“Tell me about a time when you failed.” This is one of the behavioral questions that job candidates struggle with. After all, your objective in the interview is to shine a light on all of your successes, and now you are being asked to highlight a time when you failed? How do you do that and still not completely sabotage your chances of receiving a job offer?
You do the following:
Why do interviewers ask about failure?
- Understand why interviewers want to know about a time when you failed.
- Know how NOT to answer the question.
- Know how to select a situation to discuss.
- Have a formula and structure to address the failure.
- Be prepared to answer the question beforehand.
Interviewers ask you to share with them about a time when you failed not to make you feel awkward, but to gain some insights into how you have performed and how you have performed when faced with adversity. They don’t really care that you failed, (they expect that you have) but how you approach situations when they don’t work out for you.
They want to see that:
How NOT to answer questions about a time when you failed.
- You are self-aware and can acknowledge your failures.
- You take responsibility for your mistakes.
- You grow and learn from failure.
- You grow and learn from failure.
- You are able to overcome challenges and move forward from your missteps.
Everyone has failures, this is expected. So, don’t minimize your answer by saying, “Oh, I haven’t really had any failures.” This answer reduces your credibility and is an immediate red flag to the interviewer because they know better. On the flip side, you don’t need to confess to a catastrophic event that will send your interviewer running for the hills.
Also, never make excuses or blame others for the failure. This makes you look defensive during the interview. If your failure was with respect to a team project, take ownership of your piece of the failure and keep your focus there.
Finally, don’t put yourself down or completely throw yourself under the bus over it. One thing the interviewer wants to hear from you is that you don’t dwell on but learn from and move past your failures. It’s one thing to own up to the failure, but a completely different thing to beat yourself up over it.Selecting a situation to discuss.
There is no getting around answering this question so you might as well be strategic and select a failure that will boost your interview performance, not raise red flags. In selecting the situation to talk about, consider:
How to answer questions about when you failed.
- Team failures work well but be sure you are sharing in the responsibility!
- Discuss something that went wrong, but not catastrophically.
- Avoid personal and overly emotional topics that don’t relate to the position.
- Discuss a meaningful failure such as missing a deadline, making the wrong hiring decision, not closing a client deal, etc.
- Be sure that there is a career related lesson learned or takeaway from the failure..
Be genuine and admit your mistakes. Tell the story from beginning to end but be succinct. You want to give enough detail to be transparent but at the same time don’t ramble. The most important thing for you to do is explain what you learned and how you will prevent the same mistake from happening in the future.
Using the START
method is a simple way to formulate your answer:Situation
-Introduce the scenario and issue you were faced with.Task
-What needed to be accomplished?Approach
-What decisions were made?Results
-What happened as a result of the decisions made? Why did the approach fail?Takeaway
-What did you learn, what should have been done, what will you do next time?Here is an example of what this will sound like: “One time when I failed was early in my career and I had a new manager who I really wanted to impress. He assigned me to a special project reviewing our supply chain and freight forwarding process.(S) I was to spend 3 days in the warehouse that week and have all of the KPI’s consolidated in a report to him by the end of the week.(T) Because of another project I was finishing up that week, I was only able to spend a day and a half in the warehouse. I really wanted to impress him and didn’t want to miss the deadline so I went ahead and completed the report and turned it in on time.(A) As it turned out, my report was inaccurate. Had I spent the full 3 days in the warehouse I would have discovered a major bottleneck in the process and my report would have reflected such. Because this was new to me, I had not considered the importance of the extra time in the warehouse.(R) I realized I should have communicated to my boss that I wouldn’t be able to spend the full 3 days in the warehouse and either ask for an extension on the project, or some assistance in getting both projects done. Now I always keep my manager informed if there is a reason I believe I need to deviate from an assignment.”(T)
Finally, always put failure in the proper perspective. Failure is perceived as a negative event to avoid at all costs. But if you look at it objectively, failure = learning. You try something, it doesn’t work out, you learn what doesn’t work, you implement your learning next time. Simple. You are learning a better way to get to a solution. Period.
Once you incorporate this into your mindset, this question can become much easier to answer and you won’t feel so uncomfortable talking about your past failures…er…learning experiences.
Now you know how to answer the “Tell Me About a Time When You Failed” question, but did you know that you should be sending a follow up email after your job interviews? I have a video with a format as to what you should say on your interview follow up, click here to watch.