If there ever were an interview question that required a mix of diplomacy and vulnerability, it’s the dreaded, “Tell me about a time when you failed” question. You might also hear variations like, “Tell me about a mistake you made.”
After spending time learning how to build a resume and cover letter that shine a bright light on your accomplishments, being asked to unearth an unflattering story about your professional life can feel defeating.
Answering these questions is a delicate balance: You want to give them something of substance – a real failure that had real consequences. At the same time, you also want to look like a capable person who is good at their job. So, how do you balance those two seemingly-opposing objectives?
Hiring managers aren’t trying to disqualify you when they ask interview questions about mistakes you made and failures you’ve been through.
Rather, what they are hoping to glean is whether you have insight into the consequences of your actions and whether you are someone who is capable of learning from failure.
Questions about past failures fall under the category of behavioral questions.
These interview questions operate on the premise that the best way to predict future behavior is to examine past behavior. Therefore, if you can cite an example of past failure and what you’ve learned from it, a recruiter will see you as a person who is capable of learning a lesson from a mistake.
The way you answer this question also says a lot about your level of personal responsibility. No one wants a coworker who is constantly passing the buck and blaming their blunders on others.
Being able to stand up, own your mistakes, and offer up a sincere mea culpa is a sign of confidence and integrity.
Also, the ability to reflect on the lessons you learned through failure is evidence of growth. After all, if you can’t point to a failure, you may be a person who isn’t willing to take risks. This is critical information in some industries, like tech, that are interested in hiring innovative people.
Everybody fails at work. It’s just a fact of life. The trick to answering a question about a past failure is to choose an example that shows you are a human who errs, and also that you are a person who learns from their mistakes.
Like every other part of a job interview, the goal is to show that you are smart and insightful about how your actions impact the organization.
A humblebrag is a statement that is designed to sound modest but that actually highlights something that you are proud of.
Answering a question about failure with a thinly-veiled self-congratulatory story won’t fly. You need to choose a real example of failure and then explain the lesson you learned from it. Below are two possible responses.
“Last year I redesigned the company’s online store to improve the user experience. The project took six months of really hard work, but we still didn’t meet our goal of increasing sales by $100,000. Instead, we only improved sales by $75,000. It was a real disappointment but, then again, I can be really hard on myself.”
“Last year, I was tapped to give a presentation to the company’s finance team to make a case for having funds added to my team’s budget to revamp the company’s online store. The presentation landed during our busiest time of year, and I was swamped. Because I was overwhelmed, I convinced myself that I knew the information inside and out and that I didn’t need to prepare for the presentation. In short, I blew it. We didn’t get the money we needed, and I disappointed my team. I know this happened was because I was overly confident and didn’t set my priorities well.”
To succeed in answering a question about a past failure, pick a story that ends with a compelling lesson. Ideally, you should briefly outline the mistake and then elaborate on the lesson learned and how you’ve applied it to other projects.
You should never babble during a job interview, but brevity is very important when you are describing a recent failure. Don’t tell a longwinded story.
As a rule of thumb in an interview, no response should be more than a minute or two long. Make this response, in particular, as short as humanly possible. Keep it simple by using this simple formula:
Your Ill-Advised Action + Poor Result = Lesson Learned.
As important as it is to choose a real failure, you aren’t required to confess your most humiliating mistake in a job interview. Avoid telling stories that might be perceived as character flaws (“I am almost always late to meetings because I have terrible time management skills.”) or that might present a major headache for your employer (“As a result of the incident, I was investigated for sexual harassment.”)
Always use a real past failure example but do your best to make it benign. In other words, don’t give the employer a reason not to hire you with the example you choose. A company is not going to hire a person who might create a fiasco or present a legal problem for them down the road.
Remember failure isn’t fatal. Just focus on the lesson you learned from your mistake.
About this guest author:
Since 2005, LiveCareer has been developing tools that have helped over 10 million users build stronger resumes, write persuasive cover letters, and develop better interview skills. Land the job you want faster using our free resume examples and resume templates, writing guides, and easy-to-use resume builder.