It would be great if we could turn back the clock. Say something we didn’t dare to say when it mattered, avoid making a mistake which had a profound impact on our career, or our relationships, or simply relive the most beautiful moments of our youth again… But we cannot turn back the clock–luckily. And it doesn’t make much sense returning to the past, dwelling on our mistakes. We should look forward, living in the present, working on our future. And yet hiring managers will inquire about many situations from your past. Why do they do it? They try to understand your attitude. In this particular case, they wonder whether you can reflect on your work, admit making a mistake, learn from the situation, and perhaps save what can still be saved.
Let’s have a look at 7 sample answers to the question. I tried to include on my list answers for both people with and without previous working experience, and also a couple of unconventional answers. You should pick one that resonates with the attitude you try to demonstrate in the interviews, and adjust it so it fits your actual experience and makes sense. Do not forget to check also my notes below the answers, for additional hints and explanations.
7 sample answers to “Describe a situation when you wished you’d acted differently at work” interview question
- I recall such a situation from my last job, working in a small team of analysts. One of my teammates shared a critical feedback with me. And though I understand the importance of receiving feedback, and typically accept it and try to learn from it, I had a bad day, and reacted inappropriately. I started to shout, called her incompetent, and basically responded with attack. It was terrible from my side, because I knew–and I realized it very quickly, the she had actually tried to help me. But emotions overcame me, I said some bad words, and though I apologized to her later, I could feel that the dynamics in the team changed, and it was never the same again. But I learned from the situation. If something similar happens in my new job, I will be able to control my emotions.
- I wished I had a better attitude to my job in general. But I could not get my head around working for a fast food restaurant. I considered it a defeat, and didn’t realize that one can learn a lot of things in any employment. With my attitude, I provided poor customer service and some shifts felt almost unbearable. However, I do not want to dwell on the past. It was a mistake, I could have had a much better time, and provided much better customer service. Lesson learned, now it is time to move on, and I am sure I won’t repeat the same mistake in my new job.
- This is my first job application, so I cannot refer to a situation from work. However, I can recall such a situation from my personal life, a painful one indeed. My former girlfriend went for a date with another guy–and I found out. We were going through a crisis, maybe missing some novelty in the relationship. But I still loved her and considered her my soulmate. We had so much in common, shared big plans of starting an NGO together, trying to make a positive difference in local community. It wasn’t only a bad affair like many relationships nowadays. So she went for a coffee with this guy and I reacted as a jealous madman. I said the worst things you can imagine a man can say to a woman. And I started to break furniture in the house. It was a spontaneous reaction. Needless to say, this only escalated the crisis, and we went our separate ways. But till this day I haven’t found a new girlfriend. I just cannot find someone I’d share as much with as I shared with this girl. But she has a new life now, a new partner, and I can’t do anything to repair our relationship now. Having said that, I do not want to cry and focus on the past. There is more to life than relationships, and now I focus on getting my first job, and get my professional career going.
- There isn’t any such situation. In my opinion, in each moment of our life, we do exactly what we have to do. I mean, we are who we are, know what we know, and in the circumstances of a moment–99% of which we cannot control, we simply do what we have to do. That’s the way I see it. Sure enough, when looking back I can identify many situations when I did not do the right thing. At the same time, however, I know I had to do exactly what I did. That’s why I do not dwell on the past, and try to live in the present moment. With every year I am getting more mature and emotionally stable. Similar situations should happen less often to me. Without a doubt though, they will still happen at work, but I am okay with that.
- I would love to turn back the clock and lead the team in my last job again. Speaking honestly, I was pretty much an authoritarian leader. I tried to impose my way of doing things on everyone in the team, because I thought I had an experience and knew better than the others. What’s more, I didn’t allow anyone else to take care of the tasks I considered most important. However, as the workload got heavy and I got extremely busy, I was forced to delegate tasks to other people. But because I didn’t let them to learn the stuff properly when the workload wasn’t heavy, they struggled to handle the tasks. And we fell behind with schedule, and domino effect followed… I ended up without a job, and it is one of the reasons why I am here with you today. But I take it as it is, I learned my lesson, and I will approach my next managerial job differently.
- I wished I’d acted differently when confronted with a heavy workload in my last job. It was so overwhelming that I got scared, started to panic, and protested. I told the managers I’d not handle it. And it eventually cost me a promotion in the company. Because things are never as bad as they initially seem to us. The manager assigned the project to another colleague, they handled the workload, reached the goals the managers set, and they were eventually promoted to a managerial position. It could be me, if I acted differently. But that’s life, and we learn the most from our mistakes. It is behind me, and now I focus on this interview, and my future.
- I just wished I’d invited the receptionist out. Everyone could tell there was some chemistry between us. But I hesitated, because I did not know if it was correct to invite out a colleague from work. I hesitated, but the manager didn’t. They also had an eye on the receptionist, invited her out, and now they are dating. I wish I had more courage when it mattered. But that’s it, I hope the two will be happy together. Now I seek new job, and also a new relationship…
Ensure them that you’ve got over the disappointment
Two things matter the most with this question. First one is showing that you can actually reflect on your past, realize your mistakes, and learn from them. Second one is ensuring the interviewers that you got over the situation, regardless of how painful the outcome was.
Ensure them that you look forward, not backwards. Now you are interviewing for the job in their company, older, smarter, more experienced. What’s in the past is in the past, and you definitely do not spend an hour each day thinking about it. Because you know you cannot turn back the clock…
Example from personal life can work well in many interviews
You may face many strange scenario-based questions in the interviews. If you have fifteen years of professional experience under your belt, you will probably find a good example for each situation.
If you are just starting out, however, or had just one or two jobs in the past, you may find it hard to recall a fitting scenario from the workplace, for this question or any other one. In such a case, you should talk about a fitting situation from your personal life. Remember that hiring managers are ordinary men and women. They also have their lives outside of work, and experience all sorts of tricky situations in relationships with their partners, parents, children, friends.
Talking about a situation from your personal life, you can sometimes make a special connection with your interviewers. Maybe they’ve experienced similar situation in their life, and the two of you immediately have something in common, which is always a plus in the interviews…
Ready to answer this one? I hope so! Do not forget to check also 7 sample answers to other tricky interview questions:
- Describe a situation in which you had to overcome adversity.
- What other companies are you interviewing with?
- Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a poor performer on your team.