How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” in an Interview

The next time that you are asked to “tell me about a time you failed,” in an interview, here’s what you should know to prepare. Interviews are stressful, and you never know what curveballs the hiring manager or team is going to throw at you.

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The team will want to know about all of your successes, accolades, objective results, and what you can bring to the table. What can be challenging or unexpected is being ready to discuss a time that you failed candidly. It’s important to remember what’s behind their question — they don’t want someone who is perfect but someone who can learn from and overcome failure or disappointment.

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Remain Honest

Part of the success in any position is being able to hold yourself accountable and take responsibility. When an interviewer asks you to describe a time when you failed, they want to know that you will develop an action plan to improve instead of deflecting.
Don’t expect your phone to ring if you give answers such as “I never failed before” or “it was not my fault.” A seasoned interviewer can usually tell if you are humble, and the responses are genuine. Part of being honest in describing a time when you failed is acknowledgment. Even the most successful people in any organization have failed multiple times, and this could also show that you are a risk-taker.

Stay Short and Concise

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Less is more when it comes to giving the right answers to interview questions. A short story that is concise and doesn’t go off on many different tangents is excellent for explaining about a time that you failed. Get to the point, and keep your story to around 2-3 minutes. Describe the situation, the actions that you took to make a change, and the result that occurred. The best way to prepare is to expect this question and rehearse the story with friends until you have mastered it. But be careful because your response shouldn’t sound scripted. The interviewer should see your enthusiasm and confidence. Share a situation that was not catastrophic (your mistake cost the company thousands of dollars) but also not a real failure (you forgot to complete one of your daily reports). A brief and compelling message is what the interview team is expecting from you.

Reaction

Organizations need to keep the process moving. Hiring managers want to know how well and how quickly you respond to failure. Did you dwell on your loss for weeks and let your performance suffer, or did you take proactive steps to get back on track right away? Employers are looking for you to deliver tangible results, and staying stuck in the past will hold you back from success.

Growth

Perhaps an essential element to your answer is the growth process that occurred from this experience. What was your take-away? The experience should give you new skills that can be applied to similar situations in your future organization. The interviewer wants to know how you will work under pressure, meet tight deadlines, and own up to mistakes when they happen. Did you reflect on what happened, or did you merely sweep it under the rug? Employees that frequently make excuses are toxic for a successful organization and are a huge red flag during the interview process.

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It’s not easy to talk about our failures, especially related to work. Behavioral-based interview questions are not nerve-racking as long as you prepare in advance. Just remember to be yourself, and give the interviewer answers that best reflect your character and work ethic. Be sure to control the easy parts of the interview, such as dressing professionally and arriving on time. Relax, give it your best effort, and let the rest take care of itself!