By Mike Simpson
Tell me about a time you failed; it’s one of the scariest interview questions around. After all, no one likes to talk about times they made mistakes or where things went wrong. It just isn’t a good time.
The thing is, that doesn’t mean you can avoid it. “Tell me about a time you failed” is a job interview staple, so you need to be ready for it.
But how do you prepare for such a tricky question? By having a great strategy. If you want to make sure you’re ready, come with us as we explore how to answer “tell me about a time you failed” like a pro.
What Is Failure?
Before we dig into how to answer “Tell me about a time you failed,” let’s talk about what “failed” means in this context.
According to Merriam-Webster, “failure” can simply mean a “lack of success.”
Why does that matter? Because the outcome doesn’t have to be catastrophic to qualify, which is actually good news for candidates.
Usually, when job seekers reflect on their failures, they focus on the biggest examples. However, something smaller could still fit the bill for the question, allowing you to steer clear of discussing situations that may genuinely hurt your chances of getting a job.
What kind of failures are your best options? Well, that depends. Hiring managers are going to want to hear about a real situation that had a genuine impact. Remember, something isn’t a failure unless there was a lack of success, so a misstep with no consequences doesn’t count.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to be strategic about what you choose. Ideally, you need an example that had consequences, but you were able to overcome the fallout. That way, you can highlight your resilience instead of just the mistake.
However, discussing the right kind of example isn’t the only important part of answering this question. You also need to be able to articulate your failures like a pro. Being able to remain calm, fact-oriented, and honest are all crucial to the broader equation. So is staying concise without being vague.
If you can do that, you can craft an excellent answer to the question, increasing the odds that you’ll impress the hiring manager.
Why Does the Hiring Manager Ask This Question?
So, why on earth would a hiring manager ask, “Tell me about a time you failed”? In most cases, their goal isn’t to learn about the misstep. Instead, they want to see how you deal with poor outcomes, as well as what you do after a failure to recover.
Plus, they want to see if you’re honest, accountable, and self-aware. Being able to own up to your mistakes is a big deal. If you can do that well, the odds are better that you learn from the poor outcomes, making them less likely to happen again in the future.
Ultimately, while this question asks about failures, it really isn’t about the incident itself. Instead, it’s about how you manage adversity, as well as whether you recognize the part you played and are willing to own it and found a way to move forward.
Just remember, this is just one question the hiring manager could ask you in your interview! That’s why we created an amazing free cheat sheet that will give you word-for-word answers for some of the toughest interview questions you are going to face in your upcoming interview.
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Common Mistakes When Answering This Question
Before we dig into how to answer this interview question, let’s take a second to discuss common mistakes people make when responding to this prompt.
First, claiming you’ve never failed is a big no-no. If you do that, the hiring manager is going to question your mentality and self-awareness. And considering that 89 percent of new hires that fail in a position within their first 18 months because of a poor attitude, bad temperament, or similar issues, there’s a good chance you’ll miss out on the job.
Second, mistakes that cost companies a ton of money aren’t ideal. While it’s okay if there is some cost, you don’t want it to be budget-derailing. If it is, the hiring manager isn’t going to feel confident about hiring you.
Third, skip failures that involved compliance or legal issues. If a hiring manager hears that your mistake caused a regulatory body, attorney’s office, or similar organization to descend upon a workplace, they won’t be too keen about bringing you on board.
Similarly, anything where the failure was incredibly high profile isn’t a great example. So, if the fallout was substantial, harming the company’s reputation, choose something else.
MIKE'S TIP: While it may seem like discussing a simple, correctable error like it was a failure is smart, it isn’t. The hiring manager may see it as an attempt to dodge the question or as a kind of manipulation. Instead, you’re always better off using a real failure, ensuring you address the question properly and come across as self-aware and accountable.
Tips for Answering This Question
Coming up with a great answer doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are three tips that can help you head in the right direction.
1. Take Ownership of Your Part
In some cases, candidates try to mitigate the damage by using “we” instead of “I” in their answers. While it’s fine to mention if a team was involved, make sure to take ownership of your part of the equation by saying “I” when appropriate. That way, it doesn’t look like you’re hiding your role in the situation behind other people, making your answer more genuine.
2. Quantify the Details
Quantifying the details makes your answer feel more real. You’re giving the hiring manager context they don’t have otherwise, adding depth to your response. Plus, you can use the numbers to show that the failure did have an impact, ensuring you are sharing an example that works for the question.
3. Focus on How You Moved Forward
While you do need to outline what went wrong, spend a decent amount of time talking about what went right after the failure. Talk about how you recovered or made an effort to learn from the incident to make sure it was never repeated. That way, the hiring manager can see your growth, making it less likely that they’ll worry about you repeating the mistake down the line.
How to Answer the Interview Question “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”
Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for: a look at how to answer the interview question “Tell me about a time you failed.”
So, how do you tackle it? By first recognizing that this is a behavioral interview question.
The hiring manager wants to hear the story behind what happened, as well as the outcome. Since that’s what you need to do, using the STAR Method is a must, ensuring your answer isn’t just a humdrum list of facts but a compelling narrative.
However, you don’t want to stop there. The Tailoring Method is an important part of the equation. That way, you can pick an example that’s appropriate based on the situation, ensuring you are taking the hiring manager’s needs into account.
Want to see how you bring a fantastic answer together? Great! Here’s a step-by-step guide and some example responses that can help.
Putting your answer together one piece at a time is often the easiest approach to use. Here’s a step-by-step guide for answering “Tell me about a time you failed.”
1. Identify the Failure You Want to Discuss
First, reflect on your career to identify an appropriate failure to include in your answer. Ideally, it needs to be significant enough that there were consequences, but not catastrophic.
2. Define Why It’s a Failure (Optional)
In some cases, it pays off to take a second and define failure in the context of the situation. By letting the hiring manager know why you viewed an incident as a failure, you can give them context before sharing the details.
2. Summarize What Happened Concisely
When you’re answering this question, you want to keep your answer focused. Summarize the entire event in just a handful of sentences, give or take, covering what the situation was, what unfolded, and the outcome efficiently.
3. Talk About the Positives
After you outline the event, pivot toward something more positive. Talk about how you worked to recover or the lessons learned along the way. That way, you can end on a high note.
When push comes to shove, it’s hard to beat a good example. Here are three sample responses to “Tell me about a time you failed,” each focused on a slightly different target.
1. Missed Deadline
“In my first position, I was still getting a feel for my workload. When I was given my first major solo project, I quoted the client a completion deadline of just four weeks.
While it was true that it would take three weeks of work, that was based on me handling no other tasks during my workday. I neglected to factor in the time I needed for the rest of my responsibilities, and the project was two weeks late.
The client wasn’t thrilled about the delay. This harmed the company’s reputation, as well as made the client reluctant initially to use us for future needs.
I took full responsibility for the missed deadline, and the incident was ultimately a powerful lesson for me. I learned to better assess my full workload, allowing me to set reasonable deadlines moving forward. Since that project, I’ve remained on target consistently. Additionally, I was able to work with that client again, finishing that project not just on time, but a few days early.”
2. Poor Delegation
“As a manager, I believe that letting down my team is a major failure. When I was initially promoted into a management role, I struggled with setting aside my individual contributor hat. I tried to take control of everything instead of trusting my team to do what they do well.
The lack of delegation was harmful to the team dynamic and made them feel undervalued. As a result, I lost an incredibly skilled employee, as they sought had out an opportunity elsewhere.
When they handed in their notice, I asked if they would let me know why they were leaving. Luckily, there were very honest, telling me that their engagement had fallen since I stopped handing out meaningful work and that they believed I didn’t trust them.
That moment served as a wake-up call and, while I wasn’t able to get that employee to stay, it made me focus more on engagement and trust. In the end, that made me a better manager, ensuring I kept the right priorities to support my team.”
3. Skipping Steps
“A few years ago, I was given a project with an incredibly tight deadline. I had to make several changes to the client’s system within just a couple of hours, which left me feeling a bit frantic.
As I worked, I decided to forgo tests between each major change in an attempt to make the process go faster. I believed that the risk was minimal, as I had made similar changes to other client systems in the past.
However, when I applied the changes, it was clear that something was wrong. Since I didn’t test between each step, I had no way of knowing when the problem arose. As a result, I had to roll everything back and schedule a new time window to attempt the changes again, which wasn’t ideal for the client.(Video) “Tell Me About A Time When You Failed” (The BEST ANSWER to this Behavioural Interview Question!)
Ultimately, this was a critical lesson. Since then, I always follow testing best practices even if I’m pressed for time. That way, issues are identified at the right moment, increasing the odds that they can be corrected and the project can finish on time.”
Putting It All Together
Ultimately, you should now have a pretty solid idea of how to answer “Tell me about a time you failed” during your next interview. Use the tips and examples above to your advantage. That way, you’ll be ready with a winning answer the next time you meet with a hiring manager.
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Mike Simpson( Co-Founder and CEO )
Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com.
His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others.
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What is a good example of a time you failed? ›
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.How do you answer Describe a time you failed to meet a deadline? ›
The best approach to answering this question:
Your best approach is to talk about a specific situation where you missed a deadline due to unforeseen or unplanned circumstances, yet take personal responsibility for the shortcoming and talk about what you are doing to keep it from happening again in the future.
It all went wrong when I [describe the action you took] which I tried to solve by [add an action]. I had solved a similar problem in the past in this way, but this time I forgot to [insert the action that would have made a difference]. As a result, I did not meet the deadline.What is an example of failure at work? ›
Failing an assignment. Not getting a job. Not getting into a club or making a team. Losing a customer.What is your biggest failure interview best answer? ›
Spend more time explaining what you have learned about yourself than the experience: Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, identify the reasons behind the incident and emphasise what you have learned and what you now do differently. Explain the actions you took to ensure that you wouldn't achieve the same mistake.What was your biggest failure interview answer? ›
How to answer “What is your biggest failure?” Pick a real failure that happened in the workplace, specifically a failure related to the work you're doing now. Look for a story where something didn't go as planned. Choosing the right story is important, as you want to explain a situation where only one thing went wrong.How do you answer Tell me about a time you failed or made a mistake? ›
- Briefly explain what the mistake was, but don't dwell on it.
- Quickly switch over to what you learned or how you improved, after making that mistake.
I was responsible for interacting with big clients and understanding the requirements. Being a fresher, I did not pay much attention to the details of the project. Instead, I focused only on my ethics and discipline. My poor listening skills led me to lose one of the most significant projects of the organization.Why do interviewers ask about a time you failed? ›
In most cases, interviewers who ask about failure are not trying to trip you up or make you feel bad. Instead, they're usually trying to get to know you better and understand how you handle adversity. After all, everyone makes mistakes; it's how we learn and grow professionally from them that counts.What has been you biggest failure? ›
I split the work according to my deadline. When just 2 days were left, I shut down the system without saving my work. I quickly realized the mistake and restarted the work just to finish it in time. Most of the lost data was recovered and I managed to complete the task successfully with a few mistakes.
Can you give me an example of an experience of failure? ›
Example Answers to “Tell Me a Time When You Failed”
“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.
Albert Einstein had the label "mentally slow" put on his permanent school record. Henry Ford's first two automobile companies failed. Oprah Winfrey was fired from an early job as a television news anchor. Jerry Seinfeld was booed off stage in his first stand-up comedy appearance.What are the 3 types of failure? ›
- Preventable failure: a failure caused by deviating from a known process. ...
- Complex failure: a failure caused by a system breakdown. ...
- Intelligent failure: a failure caused by an unsuccessful trial.
"To me, failure means to have a goal and not do anything about it." "I think failure is not reaching your potential. If you do not use the resources you have and the resources around you, that's failure because the work or goal could have been done better."
- Failures are pilliars of success. If I shall fail I will be relaxed and donot take tension because one can pass by being failure. ...
- If I will keep myself struggling I will be a successful person and never see behind what is wrong with me in past. ...
- I will succeed when I know what is failure and what success.
Don't make excuses.
If you did not get good grades in school, you'll want to explain why. But try to stay away from making excuses or blaming others for your grades (like a bad professor, for instance). Hiring managers won't respond well to someone who can't take responsibility.
- Arianna Huffington got rejected by 36 publishers. ...
- Bill Gates watched his first company crumble. ...
- George Steinbrenner bankrupted a team. ...
- 4. Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity. ...
- Steve Jobs was booted from his own company.
The most common phrasing of this question is the simple, “Tell me about a time you failed” or “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.” There are some other variations on this theme as well: What's your greatest professional failure? Tell me about a mistake that you made.What are common failures? ›
Examples of failures
Receiving poor or failing test grades. Not getting accepted into a degree or certification program. Interviewing for a position but not securing a job offer. Getting a bad performance review. Missing a deadline.
In materials science, fatigue – the weakening of a material caused by cyclic loading resulting in progressive, brittle, localized structural damage – is the most common failure mode and the one that generally produces other types of failure.
What can be considered a failure? ›
Failure is defined as a lack of success or the inability to meet an expectation. The problem is that we can read too much into failure. Too often, we tie it to our sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and self-acceptance. The expectation we fail to meet is often our own, or one that we've created in our own head.