“Tell me about a time you failed” is an interview question that many people misunderstand. Because of this, they spend their time crafting an answer that doesn’t give the interviewer what they’re actually looking for!
This guide will teach you how to answer this question, and provide you with some great sample answers to help you get started.
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Why Interviewers Ask This Question
Asking a job-seeker to talk about past failures might initially seem a little unorthodox. However, “Tell me about a time you failed” is relatively common and serves many purposes for the interviewer.
At face value, your answer will let the hiring manager know how you typically respond to adversity. No workplace is perfect, and no employee can expect to do their job without running into obstacles from time to time. Things happen, but what’s most important is how you respond to them.
That’s what interviewers want to hear about most. They want to see some examples of how you respond to failure and what you do to overcome it. Do you give up and wait for someone to rescue you, or do you take charge and be proactive about making improvements?
How people respond to failure says a lot about their personality. There’s nothing wrong with being upset or experiencing a setback. But companies want to hire people who will take responsibility and work to fix the problem. Whether it’s a missed deadline or losing out on a massive account, how you respond matters more than the situation itself.
Your answer to “Tell me about a time you failed” can also shed light on your overall honesty and accountability. No one likes to work with someone constantly shifting the blame and failing to take responsibility for their own actions.
Interviewers want to see that you can accept defeat, move on, and do better. It’s about what you learn from your mistakes and what steps you take to improve.
While this question seems simple, it’s layered. Hiring managers can learn a lot about who you are and how you perform at work from how you respond. As a result, this is a question you want to think about before going into your interview.
How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”
While everyone’s answer will differ based on their past work experience, interviewers are looking for a few key things when asking this question. Here are some tips to help you develop an answer that’s sure to impress.
1. Give a Legitimate Example
The most important thing to remember when answering this question is that honesty is the best policy.
So many job-seekers have the wrong approach to their answer because they believe it’s a trick question. As a result, they try to frame their response as a humblebrag rather than a legitimate answer. Despite what you might think, this isn’t supposed to be an opportunity where you talk about your accomplishments.
It’s the exact opposite! Hiring managers don’t want to hear you go on and on about how awesome you are. That’s not what this question is about, and answering in any way that doesn’t involve actual failures could end up hurting your chances of getting a job offer!
Focus on real examples and experiences. Everyone has made mistakes or failed at some point. Dig deep and think back to those experiences.
Developing an answer will require self-reflection, but that’s the entire point. Interviewers want you to look back at previous mistakes and tell them everything you’ve learned.
Don’t make the mistake of saying you’ve never failed. Let’s be honest: That’s not true. Not only does it come off as fake, but it can also make the interviewer think that you’re a liar. That’s the last thing you want.
Provide a legitimate example of past failures, and don’t be afraid to discuss them openly. That’s precisely what the interviewer wants.
2. Take Responsibility
A big part of your answer to this question is showing that you know how to take responsibility for your actions when you’ve failed. It’s about having accountability and knowing when you do something wrong.
Here’s another reason why many job-seekers fail to answer this question appropriately. It’s easy to shift the blame onto another person when you make a mistake. That’s the gut response for many people.
But doing so shows a lack of accountability and maturity. If you do that during the interview and try to blame someone else, you’re only making yourself look bad.
For example, avoid framing your answer to “Tell me about a time you failed” in a way that puts blame on someone else. Saying that you were incorrectly blamed for something isn’t the right way to respond to this question. This type of answer doesn’t give the interviewer what they’re looking for in an applicant.
Own up to your mistakes! Everyone makes them. Attempting to hide your failures by shifting the blame onto others does not reflect well on you.
The same goes for trying to avoid the question altogether. In the heat of the moment, that might be your first instinct. It’s not easy to talk about your failures, so you might try to push the conversation in another direction.
Make no mistake: Interviewers notice that attempt and will make a note of the fact that you weren’t upfront or honest.
3. Show What You Learned
Want to know the key to answering this question correctly? In addition to being honest and taking responsibility, the best way to leave a lasting impression is to show how you’ve learned and grown from that failure in the past.
That’s how you set yourself apart from other job-seekers and make yourself look like the perfect applicant.
As we’ve said earlier, mistakes happen! They’re unavoidable, and employers know that even the best employees will fail at some point. No one expects sheer perfection, but they do expect something to come out of those failures.
Companies want people who will take corrective action and be proactive about avoiding similar mistakes in the future. Failing is how you grow and improve. It’s how you hone your skills and become the best worker you can be.
When you answer “Tell me about a time you failed” it’s important to talk about how that experience shaped who you are and how you work. Share what you learned and focus on the positives. Frame your answer in a way that treats your failure as a blessing rather than a curse.
If possible, provide a real-world example of how that experience changed you for the better. Maybe you developed new work techniques to avoid making the same mistake again. Or, you could have changed your entire approach to your job to prevent future failures.
Whatever the case might be, now is your chance to talk about it. Focus on how those failures made you a better employee, and your response will be one that stands out.
4. Practice Your Answer
Our last tip applies to any complex interview question. Practice is essential.
“Tell me about a time you failed” isn’t a question that you want to wait until the day of the interview to prepare for. It’s not one you want to create an answer for on the spot, either.
It sounds simple, but a question like this is more complex than many people realize. It’s multi-faceted and provides insight into who you are as a person and employee. There are no guarantees it’ll come up during your interview, but there’s a good chance you’ll hear something vaguely similar.
Reflect on your past experiences and come up with an answer well before going into your interview. Jot down a few points you want to cover and use that as a framework for your response.
It’s not a good idea to write down a full script. That’ll make you sound rehearsed, disingenuous, and robotic. Instead, cover a few key points and practice ways to respond.
The goal is to feel confident about your answer while still sounding like a human being!
What You Should Avoid Saying
Knowing what you should say and how you can create a memorable answer is just half the battle. You might think that you have an excellent response ready, but you could commit some cardinal interview sins during the process.
Here are some things you should avoid saying when answering “Tell me about a time you failed.”.
One of the worst things you can do for any interview question is ramble on and on. Clear and concise answers are always best!
This question is a bit more complex, so it may take over a minute to tell your story. But even then, one to two minutes is what you should aim for when responding. Anything longer, and it becomes drawn-out.
Also, organize your thoughts and plan what you want to say. Steer clear of incoherent rambling to fill the silence.
Anything That Makes You Sound Careless
Never say anything that makes you sound careless. Your work is important, and you need to understand the gravity of mistakes. Shrugging off failures isn’t a good look, and those types of responses will rub the interviewer the wrong way.
For example, saying that you hardly cared about the mistake or acting defensive about your failures makes it seem like you don’t care about your job. Why would a company want to hire anyone like that?
Responses That Shift the Blame
We’ve already talked about how you should take responsibility for your failures. But this is something that deserves repeating. Never shift the blame onto any of your colleagues or managers.
Remember: It’s about knowing how to take accountability. Blaming others for your shortcomings is a quick way to get yourself taken out of the running.
Need help coming up with an impressive answer? We have you covered.
Your response will depend on your real-world experience. There’s no universally correct answer. That said, you can use the following examples for inspiration. Use them as a guide to shape your answer, check off all the boxes, and form a response that sticks.
In our first sample answer, the applicant talks about a common workplace mistake. They discuss failing to meet a tight deadline they set for themselves. It’s a great example because it’s something most interviewers can relate to on some level.
The applicant talks about the details of the failure and what it taught them. They then provide an example of how it led to improvements.
“I had a tendency to place unrealistic deadlines on myself and my team. I managed a project for one of our most profitable clients. It was my first time leading the project, so I was eager to please.
When asked about deliverables and deadlines, I stated that we could finish everything in four weeks. Initially, I thought that was manageable. I pushed the team to improve productivity. However, I was sorely mistaken, and the project took six weeks to complete.
The client was not happy, and I quickly realized I should have been more conservative with the deadline. The client wouldn’t have been so disappointed had I been upfront and provided a more realistic timeframe.
Moving forward, I allotted more time to get things done. The next project I managed was similar, but I gave a timeline of eight weeks rather than four. The team completed the project in only five weeks, ultimately impressing the client with our early delivery.”
In our next example, the job applicant discusses failing to take the necessary steps to ensure accuracy. They went through an experience where they skipped critical testing steps that created more headaches in the future. The response tells a captivating story while explaining what they learned.
“Several years ago, I took on a project with a relatively tight deadline. To get the work done as soon as possible, I decided to skip the testing process for a few code changes in the client’s system. Initially, I thought that the risk of issues was minimal.
Instead of testing after every step, I waited to apply the changes until the code was finished. As a result, many problems came up, and I had to roll everything back.
I missed my deadline and had to change the delivery window. The client wasn’t happy with the extra time I needed.
While I did finish the project, it took much longer than it should have. Had I taken those steps to test changes at every stage, I wouldn’t have had to go back to the drawing board to make changes. Since then, I’ve never skipped testing, allowing ample time to get things done right the first time.”
For our final sample answer, the applicant talks about a situation where they didn’t trust their instincts and took a risk. The risk didn’t pay off, and they learned a valuable lesson that prevented them from doing something similar in the future.
“When I first took on a managerial position at my last job, I had the opportunity to interview and hire entry-level employees for a newly formed team. I was excited about that responsibility. However, I hired someone despite everything telling me I shouldn’t.
They had several “red flags” and didn’t have the necessary experience. But I took a chance on them due to their sheer enthusiasm. It was a mistake, and the new hire had a poor attitude that dragged the entire team down.
The CEO had to fire them, and it took a while to regain hiring trust. I learned the importance of trusting my gut and going to others for guidance if I’m unsure. The experience also shaped how I approached hiring new employees in the future.
I’m much more careful about who I bring into the team. I’ve since hired about ten people, and they’ve all been great additions. This ensured I never made the same mistake again.”
Now that you know how to answer “Tell me about a time you failed” it’s time to start preparing. Like any interview question, it’s crucial to practice and think about how you’ll respond before you step in the room.
This question doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, your answer could be what sets you apart from other candidates!
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.