Career

How Do You Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”

Here are some tips and strategies for crafting a compelling answer to the question “tell me about a time you failed,” as discussed by experts.

Here are their insights:

Table of Contents

Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock

Commercial Psychologist | Managing Director, Adcock Solutions | Author, “Master Your Brain: Training Your Mind for Success in Life

We’ve all experienced the pleasure of some kind of achievement in life, from that dream girl accepting your request to go out to dinner, to the time you walked out after an interview thinking, “I nailed that!”

To increase your inner emotional need to perform at your absolute best in an interview, you have to call up that sense of achievement, which will help your brain create a more intense desire for success.

The human brain is the most powerful computer known. But it is surprisingly predictable and prone to systematic errors. Believe it or not, your brain is always trying to do its best for you. But when things work out differently, it’s often a case of you giving your brain the wrong direction.

Here’s a great example: Imagine you get really nervous before interviews; your head fills with negative thoughts, and you just ‘know’ you are going to fall apart during the interview. With this mindset, what happens in the interview? You duly crumble and make a complete mess of it.

Related: How to Not Be Nervous Before and During a Job Interview

The reason is that your brain plays out your thoughts and delivers what you think. A simple way to change this is to reframe the situation.

Stop thinking about what might go wrong and instead focus hard on what you want to happen directly after the interview. Imagine yourself walking out of the room, having been offered the job.

But when you mentally develop this scenario, you have to think really clearly. Build the image in your head of how you look striding out of the meeting room. Spend a couple of minutes building more and more detail into the image. Spend time switching from watching yourself proudly striding along, to looking out through your own eyes—switch back and forth a few times.

Once you have this clear image, add some sound; listen to your breathing and the sounds of your feet as you walk. Now build in touch: Are you walking on a hard floor or a soft one? Are you warm or cool? Now add in the smell of success. What can you smell as you walk along, having just been offered the job?

What you have now is a full multisensory perception of what interview success feels like. Feel the multisensory pride, confidence, and sheer positivity. That’s how you want to feel during the interview.

In this state, you are telling your brain that you want to win. Losing is not an option.

This is a proven technique taught to sportspeople by psychologists. Golfers imagine walking off the final hole, having won. Sprinters imagine crossing the finish line (first, of course).

Unfortunately, many interviewees find it hard not to dwell on past failures. Our brains make excuses by focusing on negative outcomes from the past, taking the negativity of previous interviews or failures, and magnifying our emotional response. As a result, our brains—always avoiding pain, remember—are less likely to try again.

To battle that tendency, we need to understand that failure doesn’t exist, only a different outcome than the one we wanted.

No one gets everything right every time. Everyone makes mistakes, and all of us have experienced how it feels to fall short. When that happens, our brains often deploy apathy and excuses as defense mechanisms. They reduce the importance of attaining a goal (sour grapes), thereby making us less determined to try to achieve it again. Then they shift blame to anyone other than ourselves. We may decide that not reaching the goal was society’s fault, a parent’s, a coworker’s, or a friend’s.

Stop for a moment, and consider how differently you have felt reading this article. As you worked through your positive mental image, how did you feel then? And how do you feel thinking of past failures? I’ll wager they are very different feelings, right? But it’s still you, still your brain and you’re still reading this.

Here’s another important strategy to combat self-doubt. We now know that our bodies and brains work together. How you think alters how you behave and vice versa.

If you sit in an interview chair feeling small, nervous, and fearful, guess what happens? Your body will adopt a posture of hiding away from the fear. You’ll round your shoulders, lower your head, breathe more shallowly and even look down more often. When you physically look like this, your brain feels it and makes you feel even more nervous. It’s a vicious circle.

But if on the other hand, you were to sit proudly upright, chest out, chin up and eyes looking straight at the interviewer(s). This will make you feel a whole lot more confident. And when your brain senses this, it will again enhance the positivity, creating more of a virtuous circle.

Walk your talk in interviews without appearing too arrogant

And here’s another proven way to improve your interviewing skills. Adopt the persona of someone who you perceive would be best in the interview. One example people use is to become Freddie Mercury of all people. He famously told EMI the following: “We [Queen] don’t need you [EMI], you need us.” And he firmly believed it too. That’s the key; you have to really walk your talk in interviews, without appearing too arrogant, of course.

During the interview, focus on the words you use as you talk. Avoid uncertainty by changing words like might, could, maybe, and hopefully, into much more positive responses like: “Will, definitely” and “without a doubt.”

Once again, your brain will hear what you’re saying, alter your emotions and posture, and help you actually be more positive.

In summary, your brain will do all it can to deliver what you believe.

Imagine, for example, that you want to land a new job. After several interviews, you lose confidence and start to focus on the negatives of each interview performance. Rather than admit that some component of the interview was ineffectual, your brain tries to save face. It floods you with memories of past failed interviews. If you failed in the past, why bother trying again?

Concentrate on the positive aspects of past interviews

A better train of thought is to concentrate on the positive aspects of past interviews, however small, and to recognize that as a positive outcome in line with your overall goal.

That way, you can communicate a different message to your brain. “OK, I didn’t get the job, but I did have a great answer to the question of where I wanted to be in 5-years,” or “they really did warm to me what I talked about my achievements.”

Overall, It’s not a revolutionary new strategy for getting a job, as it is a refinement of an ever-improving strategy. Don’t let your brain trick you into thinking that because you didn’t get that job you wanted, your entire interviewing ability is a flop because that’s exactly what your brain will do.

Let me conclude by mentioning marginal gains. When it comes to interview skills, this is another key consideration. The doctrine of marginal gains is all about small incremental improvements in any process, adding up to a significant improvement when they are all added together.

When it comes you your interviewing prowess, don’t think of making one huge change to improve your performance, instead make many much smaller, easier to attain, improvements. Go from seeking to change one thing by 100% to changing 100 things each by 1%.

Kathy Caprino

Kathy Caprino

Career and Leadership Coach | Forbes Senior Columnist | Author, “The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss

As a career coach, I’ve seen that the key challenge for interviewees is this: “How do I offer an authentic and compelling answer that isn’t fluff and doesn’t sound like I’m trying to make myself look good (like “It’s hard for me to say “no” to extra projects”) but at the same time, doesn’t shoot me in the foot and stop me from getting the job?”

Craft a compelling answer that demonstrates both your maturity and self-awareness about the areas you need to grow in

Here are some tips and strategies for crafting a compelling answer to this question that demonstrates both your maturity and self-awareness about the areas you need to grow in, but also doesn’t close the door on your opportunity to work for this organization.

Key steps:

Reframe what “failure” really is

So many people don’t actually perceive “failure” in a helpful, productive way. Many people I work with are what I call “perfectionistic overfunctioners” who are exhausting themselves trying to do more than is appropriate, healthy and necessary all the time, and trying to get an A+ in all of it. These people see everything they’re doing as a “failure” or not good enough.

The most beneficial way to view “failure” is to recognize that we cannot achieve great success if we don’t fall down and learn from it. Failure gives us a great opportunity to learn transformative lessons that help us grow and thrive. See if you can reframe the “failures” in your life as something that you missed the mark on but helped you learn something powerful that strengthened you and allowed you to become more competent, effective, and successful in your work.

Brainstorm and write down ten times you truly failed in a big way

Answer these questions with complete frankness (no one will see this but you):

Bring to mind what you think this hiring manager is hoping for in a new hire. What are the key attributes and talents they need in the individual they’ll hire to fill this role? Is it an analytical mind, responsiveness, creativity, innovation, project management excellence, administrative abilities, marketing skill, etc.?

  1. What was the failure? What did I do it? Looking back, how did I make this big misstep, and why, exactly?
  2. Is this type of “failure” chronic for me? Do I have a blindspot that sets me up to fail regularly like this?
  3. What is the root of this behavior or mindset that generated this failure?
  4. What have I done to overcome this challenge and behavior and make it “right?” How did I handle it and revise my behavior and mindset?

Now, think like your hiring manager

Where do you excel in the areas the hiring manager is most likely looking for? Review the job description and qualifications and find ways that you match it (If you don’t match it at all, it’s probably not a good job for you).

And how did a failure from the past help you grow in your strength and excellence in this skill that the role needs?

How have you bounced back from failure in a way that demonstrates exactly what the hiring manager need and wants today?

For example, let’s say that you’re going for a financial analysis job, and you’re really great at numbers, math, and analysis, and you’ve even been considered “gifted” in mathematics. Great! They want exactly that – an analytic wizard.

But lets’ say you don’t excel at that level in written communication.

You might say something like:

“One time that I considered a “fail” on my part was several years ago in my entry-level analysis job. I was working on a large project that involved a number of cross-functional teams, and my role was to provide timely analysis on a particular marketing project. The reports I generated were what was needed and asked for, but my email communication in sharing the data and results didn’t have the sensitivity it needed to, given the fact the analysis revealed some big problem areas in a number of departments.

The lesson I learned was that it’s absolutely not enough to provide great analytic data. It’s also critical how you tell that story about that data and how you can share those findings in a way that will bridge gaps, be compassionate and help people buy into the data but also feel comfortable accepting the findings and doing what’s necessary to build greater success from it.”

In the end, you can be truthful and tell a compelling story about how you failed, but more importantly, how you grew from that failure and can bring those new strengths to this job.

Ron Auerbach, MBA

Ron Auerbach

Educator | Career Coach | Job Search Expert | Author, “Think Like an Interviewer: Your Job Hunting Guide to Success

Be specific of what you were trying to accomplish and what you had done in an attempt to make it a success

We’d obviously all love to be successful every single time! But the reality is that failure can occur. So failing at something is just part of life and the workplace. Thus, an interviewer needs to know that you understand this notion.

That’s why it’s important you not be afraid to admit you failed. On the surface, failure seems to be a very bad thing. And that’s exactly why job candidates are often deftly afraid to focus on their failings. But failure can also be a positive thing, which is what the interviewer needs to see from you!

In other words, failure is a learning experience. So out of failure comes the knowledge to do better next time. And learning from mistakes and being unsuccessful at something is a good thing as far as an interviewer goes!

Remember, failure can stem from multiple sources. For example:

  • Not having enough information at the time
  • Reliance upon information that wasn’t accurate, updated, or related
  • Being too optimistic or overly aggressive with projections
  • Misinterpreting something or reading more into it than was really there
  • Having others do or check things when it would have been best for you to have done it yourself or double-checked things
  • Waiting until the last minute or facing other pressures that affected your judgment
  • Having faith in your ability(ies) that turned out to be wrong or overstated
  • Not using the right metrics or having the proper metrics but setting standards at the wrong level
  • Mismanaging your time, like having too many things on your plate to handle

When answering this question, be specific in terms of what you were trying to accomplish and what you had done in an attempt to make it a success. Then take personal ownership of the failure by freely admitting things didn’t work out. This part is super important!

This interview question is focusing on your failure, not a failure that was the result of one or more others. So do not blame others for the failure!

Continue with your answer to explain what you had learned from this experience, so the interviewer will see what you’ve learned from it—another crucial thing you need to do.

Terry B. McDougall, PCC, MBA

terry mcdougall

Executive & Career Coach, Terry B. McDougall Coaching | Author, “Winning the Game of Work

Think of a time when you learned an important lesson through failure

When presented with the tricky interview question, “Tell me about a time when you failed,” think of a time when you learned an important lesson through failure. Make sure your answer includes:

  • An overview of what the situation was,
  • What you did and why you did it,
  • What caused you to make a mistake,
  • What you did to correct the mistake, and
  • What you learned from it.

Interviewers ask this question to get an understanding of your self-awareness, ability to take responsibility for your own results and actions, and your ability to learn and adapt. Even the most diligent people make mistakes.

What differentiates high performers from average performers is how they respond when they make a mistake.

High performers don’t look to blame; they look to correct the mistake. They don’t try to cover up mistakes; they take responsibility and ask for help, so things don’t get worse.

Greg Scott

Greg Scott

Cybersecurity Professional | Published Author

Seize the opportunity and tell a good failure story

You’re in the interview for your dream job, sweating in the suit you haven’t worn in five years, trying to control your breathing despite that tie squeezing your neck, and now the interviewer wants to know about a time you failed.

We need to address two issues. First, why should anyone care about my thoughts on this topic? I’ve been in the IT industry since dirt was young. I’ve seen global behemoth companies, small companies, and everything in-between, and I’ve interviewed and been interviewed more times than I can remember. I have plenty of failure stories. I share them liberally.

That leads to the second issue; everyone has failure stories. Everyone. If I ask about your failures in an interview and your answer is, you’ve never failed, then you just failed. I might be polite, but the interview is over. You lied in the interview, which means I can’t trust you on my team.

So, when an interviewer asks you that question—and they will—seize the opportunity and tell a good failure story.

A good failure story has high stakes, high cost, and ends with a lesson learned. The best stories also show humility. Bonus points if the failure was your fault. Here are two of my favorites.

Early in my career, when computers had flashing front-panel lights and were the size of refrigerators. I was the Assistant Director of the computing center at an engineering college in Indiana. It was an impressive title, but the reality was, I was the second person in a two-person IT Department. I handled the administrative offices – Alumni, Registrar, Admissions, Student Services, and the Business Office.

Part of my job was to run periodic backups. In those days, backups meant shutting down the office and copying that office’s removable disk to another removable disk. But the Registrar’s office was busy, and I didn’t stay after work to back it up for almost a month. Every month, I was supposed to make another copy onto nine-track tape, and that was when Murphy’s Law asserted itself. After not backing it up for a month, I mounted the disk on the computer with a tape drive, set up the tape, and started the copy operation. Shortly after initializing the tape – zeroing its month-old contents – the disk heads crashed on the source disk. In a few short seconds, I managed to wipe out all data in the Registrar’s office and the most recent backup, which was already a month old.

It was a gut-check meeting, looking the college Registrar department head in the eye to tell him I’d destroyed his data, and the only recovery was to enter it all again by hand. It took them weeks to recover. I never lived it down.

And that’s why, to this very day, many years later, I tell young IT people they’re not real professionals until they’ve destroyed somebody’s critical data with no way to recover it. When—not if—it happens, remember that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach so you’ll be more careful about the rest of your career.

Here is another one from 2013. This one shut down a small business and could have ruined my career and bankrupted me. I earned my living as an independent contractor and computer reseller and found an up-and-coming storage vendor with a promising product. I sold a system to my best customer. It failed one day, and so I logged a service call. And then I spent an afternoon twiddling my thumbs in a hot room, waiting on a callback.

The callback finally came. It was the sales rep, who wanted $5000 for technical support services. That was when I realized I’d made a terrible choice. We eventually got the customer back up and running, but I had a bigger problem. This storage vendor was trouble, and I had put my customer and friend in the middle of it.

My customer and I had a heart to heart talk, and we replaced all that storage with a different system. I sold it at my cost and did the installation and migration for free. It cost the customer $15,000 in unplanned expenses and cost me several weeks of time. That original storage vendor went bankrupt a few months later.

That customer and I are still friends to this day.

One more failure story, for people looking for entry-level jobs. Back in my sophomore year of college, my math professor gave me a D, instead of an F, in multivariable calculus, because I showed up for class and worked hard. But I failed every single test. No matter what I tried, I could not get it. I will never forget one meeting, where my professor told me it might be best to find a new major because I wasn’t cut out for math. I brooded on that for a year. Maybe basket-weaving was more suited to my talents. I started my junior year and happened to look at that math book again. I worked a few problems – they were easy.

I worked a few more, and they were easy too. I looked at those old tests and could not believe how easy those questions were. Three weeks into the semester, I petitioned to retake that class. The new professor said yes, but only if I completed all homework up until that point in the semester. I turned it all in a few days later and finished the semester with an A-.

That was a pivotal experience in my life. Your life has them too. Embrace your failures because they are part of your history. Extract lessons from them for your future, and use the stories in your job interviews in the present.

Timothy G. Wiedman, D.B.A., PHR Emeritus

Timothy G. Wiedman, DBA, PHR Emeritus

Associate Prof. of Management & Human Resources (Retired)

Keep responses positive and make accurate statements about the transferable skills that were learned during that situation

As a hiring manager, during employment interviews, I often asked candidates to tell me about one of their failures. I wasn’t really interested in the technical details of their misadventure. Rather, I wanted to hear about how they handled the immediate aftermath– and what they’d ultimately learned from their misstep.

So I believe that candidates should always try to focus their answer to this type of question on two things:

  • their initial response to discovering the problem
  • the useful workplace knowledge and/or skills that they developed as a result of their experience

Thus, if asked about a previous failure on the job, for example, candidates should focus their answer on how they took responsibility for the mishap, and then on what they learned (and how their skills improved) while handling that difficult situation.

I appreciate hearing folks acknowledging their role in the initial problem(s) that caused the difficulty (having the insufficient experience to quickly grasp what was happening, for example). But then refocus the rest of their answer to the lessons they learned and how that new knowledge helped them in handling similar situations that developed later on.

The point is that candidates should keep responses positive and make accurate statements about the transferable skills that were learned during that situation and how they can benefit a new employer. Most organizations seek candidates who can learn quickly and solve problems as they arise!

Jeff Lichtenstein

Jeff Lichtenstein

Owner, Echo Fine Properties | Real Estate Broker in Palm Beach Gardens Florida

I want to know someone’s failures and what their shortcomings are because:

  • Its shows they are human
  • I know going in what to help them with and get better

In a questionnaire, I ask potential employees to list the four best attributes and four areas that they are working on. It astounds me how many say they have nothing they are working on or have never failed at something.

I’ll go through my failure example to show them that I’m not perfect. Sometimes that helps them open up, and it also shows a potential employee that I’m human, and because I can relate to failure, it make me a better trainer.

Basically, I’m using failure in an interview to show people that we are a good place to work at. It’s the exact same thing.

Being totally authentic would be entirely refreshing. The key is, how did you learn from your failure or area that was a weakness? I like to hear specifics, so interviewees who give stories about their failure and how they learned from it have a leg up in hiring.

Therefore I’d suggest the following going into an interview:

Don’t be afraid to share

If an employer doesn’t want to hear about your failures and weaknesses, that it’s going to be a difficult place to work for anyway.

Think about past failures before the interview

Give a true story and share how you learned from it, and turned it into a strength. Don’t have just one story. Think through several of them as different failures may fit.

Volunteer about sharing your failures before the interviewer asks

“Would you like to know some things I’m not good at but striving to turn into a strength?”

“Can I share a past failure with you and how I think that experience will help me more trainable?”

Explain how learning from that past failure will help the employee become more easily trained and adaptable.

Liz Elting

Liz Elting

Founder and CEO, Elizabeth Elting Foundation

This is one of those questions that often trips up interviewees who fall somewhere between oversharing while still missing the point, being afraid to admit to mistakes, or giving an overly polished answer that doesn’t acknowledge what’s really being asked here (that is, do you recognize when you make a mistake, and how do you respond to it).

I recommend thinking about this question as a way to talk about the lessons you’ve learned and how you’ve grown and improved. This is an opportunity as much as it is a challenge to demonstrate that you are able to admit failures and take responsibility for them.

Don’t beat around the bush to avoid admitting where you’ve failed in the past

In that regard, while you don’t want to only focus on the negative, it’s important not to beat around the bush to avoid admitting where you’ve failed in the past.

Glossing over the failure part of the question can make it seem like you aren’t someone who does well with accepting responsibility. Nobody wants to hear how your mistakes were all somebody else’s fault because that tells them you are not capable of growth or learning.

Approaching the question disingenuously isn’t recommended either (speaking about positive attributes as if they’re negative traits doesn’t meaningfully answer the question). Instead, talk about a real failure and what it taught you, both as an employee and as a person, and demonstrate that you understand that mistakes are valuable opportunities for growth.

This is an excellent opportunity to show how you rise to challenges, how you pick yourself up after defeats, and what you take and become from your experiences.

This should be something unique to each interviewee; there’s no formula for how to answer this question, and interviewers see right through inauthenticity and rehearsed answers.

Diana George

Diana George

Founder & President, By George HR Solutions

“Tell me about a time you failed” is the dreaded question for every candidate. It sounds like a trick question, and as the candidate ponders how to answer it, they often feel that they are doomed no matter what they say.

The answer is a simple one, and it is the truth

When I ask that question, I want to know how transparent and vulnerable the candidate will be with me. Brene Brown speaks on leading with vulnerability, and we have all failed at something. Being able to share that experience tells me a lot about that candidate.

I learn who they are, what lead up to that failure, but more importantly, what they learned from that failure.

  • What will they do differently as a result of that failure?
  • How do they handle adversity?

I am more concerned when I have a candidate who can’t think of anything to share. That tells me that they are very cautious and they don’t want me to see that they can make a mistake. If you can’t admit that you are possible of making a mistake, then you certainly will not ask for help.

Failures eventually lead to success. You can’t have success without some failures.

While it may seem like a loaded question, it is loaded with valuable information that tells you about the person in front of you. It is the one question that I ask on EVERY interview.

Paige Arnof-Fenn

Paige Arnof-Fenn

Founder & CEO, Mavens & Moguls

Tell a story about a situation that did not go as planned, explain what you learned and how you grew

In my experience, the key is to keep your composure, take a breath, and smile before answering it.

The best way to answer that question is to tell a story about a situation that did not go as planned. Explain where and how it derailed without placing blame, show what you learned from the experience and how you grew so that the next time you were in a similar situation, it was a successful outcome.

There are always many failures on the road to success, so do not be defensive or pretend you are perfect. It is an opportunity to show you are resilient and have grit, which are both great qualities in high demand.

For example, “For our new product launch last year even though it was on time and under budget, I was disappointed that we did not get better press around the event. In retrospect, I realized we should have started pitching the media sooner and focused more on key benefits to our customers. I was so enamored with the cool new features that I lost perspective and got distracted from the fundamentals.

Once the launch happened, I was able to pivot and get customers to leverage social media to help us get the word out to the trades and key media after the fact, but for the next product launch, I will not make that mistake again. My team learned to stay focused on our target audience and the importance of a tight message that comes from their perspective. It is not about us; our job is to help them be more successful!”

That shows them you have high standards, took responsibility, have learned a lesson, and will better in the future.

Drew Aversa

Drew Aversa

Business Consultant | Speaker | Author, “Grow It Now!: The Business Leader’s Handbook to Driving Revenue, Engagement, and New Opportunities

Me: “So, you want me to tell you about the time I failed?”

Recruiter: “Yes.”

Me: “Well, how about I tell you about a time when I overcame massive adversity and what it taught me about myself and how I treat others as a leader?”

Recruiter: “Yes, please tell me more.”

Failure is a manmade word that only has meaning if you allow it to define good and bad. Failure is not a failure if you have the right mindset; it is a learning opportunity to spur growth, emotional intelligence, and awareness.

Coaching clients, I help them understand that they did not fail; simply, they did not reach their desired outcome with the effort involved in trying to get to the end goal. When people step off the failure ledge, they clearly see that there are multiple ways to achieve the desired outcome, and they can regroup, re-learn, and re-strategize.

Out of this, leadership capacity is built.

Leaders leverage teachable moments to teach themselves what they need to learn, where they need to focus, and where they need to divert their resources, in the form of time, to study, learn, network, and listen in order not to repeat the same lesson, twice.

Failure” can be your biggest enemy, or it can be your biggest teacher, depending on your outlook. The choice is up to you.

Bruno Pešec

Bruno Pešec

President, Pesec Global

Be radically candid but respectful and polite

Allow me to let you in on a little secret – this question is not about failing but about your ability to reflect and learn. Unless you are speaking with a sadist or misanthrope, the inquirer will most likely enjoy a story of success, rebound, and growth.

Here is a simple structure you can follow:

  1. Open by describing the challenge or issue at hand, and the context around it. Who were the key actors? What were the expectations?
  2. Share the failing moment. What did you do? What happened? What was the result? How did the environment react?
  3. Then share your reflections around the whole situation. What do you see in hindsight? What was the cause of failure? Was it a failure at all, or was it merely your perception? What did you expect would happen, and what happened?
  4. Finish by sharing one to three of your key takeaways. How did this experience make you better? What did you do to ensure it doesn’t happen again? How did you feel about the whole experience?

Follow the format I just shared with you and tell it like a story. Be radically candid, but respectful and polite. Don’t play the blame game. Every failure is an opportunity to learn – you just need to grab it.

Hayden Shepard

Hayden Shepard

Director of Talent Acquisition, Talent Raid

Show that you implemented corrective action to make sure not to repeat the same mistake

Being asked, “Tell me about a time when you failed” is always difficult when being faced with an interviewer or panel. This is a question that I view as looking for how candidates evaluate performance, identify shortfalls, and self-critique themselves to improve future performance.

A candidate should be able to first determine a situation that could be improved upon. Keep in mind; this shouldn’t be examples of disregard to direction, failure to follow policy, or other action that reflects poorly on the candidate.

It should be an example of a performance that simply could be done better.

Next, what area did you identify as needing improvement? Could your communication be more precise, or could there have been a better-targeted sales campaign? Try and be specific as to what caused the failure.

How did you realize you could have done better? This should preferably be through self-evaluation and not simply supervisor feedback.

After these areas are covered, a candidate should hopefully have an example of how they used the self-evaluation to effectively change their behavior in another similar scenario. Ideally, a candidate will be able to show they implemented corrective action to make sure not to repeat the same mistake.

Most hiring managers realize no one is perfect. They expect failure to occur at some point in your career. It’s how you adapt to failure and use it as a learning opportunity that shows potential for an outstanding performer.

Roy Cohen

Roy Cohen

Career Coach | Author, “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide

This question is not asked to embarrass you. When you interview for a job, especially one where you will either have significant responsibility or where you are expected to be a problem solver, it is inevitable that you will face a situation that will not work out.

Explain what happened, your role, and the steps you took to mitigate the fallout

The goal is to determine if you, as a rule, exercise good judgment, know when to escalate the issue, own up to the failure, and learn from the mistakes that were made.

So when you answer this question, it is best always to explain what happened, your role, and the steps you took to mitigate the fallout.

It is a fact that all leaders fail at some point in their careers. To sugarcoat the details leaves no room to share personal growth and insights gained. Just make sure that the failure you describe is real, one that you can discuss in detail if probed and one that will not be viewed as a liability if you are offered the job.

Petra Odak

Petra Odak

Chief Marketing Officer, Better Proposals

Make the situation work in your favor but try not to brag too much

This is one of those job interview questions where you really need to come prepared. When choosing this story, make sure that it’s something that shows your lack of oversight, not a lack of knowledge.

Related: How to Nail a Job Interview, According to 20 HR Experts and Employers

For example, you failed because you didn’t know you were supposed to do a full SEO audit, and you instead did just a backlink analysis. You did extra work over the weekend, and you managed to set things straight, but only thanks to your hard work.

In other words, make the situation work in your favor, but try not to brag too much. In any case, think about the question well in advance.

Sean Sessel

Sean Sessel

Director, The Oculus Institute

There are two key parts to answering this question well:

Be real

Far too many people answer with either something trivial that had no significant consequences or with something that was easily repaired. This is dodging the question and conveys an unwillingness to examine and take responsibility for failure.

Everyone had a time when they experienced a significant failure, so go in prepared to admit something embarrassing that had a major negative impact.

Make sure to end with a lesson that you learned from the failure

If you just describe something you screwed up, you can end up looking merely incompetent. However, if you wrap up with a profound lesson, you both convey that you won’t make that mistake again and that you can learn from failure more generally.

Robert F. DeFinis

Robert DeFinis

Author and Educator, Total Optimal Performance Solutions

Use the STAR method

The primary reasons for asking a behavioral question such as “Tell me about a time you failed” is to establish if the person is a reflective practitioner, able to think on their feet and if there is sound logic in their response.

One way to make sure you answer the question completely is by using the STAR method: Situation, Task, Action, and Result.

Situation

What was the situation? Provide some context and background. The objective here is to be clear and concise.

Task

What exactly was the task that needs to be complete? Describe the goals and objectives that were initially required. Think about the challenges and opportunities that were provided.

Action

What were the step-by-step actions that you took? This is an opportunity to set the stage on your thought process. Even in failure, not everything is lost.

Results

What was the end result? This is where you are going to do some reflection. Since we are talking about failure, what was the lesson learned? How will you avoid marking the same mistake in the future?

Remember, be honest and authentic with your response. Tell your story and use the opportunity to show maturity and growth.

Michael D. Brown

Michael D. Brown

Global Management Expert | Director, Fresh Results Institute

People are skeptical about talking about their failures in interviews in fear of exposing their limitations. Contrarily, talking about your failures essentially embellish your humanity – which companies are looking for – showing that you document your shortcomings and are eager to improve on them consequently.

Keep it simple, concise, and honest

If I ask you to tell me about a time you failed, I want you to show me your accountability and how upfront you are. I don’t want you to tell me a Steven Spielberg blockbuster tragic movie either. Keep it simple, concise, and most especially honest.

What I am aiming for, other than your remorsefulness about your handicaps, is how well you have learned from them. How well did the failure improve you?

Please don’t make a mistake of telling me you have not failed before. I would be scared of hiring a perfectionist that gets it 100% all the time. This is even when I manage to overcome my convictions that you are lying in the first place.

It would also be forbidden to tell me how you failed twice at the same thing repeating the same approaches (say at different companies). It shows me you aren’t learning from your handicaps.

Again, don’t just tell me you failed and end there. You just pointed the gun at your own head! Tell me about your failure and the lessons gained.

So the whole purpose of why hiring managers ask you about your failure is to measure your level of transparency, and the depth of education (or insight) you mined from these handicaps.

Ho Lin

Ho Lin

Career Expert, MyPerfectResume

Maintain a proud and optimistic attitude and admit fully to having screwed up

Failure and mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, they’re great enablers of growth and expanding your comfort zone. This is what you should focus on in your answer.

Maintain a proud and optimistic attitude and admit fully to having screwed up. It takes courage and vulnerability to do so and no one is perfect, so if anything this will come off impressive.

Once you’ve described the situation it is imperative that you follow-up with:

  • What you’ve learned from the experience
  • How have you improved since then
  • What would you do differently in a similar situation

Going in-depth with regards to the above puts the situation in proper context and shows how you’ve transcended and grown richer for the experience. That’s ultimately what life and corporate carers are all about.

Jacques Buffet

Jacques Buffett

Career Expert at Zety

Show a benefit and not just a loss

Failures and mistakes happen. We can just learn how to handle them, improve what’s not working, and learn from our mistakes. When you speak of your failures – you want the silver lining to overshine the cloud. This means you always need to show a benefit and not just a loss.

Here’s an example:

“I sent a marketing campaign to a couple of hundred recipients, and it turned out that a link to a product that we were promoting was broken.

After that, I suggested implementing a professional mailing platform to send our mass communication. I researched the best option available, implemented the best emailing platform that allows detecting possible errors, and trained others on how to use it. We never had a single problem with email campaigns after that.”

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