In a job interview, you’ll likely hear interview questions like “Tell me a time when you failed.” But few people like to think, let alone talk, about the failures they’ve had in life.
However, employers like to ask about your failures not to shame you but to learn how you handle your mistakes. So when you answer questions about your failures, you must emphasize your learning and growth following the experience.
I’m going to walk you through why interviewers ask about this topic, the best way to answer questions about times when you failed, and how to avoid the traps and mistakes that can cost you the job offer. Then I’ll share word-for-word sample answers you can copy.
There are three key things employers look for in every answer to this question, so let’s start with that…
How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time When You Failed” (And Why Employers Ask This)
There are three key traits that employers are looking for when they ask this interview question, and your answer needs to address all three areas if you want to “wow” the hiring manager or recruiter.
1. Show that you’re accountable and upfront
Employers don’t want to hire someone who seems like they make excuses and always blame others for their mistake. This type of person doesn’t usually learn from their failures and mistakes and is difficult to work with overall. So don’t say something like, “Well, I was blamed for a mistake at work recently but it wasn’t my fault…”
When the employer asks about a time you failed or made a mistake, show them you take responsibility for mistakes instead of putting the blame on others. Own up to it, acknowledge that you could have done something better/differently, and be clear and direct when explaining. That’s the first key step. Don’t worry if you’re not sure exactly how this should sound. Coming up, I’ll share full sample answers.
2. Demonstrate that you learn from your mistakes and use the experience to get better
Everyone makes mistakes, but no hiring manager wants to hire somebody who’s going to keep repeating the same errors over and over. That drives them CRAZY. So make sure you show them what you learned from the experience and how you used it to improve. There’s one more key thing they might be looking for too…
3. Stay on track with your answer and tell a clear, concise story
Any time they ask a question that requires a story (which definitely includes a question like, “tell me about a time when you failed”), they’re looking to see whether you can tell a clear story and get from point A to point B without getting sidetracked. This is true of any behavioral question, in fact. If you can’t communicate clearly in a job interview, the interviewer will be concerned about your future communication skills on the job. So don’t let your interview answers ramble on for four minutes or go in a bunch of different directions. Keep it brief. Try to tell the story in chronological order, too, without having to go back and forward in time repeatedly.
In general, when answering a behavioral interview question, describe the situation you were in, the choice you made, and the outcome. Then you can spend 20-30 more seconds talking about how you used the experience to improve in the future.
One more tip when answering: you’ll always get bonus points if you sound humble, so try to do that as well
Try to sound like you appreciate the lesson you learned and are happy to have learned it (even though experiencing a failure is NOT fun at the time…) If you do those things, you’ll have a great answer that will impress the interviewer when they ask you to describe a time you failed. Now let’s look at some of the traps, mistakes, and errors that can get you rejected in an interview when answering this question.
Watch: How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time When You Failed”
Miscalculation or Failure?
During a job interview, you’ll likely need to provide an example of a failure you experienced. However, you don’t need to highlight your life’s biggest mistake. An interview isn’t the place to discuss significant failures that may indicate flaws in your character.
Instead, think about mistakes that didn’t have severe financial or personal repercussions. Think of these mistakes as miscalculations, not failures. You might have missed a target, or your strategy didn’t generate the intended results.
Miscalculations are common in the workplace. They’re everyday occurrences, and people learn a lot from them that they can apply in the future.
Mistakes to Avoid When Talking About a Time You Failed
First, don’t let your answer get disorganized or go on for two or three minutes. Remember to be concise and brief! I recommend keeping your response to around 30-60 seconds. Also, don’t make it sound like you learned nothing from the experience, and don’t blame others. Always be accountable for what you could have done differently in the failure.
Another big mistake: Not having an answer prepared and ready to go.
Everyone fails, so don’t try to hide it or act like you have no failures.
Prepare an example and be ready to talk about it.
Also, avoid giving a story that makes you sound careless, or like someone who rushes through things and makes many mistakes in general. Hiring managers aren’t going to want to hire someone who seems like they rush and make mistakes frequently. It’s better to tell a story that shows a one-time mistake or error, rather than a pattern or repeating problem.
Finally, one other mistake you want to avoid:
I wouldn’t recommend talking about a huge disaster.
If you made a massive mistake that cost a past company $2 million, I’d keep quiet and find a “less scary” story. So it’s a bit of a “balancing act”… Pick a real failure but don’t talk about a disaster that severely hurt your company. Those are the mistakes to avoid when answering, “tell me about a time when you failed.”
Next, let’s look at some sample answers so you can build confidence and practice.
Example Answers to “Tell Me a Time When You Failed”
Sample Answer #1:
“I was managing a project for one of our biggest clients in my previous company, and I was so eager to please them that I told them we could finish the project within 2 weeks. I thought this was doable, but it ended up taking three weeks and they were not happy. Looking back, I realized I should have been more conservative in my estimate to the client. I realized that a client isn’t going to be upset if you’re clear about the timeline in advance, but they are going to be disappointed if you promise something and then don’t deliver. So I took this experience and used it to become much better at managing the expectations of clients during projects I oversee. For example, on the next project with a different client, I told them it’d take four weeks and we finished in three. They were very happy about this.”
This example answer does a lot of the things we talked about earlier in the article. It tells a clear, concise story. It shows what you learned from the experience, and even ends with an example of exactly how you used this lesson to improve your abilities.
Let’s look at one more example answer now…
Sample Answer #2:
“In my last job, our CEO gave me a chance to interview and hire entry-level people for our team. I chose to hire someone who seemed to have a lot of potential but also had some “red flags” or things that worried me. It ended up being a big mistake. They had a poor attitude and dragged the team down until my CEO had to fire them. I learned to be more careful and not rush my decisions and to speak with others on my team who have more experience if I’m unsure of something. I also realized how important each hiring decision is, which made me a better manager in the last few years of my career. Since then, I’ve hired eight new people and never had a bad experience like this again. But it was a great lesson to learn early in my career.”
Types of Failures You Can Mention
The following are common categories in which you may have made miscalculations in the past:
1. Technical Failure
Technical failures in the workplace often comes from circumstances that disrupt the smooth functioning of technology, ultimately impacting the flow of tasks and deadlines. A technical failure in the workplace refers to any situation in which a technological component, such as software, hardware, or a system, does not perform as intended or expected.
Sample Answer #1:
“In a previous role, I was responsible for implementing a new software system that did not work as intended, causing delays in project completion. I learned the importance of thoroughly testing and validating new systems before deployment. Now, I ensure I allocate adequate time for testing, seeking feedback from users, and making necessary adjustments to minimize any technical issues that may happen.”
2. Bad Communication
Bad communication in the workplace can pop up in different ways, like unclear instructions, missed messages, or even misinterpretations. To avoid this, it’s important to learn from these experiences and use more relatable communication methods, such as really listening, being clear and concise, and checking in with each other regularly.
Sample Answer #2:
“There was an instance where I failed to effectively communicate expectations to my team, leading to misunderstandings and the need for last-minute adjustments. I learned the importance of clear and concise communication, and I’ve since made it a priority to hold regular team meetings, utilize project management tools, and provide written guidelines to ensure everyone is on the same page.”
3. Time Management
You might assume you have enough time in the day to accomplish your duties, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Poor time management can cause you to miss a deadline or fail to complete a responsibility.
Sample Answer #3:
“I once underestimated the time required to complete a project, resulting in missed deadlines and stress for my team. I learned to better assess the scope of work and allocate time and resources accordingly. I now use project management tools and techniques to establish realistic timelines and ensure that tasks are completed on schedule.”
4. Challenging Teamwork
In a past job, you may have encountered a challenging assignment requiring you to work with teammates you didn’t know well. You can use the example to show how you put a positive spin on a challenging situation and achieved a favorable outcome.
Sample Answer #4:
“During my time at ABC Tech, I faced a failure while leading a team to develop a software solution under a tight deadline. I allowed team members to choose their tasks, believing that autonomy would motivate them. This approach, however, led to confusion, duplicated efforts, and unattended project aspects.
As a result, we missed the deadline and had to request an extension, straining the client relationship. I learned the importance of clear expectations and well-defined roles in a team. To improve, I introduced project management tools and regular check-ins to ensure better communication and progress monitoring. This experience has made me a more effective leader, prioritizing structure and open communication for project success.”
5. Losing a Client
People in customer-facing roles often spend much of their workday interfacing with clients. Customers are a vital part of any business; without them, a company wouldn’t have any revenue. If you’ve ever lost a client, it was probably an experience you learned from.
Sample Answer #5:
“As a customer service representative at a bank, I was responsible for helping clients select the right bank account for their needs. One customer had complex needs; she had a business in multiple countries and needed an account to facilitate easy transfers. I recommended an unsuitable account, and she chose a different bank. After that experience, I brushed up on my product knowledge to provide great service to future customers.”
The Best Way to “Wow” the Interviewer at the End of Your Answer
When you finish telling them about a time you failed… don’t just talk about what you learned from it… show them a real example. Notice that both sample interview answers we just covered accomplish this. In the first example, the story is that you told the next client their project would take four weeks and you finished the project in three weeks, one week ahead of schedule. In the second example answer, the story is that you’ve hired eight more people since that failure, and each one has been a success.
It’s one thing to say you learned a lot from a failure, but an example or story is more powerful in demonstrating that you truly improved.
Answering “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” – Quick Instructions
- Talk about a real failure you’ve had, starting by describing the situation.
- Explain what happened clearly and quickly.
- Take responsibility and don’t make excuses for the failure.
- Show what you learned from the experience.
- Talk about how you’ve used the experience to become better at your job and avoid similar mistakes.
- Don’t talk about anything that was a disaster for your employer. Pick a real failure but not anything too costly.
- Don’t share any story that makes you sound careless in general. It’s better to share a one-time failure that you quickly learned from and moved past.
- Be brief and concise. Keep your answer to 2-3 minutes.
If you use these steps above to answer “tell me about a time when you failed,” you’ll have an impressive interview answer that makes employers want to hire you.