and who are able to rally together the things they are personally able to do to affect the results of the event. You can learn and achieve much more from adversity if you accept that you can affect the end result of the adversity.
Humility v Arrogance
Arrogance is hard to avoid, especially for high achievers who may have good reasons to think that they are smarter or better than others. But no matter how smart you think you are, arrogance is never truly helpful. You don’t know what you don’t know. As US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it in 2002:
‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
’Exhibiting humility about what you know about a situation proves to an interviewer that you can think flexibly. You don’t need to know everything: firstly, because that would be annoying, and secondly, because it’s impossible.
Mistakes are usually made when a previously unknown element enters the fray. It is important that you show that you are aware that you have blind spots and weaknesses. If you don’t acknowledge the known unknowns you can set you and your company up for an increased risk of failure in the future.
Jackson Baker is a Manager at Rutherford, the executive legal and compliance recruitment specialists.
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