Answering the interview question ‘tell me about a time you failed’

Jan. 5, 2021

Interviewers use behavioral questions like “Tell me about a time you failed” to find out more about how a potential employee reacts to a negative situation. Your answers to this kind of question can unveil a lot about your character, ability, and willingness to learn.

Answering the interview question ‘tell me about a time you failed’

Having an interviewer to ask you to talk through a negative experience can be daunting for most applicants. This entails describing a personal flaw or mistake without setting your interviewers off hiring you.

At MentorCruise, many mentors agree that by thinking through an instance of a past failure, you can transform a negative experience into a compelling story to impress your interviewer with your capability to grow and adapt humbly and honestly.

This article will describe the ideal approach to questions like this and show you how you can prepare the perfect response.

You’ll learn:

  • What an interviewer wants from you when they ask ‘tell me about a time you failed.’
  • How to choose a failure
  • How to prepare your answer
  • STAR method sample answers
  • Mistakes to avoid when answering ‘Tell me about a time you failed.’
  • Tips for answering these kinds of behavioral interview questions

What an interviewer wants when they ask ‘tell me about a time you failed’

Hiring managers or recruiters ask questions like “Tell me about the time you failed” to show how you react to failure:

  • By addressing this question with honesty and openness, you can show your employer that you are not scared to stand up to your failures or past mistakes. Staying accountable for your own choices and behavior exhibits a maturity that is an excellent trait within the workplace.
  • You will further reveal a lot regarding how self-aware you are. If your initial reaction is to deny ever making any errors, you’ll show a lack of awareness. And this can reveal red flags for your interviewer.
  • Whether a candidate remains calm when challenged with a tough question equally tells the interviewer how they answer under pressure.
  • Your case and explanation will further show much about your former job performance. Your interviewer will assume how you are ready to take risks, how positive you are, and how you regard your weaknesses through your answer.
  • Your interviewers will also discern how you regard failure.

To better demonstrate what employees want when they ask this kind of behavioral question, we put together the following feedback from experts at the top of their fields to see what they want from interview questions like this.

Feedback from experts regarding questions like this and the secret to answering

Expert #1, Director of HR and community engagement at Sweet Briar College, Salina Hoque

This behavioral question aims to assess how a potential employee can surmount difficulties.

Employers don’t ask this question to place the candidate in an embarrassing situation. They want to get an idea of how well a potential employee can handle setbacks.

To answer this question:

  • Begin with the circumstances, and tell why it was challenging.
  • Move into what you mainly did to solve it.
  • At the end of your answer, communicate your story’s outcome and then get to the great stuff. You want to show the lessons you learned.

When addressing this question, explain why you think things went wrong. Was there something you needed to have done? What will you be doing in the future?

Expert #2, Steve Pritchard, HR Consultant for Ben Sherman

According to Steve Pritchard, the Human Resource Consultant for Ben Sherman, you need to practice this question before going to the interview.

The more you blunder upon your response when this question comes up, the less authentic you seem. And the more likely you are to say the wrong things or waffle. Waffling makes your failure seem untrustworthy.

Discussing your past failures to an interviewer you aspire to impress is challenging. The secret to answering this question is to make sure you own it. Your failure shows a bit of your work experience, of course, namely the one you learned from. So, honestly narrate your failure to your interviewer. Just make sure you demonstrate that this failure was a learning experience and has pushed you to enhance your work ethic.

Also, make sure you outline the steps you took to improve and work on your failure. Your employers desire to know that you won’t make such a mistake again.

Expert #3, CEO of LR&A, Laurie Richards

You want to respond in a way that expresses a willingness to take responsibility. And you need to show how this failure has made you a better employee or applicant.

To do so, follow this process.

1. Accept the failure using a superlative (first, biggest, last, least, and so on…). For example, “The greatest mistake I’ve ever made with a client was to approve a change in a project without waiting for the client’s written approval.” The superlative directs the interviewer on this singular mistake and emphasizes how it’s a one-off thing. If you say something like, “One mistake was…,” you’ll possibly get something like, “What was another…”

  1. Recognize a bit of good news. You want to look for a piece of good news in the failure. It’ll be challenging, but try to find it. “The great news was the fact that the change was something the client needed — but I didn’t put it down in writing, and that wasn’t good.” The good news may also be that the client is satisfied with the outcome or that the problem got fixed.

3. Describe the lesson you learned and how you guarantee it will never happen again.

Here’s a sample answer: “I learned that it’s compelling to have the client’s approval before any added expenses. In the future, I’ll draft it in a quick email and follow up with texts and phone calls until I get approval. I wouldn’t ever want to encounter that type of client and management wrath ever again.”

This step is the most essential. Nobody believes the person who declares, “It will not happen again.” They want to know the actions you have done to stop the mistake from happening again.

Before you barrel headlong into responding to this kind of question, you must think about the answer you’ll give and how that comes across. Pick your real failure carefully or run the risk of presenting yourself as irresponsible, risky, or flaky.

How to Choose a Failure

Your recruiter doesn’t need to learn about the time you unwittingly hurt a top client, resulting in them shifting their custom and losing your firm a lot of money in the process. So,

  • Cling to more trivial failures that wouldn’t paint you in a calamitous negative light.
  • Don’t forget that you are striving to get employed, and your response needs to present you as a flexible and responsible employee, not a burden.
  • Make sure to choose a failure that relates to the post you’re applying for. To do so, identify a skill or quality you’ll need for your job target and think of an experience when you made a mistake in this field.
  • Pick an example where you learned from the mistake and proceeded to improve. Present this in a way that paints you as being self-aware and prepared to learn continuously.
  • When considering the type of failure to explain, you can use your description of what failure means.
  • Your failure doesn’t need to be huge or had a notable impact on a past employer. Ultimately, you want to make sure your example of a failure is based on a live event. Do not make something up. Your recruiter is likely to see right through your lie. Everyone makes mistakes and admitting a real one will make your response more credible and relatable. A lie will never go down well.

Once you’ve successfully landed on that relevant past failure, you can then prepare your answer.

How to prepare your answer

Let’s move through a few steps that will assist you in answering the dreaded question, “Tell me about a time you failed.”

Reflect deeply on the answer

When picking a case of failure to discuss, think deeply about the failure’s consequence and whether it will raise your possibilities of winning the job. Some losses are better kept to ourselves. Choose a situation that highlights some of the essential qualities relevant to the job you are applying to.

Also, try to avoid examples that end in a skewed picture of the workplace or poor decision-making. Preferably, focus on stories that reveal you as a person who is self-aware, ready to take good counsel, and learn from mistakes.

Practice your answer

Despite your level of preparation, this question may still take you by surprise. But, you can lessen the possibilities of this happening with practice. A great way to practice interview questions and answers is by roleplay.

Tell a friend and or family member to act as your interviewer and practice your answer. Pay attention to how concise and timely your answers are during practice.

Ensure that your rehearsals imitate the conditions of the actual interview as much as possible. Practice will build your confidence and make it simpler to recollect your stories and key points during the real interview.

Ask co-workers for frank feedback

It’s often hard to objectively appraise yourself when you fail. One way to get an honest appraisal of your weaknesses and how it added to the failure is to ask your co-workers. So you want to encourage a colleague to give their frank feedback over the event.

Go to someone whose role was affected by your wrong decision. They will reasonably give you honest, uncorrupted inputs. The co-worker wouldn’t only help you see things from a subjective viewpoint. By talking with them, you’ll equally gain insights that may help you at the interview.

Once you land at an answer, you’ll need to structure it in a way that concisely tells your story. A powerful technique to employ when structuring a response to behavioral interview questions like this is the STAR technique.

STAR Technique and How to Use It

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.

Applying this structure helps you build an answer that incorporates all the key points without roaming or veering off-topic. The STAR technique makes practice easy and enables you to be clear regarding what you want to say.

Before using any examples for your interview, make sure that it’ll fit into the STAR format.

Below are some samples illustrations of how to give a comprehensive response to the question “Tell me about the time you failed,” utilizing the STAR technique:

‘Tell Me About a Time You Failed’ Sample Answers

Sample #1

Situation: While serving as a vice marketing account director at Netbox, a thriving digital marketing firm, a client asked us about our services.

Task: “I was being prepared to take on more obligations. My manager advised that I take the occasion to talk with the client about what they were searching for and how we could be of help.”

Action: “I was a bit nervous about this and didn’t feel very ready. To plan for the conversation, I glanced over the services we offered to be clear on which would be appropriate for the potential new client.

“When I was holding the discovery call with our lead, they summoned me to a puzzle about monitoring Key Performance Indicators, and it got me off guard.

“I gave the most helpful answer I could, but, then, the lead reached our firm again and expressed dissatisfaction. Saying we were no longer proactive regarding monitoring and reporting on the figures. We recognized that I had provided minimal information and had distorted how our company addresses this area.

“After speaking it through with my manager, we discerned that I hadn’t identified which questions a lead might ask me and consequently, had failed to prepare appropriately, resulting in me transmitting incomplete information.”

Result: “To address the situation, I participated in a training session with my manager, comprising a roleplay with him acting to be the lead and asking all the issues that usually get asked. I practiced my answers and built up my confidence.

“We further resolved that if I do not know the answer to a question, I can apologize to the client while offering to investigate and get back to them.

“I later called the potential client, apologized for the mix-up, and explained precisely how we track and report on KPIs for our clients. They were content with this information and showed gratitude for the time I took to explain. They came back to book our services. After then, I have taken the lead with two other prospects who have both signed up as enterprise clients for yearly contracts valued at £35,000 and £50,000 .”

Sample #2

Situation: “I was managing my team in an advertising project at the last company I worked at.”

Task: “I was so anxious to awe our new client that I drafted a proposal that pledged to deliver the work below budget and in less time than they had stipulated.”

Approach: “The client was thrilled and gladly offered us the work. However, as the project went on, it became apparent that we couldn’t deliver it in the shorter period I had proposed.

“I had been overly confident and had over-engaged in my effort to impress, and my company had to offer a discounted rate to make up for the delay. I apologized to the client (and to my boss) and accepted my mistake.”

Result: “I acquired that it is much more helpful to be practical and honest from the starting, rather than to overpromise and underdeliver.

“I have never committed such a mistake again. Now I take the path of gaining conventional assurances and then being honest to clients when the work comes in faster or under budget.”

Mistakes to avoid when answering ‘Tell me about a time you failed.’

With inadequate preparation, it is easy to mess up and answer in a way that will paint you in a negative light. Take heeds to these common mistakes.

  • Don’t evade the question. Saying you’ve never failed can be interpreted by your interviewer in several ways. And be assured that none will present you as the most suitable candidate for the job.
  • Avoid examples with unfavorable outcomes or significant effects for your employers. This will probably illustrate a risky and reckless attitude to work.
  • Ensure that your response is concise. Do not present a redundant ramble about the lead up to the event if it’s not connected.
  • Do not blame others for your failure. Be answerable and take every responsibility for your operations.
  • Ensure that you do not appear to be committing the same mistakes repeatedly. Show how you’ve learned from your mistake and adjusted to guarantee that it doesn’t happen again.

Tips for answering these kinds of behavioral interview questions.

We put together a few other tips to help you provide the best workable answer to this tricky interview question:

  • Always have some sample answers in advance, which you can explain fully, which you learned from, and solved satisfactorily.
  • Rehearse your response as much as you can so you can present it confidently and conveniently in the real interview.
  • Be upfront concerning the mistake you choose to talk about.
  • Ask your co-workers for frank feedback on any errors you made.

Answering the behavioral question ‘tell me about a time you failed’ with MentorCruise.

If you want to tackle all behavioral interview questions, including this one, with ease and win yourself that dream job, then prepare properly.

The secret to all interview questions is proper preparations, and the best way to prepare is by working with an experienced interview coach.

At MentorCruise, a mentor with hiring experience will act as a technical interviewer and ask you some conventional hiring questions that you might hear in one of your future interviews.

Then you’ll receive actionable feedback on what to improve about your interview presence, knowledge, and other things that may be relevant to a future hiring decision.

Got an upcoming interview you need to nail? Book an interview preparation session in minutes.

What can mentorship do for you?

Our 'state of mentorship' report sums up the benefits, reports and effects that mentorship has on the modern working environment.

App screenshot