Most people think of interviews as the time to talk about all of the incredible achievements they’ve had throughout the course of their careers. Yes, you absolutely want to highlight:
How much money you’ve saved the company
The leadership opportunities you’ve been given
Sales targets you exceeded
Tight deadlines you met
Awards you received
Products you launched
Problems you solved
Promotions you got
You also want to highlight your failures.
Yes. You want to highlight your failures.
Quite simply, we all fail. We all have weaknesses. Things don’t always go as planned. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s encouraged. When we can learn from our failures we become more knowledgeable and better at our job. So, to get a new job and master your job search, talk about what didn't go well in the past!
It’s common to get asked the question “tell me about a time you failed” in an interview. The trick is to not panic when you hear this question.
In this post we’re going to teach you how to EMBRACE this question!
This question, along with “What is your biggest weakness,” is frequently used for two primary reasons by a potential employer.
First, it allows the recruiter to see how a candidate handles a curveball question. You’ll succeed here if you stay calm and confident.
Second, interviewers are seeking to understand how you handle setbacks and bounce back from failure. They want to make sure you learn from your mistakes. They’re also checking to see if you are willing to admit you’ve failed.
This question often comes up in behavioral interviews in the early stages of the interview process. After the phone screen, you’ll likely talk with someone who works with or is on the team you’re interviewing for. This is typically when this question will be asked.
It’s unlikely for this question to come up in a technical or case interview.
Note that another reason this interview question is so common is because it allows a hiring manager to get a sense for your work ethic. When you make a mistake (and we ALL make mistakes) are you self-aware enough to realize it? And, are you then able to pick yourself back up? We know you are ;)
The structure for responding to this question is to tell a linear story about what happened, and to then end with what you learned from the experience.
When choosing a failure to talk about in interviews, there’s a few things to keep in mind:
Avoid a major mistake or character flaw. You want to answer the question honestly but don’t want to scare the interviewer away. Don’t share an example that could raise a red flag about your integrity or ethics. You also should avoid talking about an egregious error that was detrimental to the client.
Focus on your learning. Once you acknowledge what happened that was a failure, focus on what you learned from the experience. The example you choose should have taught you a valuable lesson that ultimately makes you a better professional.
PRO TIP: Note that the worst answer you can give is that you’ve never failed before. That totally misses the point of the question, and it’s also not true. Saying you’ve never failed will put the kibosh on your chances of getting the job faster than any other response.
Because this is an interview in a professional capacity, choose a story from your professional life (rather than personal life) if possible.
Here’s a few great examples of failures that lend themselves well to this type of question:
Losing a client
Not meeting a sales target
Making a data entry error
Not meeting a deadline
Not recognizing a need of a team member who reported to you
When responding to this question you’ll be telling a story. Any time you find yourself talking about a prior experience or situation, you should automatically think of the Situation - Action - Result (SAR) model. This is also commonly called the STAR method.
We have an entire guide on storytelling that you can find here. We strongly recommend reading that if you haven’t already.
In that guide you’ll learn that the most common mistakes candidates make when storytelling in interviews is to leave out the result, which is the ending of the story. Leaving out the result in the story about a failure is detrimental because you must convey that you learned from the experience.
Let’s look at a sample answer of how someone might respond to the interview question “Tell me about a time you failed.”
When I was a business development manager at Acme, I was responsible for leading a team of two recent college graduates who were new to the company. They were both enthusiastic about the job but they had very different personalities. One was very outspoken and confident. The other, Ashley, was quiet and reserved.
The recent grads started at the same time and they were both on my team for over a year. It was my first time being in a leadership position, and I enjoyed helping them in a mentor capacity. I assumed they were both happy with our team dynamics and their roles.
About 18-months after they started, Ashley resigned from the company. I was completely shocked. She was one of our top performers in the department and very valuable to our success. The resignation took everyone by surprise.
I scheduled an exit interview with Ashley to understand why she was leaving. In our conversation I learned that she didn’t feel supported by me. She didn’t feel heard in meetings because her counterpart dominated the conversation, and she felt her opinions didn’t matter.
Hearing this was devastating. I tremendously valued Ashely and thought we had a great working relationship.
This was a huge learning experience for me as a leader. I realized how important it is for me as a manager to adapt my leadership and communication to meet the unique needs of each individual contributor. I should have intentionally asked Ashley for her thoughts in meetings and made an effort to get her input.
While it was too late to change Ashley’s mind, I’ve never forgotten that exit interview. Since then, I’ve taken a proactive and individualized approach in supporting my team members. I regularly check-in with each team member to ask what more I can do to support them. In the last five years I’ve only had one other team member quit, which is significantly better retention than our corporate average.
In the above example, there are several elements that you should incorporate when telling your failure story:
Set the context of where you were in your career when the event took place.
Incorporate why you acted the way you did - share what was going through your head.
End with a positive outcome and key learning (ideally how you’ve more than made up for the mistake since then).
Now that you know the essential elements of telling a story about your failure that makes the interviewer like and trust you, it’s time to practice out loud! The more you say your story out loud, the more confident you’ll be in the job interview.
Interviews are stressful enough, so don't put any added pressure on yourself by trying to think through how to respond to this common interview question for the first time.
We recommend job candidates get comfortable with the key points of their interview question responses and then say out loud exactly how they would respond. Your potential employer will be impressed by the confidence and poise you convey when you nail your response!
We can’t wait to hear about all of your failures… that lead to your success!