Any time you have a job interview, you’re very likely to hear interview questions like, “tell me a time when you failed.”
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
“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…
“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.”
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.
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.
Biron Clark is a former executive recruiter who has worked individually with hundreds of job seekers, reviewed thousands of resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and recruited for top venture-backed startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been advising job seekers since 2012 to think differently in their job search and land high-paying, competitive positions.
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