Everyone experiences failure sometimes, but the one time you definitely don’t want to relive one is during a job interview. Even the ultra confident among us can get tongue-tied when they encounter the dreaded “tell me about a time you failed” question.
While other common interview questions allow you to dive into your past experiences, skills and wins, this zinger can trigger instant discomfort. So why do hiring managers want to zoom in on a negative? Several reasons. Interviewers pull out this question not to trip you up, but because the way you answer it can determine a lot about your character.
What this question means.
Though it may seem up front, the way you answer this question will reveal many different things to your interviewer. First and foremost, this question is used to determine whether or not you take responsibility for your actions. Your employer wants to hear about a time when you attempted to accomplish something, and it didn’t turn out the way you intended. You may choose to discuss a time when you fell short of a certain goal, a project didn’t turn out as planned or you performed a task incorrectly.
What the interviewer is looking for.
The interviewer is looking for you to take responsibility for your actions. They also want you to demonstrate that you are able to describe important instances without too much preamble — even under pressure. Employers understand that no one’s perfect, but they want to see that when things don’t work out your way, you refuse to give up or let your frustrations get in the way of your eventual success. They want an honest answer that demonstrates growth.
3-steps to delivering an A+ response:
1. Acknowledge that you have, in fact, failed.
The biggest mistake you can make when answering this question is to deny that you’ve failed at all. Don’t downplay the situation or spend time qualifying that ways in which it wasn’t a failure. Be direct and clear about what happened.
2. Succinctly describe your failure.
It may be tempting to get into a great deal of back story about what happened, but too much background can detract from the actual point. You aren’t on trial, so you don’t have to include every minor detail about what happened. If you interviewer needs clarification or would like to hear more details, they’ll ask you for them. Your entire answer should take less than five minutes to explain.
3. Give specifics on how you learned from your failure.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that your answer should demonstrate how you’ve grown from your failure so that it’s clear that the same issue won’t happen again moving forward. Don’t just gloss over your by saying that you learned from the experience — explain exactly what actionable steps you took to ensure that you found success in this area in the future.
What NOT to do
Recount failures that had a major negative impact on your company.
When deciding what failure you’re going to talk about, the first one that comes to mind may not be the best. The most significant mistake that resulted in the most serious consequences is likely to be the first thing that comes to mind, but you should hold off on sharing anything that costed the company a great deal of money or had a significant fall out. Lost your company’s largest client because of an oversight that still haunts you? It’s best to find another option to discuss with your potential employer.
Discuss a failure that demonstrates a personality flaw.
Bringing up an incident where you failed as a result of offending someone or losing your cool with someone can be harder to recover from than talking about a failure that was caused by an oversight or professional error. Calling attention to an emotional situation can be harder to shake when the person hasn’t gotten a chance to understand your personality.
Discuss a repeated failure.
Because one of the motivations for asking this question is to determine how well you learn from your losses, avoid bringing up a situation where you failed repeatedly without learning anything. This can give the impression that if you’re hired, you’ll repeat the same unsuccessful actions again and again before getting it right. Instead, focus on one specific failure where you were able to modify your method for a more optimal outcome quickly.
Blame another person.
No one wants to be around (much less employ) a person who is set on playing the blame game. Take ownership and focus on your role in the failure without bringing up how others impacted the outcome. Bringing up the shortcomings of another person won’t give you any points and will ultimately hurt you in the end. Additionally, painting others in a negative light as you answer at any point during you interview is a major don’t.
Come up with nada.
Saying that you can’t remember a time when you’ve experienced failure can make you look unprepared or like you don’t have the ability to recognize your own mistakes. Neglecting to come up with an answer acts as a failure in itself.
Example No. 1
When I was hired for my first position as a manager, I quickly became friends with many of my employees because I wanted to be well-liked. We ate lunch together and sometimes grabbed drinks after work. At first it was a lot of fun, but it became really difficult to establish boundaries down the line. Because no one saw me as an authority figure, it was difficult to meet deadlines and run the company how it should have been. After I left that company, I was sure to establish boundaries with employees by limiting our conversations to discussions about work. They followed instructions much better and we had more positive outcomes as a team.
Example No. 2
I was so determined to show that I was a team player at my first job that I never said no to a task. Eventually, that led to me becoming so bogged down that I was staying late but still not managing to give my projects the attention they deserved. As a result, the first major presentation that I gave was a flop. It was very disorganized, and I was unable to articulate what I meant. After that experience, I learned to manage my time more effectively and only take on what I knew I had time for so that I could do my best. My presentation skills grew stronger, and I received departmental recognition for the deals I was able to facilitate with clients thanks to my attention to detail.
Example No. 3
At my first job after college working as an administrative assistant, I was tasked with sending out meeting agendas to all of the attendees before the meetings. After one meeting, my boss asked me why I hadn’t sent the agenda to a very prominent member of our company. I was positive that I had, but after checking I realized that I had emailed the agenda to a different employee with the same first name. I apologized profusely, and ever since then I always make sure to quadruple check recipients before sending anything, and I haven’t repeated this mistake since.
Whether you’re on the job hunt right now or settled into a position at the moment, mastering your answer to this question will save you a ton of stress down the road. Practice your response until you can deliver your response without breaking a sweat by participating in mock interviews to keep you on your interview A-game. And if this question has tripped you up in the past — don’t stress! Even a bad interviewing experience can be something to learn from.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.