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You’re sitting in an interview, giving eloquent answers to every question that comes your way. The interviewer is smiling and leaning forward—the job is practically yours.
Then comes a question you didn’t expect: “Tell me about a time you failed.”
Candidates often struggle with this type of behavioral question. Not only can these questions catch people off guard, but they’re also very challenging to answer effectively.
- After all, you’re trying to make a great impression on your potential employer. It feels uncomfortable to share a story about a time your performance was less than impressive.
Fortunately, there’s a way to honestly describe a time you failed and impress the interviewer.
Read on for tips and examples that will help you deliver a stellar answer and land the job.
Why Do Interviewers Ask This Question?
First, it’s helpful to understand why employers want to hear about a time you failed.
It’s not because they want to expose your flaws or find a reason to reject you.
In fact, when you’re called in for an interview, the interviewer is hoping that you’re just the right fit for the open position.
So, why do they ask this question? Your answer reveals a few different aspects of your character, such as:
- Whether you’re honest and self-aware enough to admit failure and take responsibility
- If you have the capacity to bounce back and learn from failure
- How well you can handle criticism and feedback
- How well you “think on your feet”
All employees are bound to fail sometimes.
But your answer to this question shows how well you handle failure—and whether you’re able to use the lessons learned to achieve success in the future.
How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”
Let’s walk through a few steps that will help you answer the dreaded question, “Tell me about a time you failed.”
In any given interview, you may or may not be asked about failure. But you should always have an answer prepared just in case.
Otherwise, the question is sure to catch you off guard and lead to an awkwardly long pause, embarrassing rambling, or an answer that isn’t your best.
Brainstorm a few times you failed or made mistakes at previous jobs or internships.
- Choose a real, honest failure to talk about.
However, do not pick a failure that was a catastrophic disaster.
- If, for example, you made a million-dollar mistake or singlehandedly destroyed a major event, it’s best to keep that story to yourself.
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Pinpoint Why You Failed
Interviewers want to see that you’re reflective and able to analyze and learn from your mistakes.
Instead of simply saying that you upset a valuable client, consider why the client was upset.
- What did you do that led to the problem or misunderstanding?
- Perhaps you made a promise you couldn’t keep or rushed to meet a deadline and delivered low-quality work.
The more you can demonstrate that you take the time to think about your mistakes and figure out what went wrong, the better.
Reflect on What You Learned
Once you’ve pinpointed what went wrong, you can reflect on what you learned from the experience.
- For instance, let’s say you wanted to please the client and promised you could deliver an important project by the end of the week.
This ended up being impossible, and the client was disappointed.
- What did you learn from this experience?
You learned that well-meaning, yet empty promises aren’t the way to impress a client.
- It’s always better to give a conservative estimate and make a promise you can keep.
That way, you’re sure to complete the job on time. And if you finish ahead of schedule, even better!
Share How You’ve Improved
Conclude your answer with an anecdote demonstrating how you’ve applied the lesson you learned.
- If you haven’t had a chance to apply the lesson yet, explain the steps you’ve taken to ensure you don’t make the same mistake again in the future.
Following the example above, you could explain that soon after this incident, you told a client that a project would take three weeks, and you ended up completing it in two and a half.
- Seeing how happy the client was with this result reaffirmed your newfound lesson: Under-promise and over-deliver.
To summarize, your answer should follow this format:
- Briefly describe the mistake/failure
- Pinpoint what went wrong
- Explain what you learned from the experience
- Detail how you’ve improved or how you’re working toward improvement in this area
Sample Answers to “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”
Let’s put our four-step process into practice and look at two top-notch answers to the question, “Tell me about a time you failed.”
“I was giving final approval on a catalog that my company was printing. I was working on several other projects at the time and was in a rush. Plus, the catalog had been reviewed by several people already, so I wasn’t expecting any major errors. I ended up approving the catalog, but after it was sent to the printer and we printed several thousand copies, my boss noticed a pretty significant error.
I learned that rushing through a project isn’t helpful. In the long run, it can end up costing more time and money. It’s important to give every project my full attention and take my time. If I have the responsibility of approving something, I can’t just assume that it’s already been done correctly. Since then, I consciously remind myself to slow down. I’ve also worked on being more organized so that I’m not doing too many things at once. I make a daily checklist and prioritize my most important tasks for the day. My boss remarked recently that he was very upset with me when I made that mistake, but since then, my attention to detail has been superb and I’m one of his most conscientious employees.”
Analysis of Answer A:
This answer follows the principles we described above.
- The candidate describes his mistake (approving the catalog despite a significant error), pinpoints why he failed (he was rushing and assumed there were no major errors), reflects on what he learned (slow down; be more organized), and shares how he’s improved (pays attention to detail and consciously takes his time).
In addition, notice that the description of the mistake is much shorter than the rest of the answer.
You’ll need to briefly describe your failure, but your focus should be on what you learned and how you’ve improved since then.
The interviewer doesn’t want to listen to a long story about how badly you messed up; he or she wants to learn how you reflect and grow from your mistakes.
“At a previous job, I was responsible for supervising the creative team. We had one employee who was often late—to work and on deadlines. It never caused any major problems, and she contributed some of the best ideas and projects on the entire team, so I didn’t address it at first. I think she took that to mean I didn’t care or didn’t notice, and she started really dropping the ball on important projects. We ended up losing one of our most important clients based on some of her actions, and the boss let her go.
If I had intervened sooner, we could have gotten her tardiness under control and continued to benefit from her ideas. We also could have avoided losing one our biggest clients. The experience taught me to have uncomfortable conversations with employees as soon as an issue comes up. You can’t just ignore issues and expect them to get better. When the employee feels that their poor behavior goes unnoticed, the behavior often becomes worse. The next person that we hired would spend too much time walking around the office talking to coworkers. We had a respectful and positive conversation about it, and the problem stopped. He’s still one of the most successful and productive employees there.”
Analysis of Answer B:
Again, Candidate B described her mistake (not addressing an issue with an employee), explained why it happened (she felt it wasn’t a major problem and the employee was contributing), outlined the lesson learned (have uncomfortable conversations as soon as they become necessary), and shared how she’s improved since then (had a productive conversation with another employee about an emerging issue).
Both Answer A and Answer B show an ability to accept responsibility, reflect on what went wrong, and change future behavior as a result.
Additional Do’s and Don’ts
Here are some additional do’s and don’ts to remember as you prepare for this tricky question.
- Rehearse-Practice your response a few times to make sure you can answer the question smoothly during the interview, even if you get nervous.
- Ask for feedback– If you aren’t certain about your answer, run it by friends or family members and ask for honest feedback.
Does your answer focus on reflection and improvement? Is the failure too big to share, or is it interview-appropriate?
- Feel confident– You’ve followed the process described above and practiced your response, so you’re well-prepared. Take a few deep breaths, relax, and remind yourself that you’re ready to handle this question.
- Give a “fake” failure– Don’t say something like, “I was hoping my marketing campaign would lead to $100,000 in sales, and we only got $90,000.”
The interviewer wants you to be honest and demonstrate the ability to reflect on and grow from a real mistake.
- Make excuses- Although you will explain what went wrong, remember to focus on what went wrong on your Don’t blame coworkers, managers, or your clients.
You want to show that you know how to take responsibility, not pass the blame to others. And if you’re making excuses, you haven’t learned much.
- Write down your response. You want to sound like you’re prepared and giving a thoughtful answer, but you don’t want to sound like you’re reading a script.
A robotic, rehearsed response will come across as disingenuous. Write a few bullet points if you’d like, then practice answering the question aloud a few times. But no writing out your response in full!
Feedback from the Experts
We asked a few professionals at the top of their respective fields what they think about answering this interview qustion.
Please use the advice they have to offer. Enjoy!
According to Salina Hoque, director of human resources and community engagement at Sweet Briar College:
The heart of this type of behavioral question is to gauge how a potential employee can overcome adversity. Interviewers don’t ask this question to place the potential employee in an uncomfortable position, it is because potential employers want to see how you handle setbacks — so get to the part where you’re dealing with the failure as quickly as possible.
To answer this question, start with the situation, and explain why it was challenging. Then go into what you specifically did to try and rectify it. By the end of your response, relay the outcome of your story, and then get to the good stuff.
You want to wrap up with your lessons learned. When approaching this question, talk about why you think things went badly, maybe what you would have done in hindsight, and, of course, what you’ll be doing going forward.
Steve Pritchard, HR Consultant for Ben Sherman:
Before the interview, make sure you practice this question; the more you stumble upon your answer when the question comes around, the less genuine you seem and the more likely you are to waffle or say the wrong thing, which makes your failure appear worse and untrustworthy.
Talking about your past failures to an employer who you want to impress is tough, but the key ingredient to answering this question is to make sure you own it. Your failure is a part of your work experience, one which you learnt from. So, tell the interviewer about your failure honestly, but ensure you make it clear that this failure was a learning experience and has driven you to improve your work ethic.
Also, ensure you detail the steps you made to improve and work on your failure; employers want to know you won’t make the same mistake again.
Laurie Richards, CEO of LR&A:
You want to craft an answer that demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility and how this mistake has made you a better candidate or employee.
To do that, here’s a three-step process:
1. Acknowledge the truth using a superlative (biggest, hardest, first, last, most, least, etc.). “The biggest mistake I made with a client was approving a change in a plan without the client’s written approval.” The superlative focuses the listener on this one mistake and discourages them from asking for more. If you say, “One mistake was…,” you’ll likely get, “What was another…”
2. Identify a piece of good news. “The good news is that the change was something the client needed — but I didn’t have it in writing, and that was not good.” You’re going to have to look hard from some good news, but find it. The good news may be that the client is happy with the end product or that the problem is fixed.
3. Tell them what you learned and how you’ll ensure it will never happen again.. “What I learned is that it’s imperative to have the client’s approval prior to any additional expenditures. In the future, I’ll put it in a quick email and follow up with phone calls and texts until I get approval. I don’t ever want to face that type client and management wrath again.”
The third step is the most important. No one believes the person who says “It will never happen again.” They want to know specifically what you’ll do to prevent it from happening again.
Tony Ellison, CEO of Shoplet.com:
Answering the question, “Tell me about a time you failed” should not be something feared when at an interview. Rather, try to see it as a chance for you to demonstrate a way in which you faced a difficult situation and were able to correct the problem.
Approaching the answer to this question with a growth mindset will give your prospective employer a taste of how you handle problems. It also gives insight into your character.
Most employees seek employers who are motivated, optimistic and aren’t afraid to take calculated risks. If you play the “I’ve never made a mistake” card, you’re missing an important opportunity for your employer to see how you persevere in times of stress.
From BJ Enoch, the vice president of enterprise accounts for SocialSEO:
When I ask someone to tell me about a time they failed, I’m not overly concerned about what the actual failure was or what it was related to.
I’m much more interested in how you handled the failure in the moment and repercussions of that failure. I want to hear if you take full responsibility, if you try to shift responsibility from yourself, and how seriously you take the situation.
Even more important to me is understanding what you learned from that failure and what steps you took to avoid that particular incident in the future.
Someone looking to score a “perfect 10” on that question would tell me “this is what I failed at,” “this was the situation,” “here’s how I handled it in the moment,” “here’s how I mitigated any potential long-term issues from it,” “this is what I learned from that failure,” and “this is how I used what I learned from that failure.”
Rich Franklin, founder of KBC Staffing:
When approaching this question, you must remember that your interviewer knows that everyone, including themselves, has failed at one point in their life. For that reason, your answer should acknowledge this reality and provide a legitimate failure, preferably from your time in the workplace.
Once you have explained what happened, identify why you failed (the mistakes you made), what you could have done differently to have produced a better outcome (the specific alternate behaviors) and the lessons you learned for the future (the general alternate behaviors).
By structuring your answer in this manner, you demonstrate the critical skill that most interviewers are looking for – insight. People who have insight into their own behavior tend to be the most valuable employees as they are capable of adjusting, learning and growing on the job.
Final Thoughts: How to Answer the “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” Job Interview Question
Even the most challenging job interview questions can help you win the job if you’re well-prepared.
“Tell me about a time you failed,” doesn’t have to ruin your chances of success. A great answer should include:
- A brief description of the failure/mistake
- A reflective summary of what went wrong
- An explanation of the lesson(s) learned as a result
- Information about how you’ve improved moving forward
By focusing on the last three steps, you’ll demonstrate that you take responsibility for your actions, learn from your failures, and make a conscious effort to avoid making the same mistake twice.
Now that sounds like an employee any interviewer would like to hire!