Having an interviewer ask you to talk through a X-rated 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.
- 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 ‘tell me about a time you failed’ interview questions.
Hiring managers or recruiters ask questions like “Tell me about the time you failed” to discover the following about you:
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.
Your level of self-awareness
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.
How you react to pressure
Whether a candidate remains calm when challenged with a tough question equally tells the interviewer how they answer under pressure.
Your previous job performance
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.
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 with 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.
- Accept the failure using a superlative (first, biggest, last, least, and so on…).
“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…”
- 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.
- 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 talk about failure in an interview
When an interviewer asks about failures you have experienced, as they almost inevitably will, it’s a significant opportunity for you to put yourself ahead of other candidates.
What’s your attitude to failure? Does it embarrass you? Are you ashamed of the times you have failed to succeed? If your honest answer to these questions is “yes” then you must seek to remedy that prior to attending any job interviews.
But you shouldn’t take our word for it. Some of the most notable and successful people in all of history are those that embraced failure.
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” - Henry Ford
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” - Winston Churchill
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” - J.K. Rowling
One of America’s most revered icons, Abraham Lincoln, suffered a great many failures and setbacks throughout his life. And yet, he still managed to become one of the nation’s most celebrated leaders.
Failure is inevitable for all people. Showing an interviewer that you know this displays wisdom, honesty, and a great many other attributes that will endear you to them above other candidates applying for the same position.
If, like many people, you find that unbiased self-evaluation is difficult to obtain, you should seek out the opinions of people you trust to offer an honest appraisal of your attitudes to failure.
Although not always a comfortable process, outside parties will often raise issues or point out behaviour that you yourself were unaware of which can help you to learn and grow.
For those that naturally recoil from failure, the only way forward is to learn to accept it and embrace it.
“A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man, only one.” Julius Caesar Act II, sc 2.
Have you ever experienced unexpected failure in a past job or life experience?
Interviewers will sometimes use variations of the “Tell me about a time you failed” question, either in place or in addition to that standard question. It’s important to recognize the distinction because the additional qualifying clause is intended to guide your response in a specific direction.
In this example, the interviewer intends to elicit from you your observations, reflections, and understanding of how you responded to unanticipated failure. Everyone knows that failing a test sucks. But failing a test that you studied your ass off for and thought you’d aced is a whole other level of pain and anguish for most people.
How you respond to unexpected failure speaks a great deal to your character, your capability at self-introspection, and whether or not you typically act to overcome adversity or recoil from it.
Your response to this question needs to be honest and heartfelt. Don’t allow yourself to convey any feelings of despondency that might be invoked by recalling the event. You should remain upbeat and positive to demonstrate that failure is a prime driver of learning and personal development that you embrace as an opportunity to better yourself.
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, you need to make the following considerations when choosing a failure.
Prioritize a trivial failure
Cling to more trivial failures that wouldn’t paint you in a calamitous negative light. Your failure doesn’t need to be huge or have a notable impact on a past employer. 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.
Choose a failure that relates to the post you are applying for
You wouldn’t impress an interviewer by bringing a mistake you made in a catering class for a computer engineering job application. 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.
Describe what failure means to you
When considering the type of failure to explain, you can use your description of what failure means. Your description should align with your chosen story to avoid sounding cliché. These interviewers must have heard a lot of failure stories, so you sure do not want your story to sound like another-of-those. It should sound unique and authentic.
For example, if you are dealing with a situation where you failed to deliver on a project because you didn’t access the requirements properly. Your description of failure should sound like:
_”I believe failure is not just about meeting a goal, but meeting the goal within the expected time it should take”. _
Choose a real-life story
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.”
Prepare your mind to give the right answer
No matter how well you prepare your answer, scaling through this interview question will be impossible if you do not first envision being successful in answering the failure question.
80% of the time, candidates with good answers still fail because of poor mental preparation. If you are going to be successful discussing a failure, you shouldn’t give room for doubts or the possible thoughts of the interviewers not liking your answer.
Have a healthy mental practice as you prepare for your interview date. Hold talking sessions with yourself. Even though your goal is to impress your interviewer, do not be obsessed with it. Your focus should be on choosing the best answer and believing the best outcome.
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 possibility 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.
Draft a compelling story
The truth is, interviewers would always be impressed by a captivating story with all the good and not-so-good stuff in it. To stand out, you need to understand the difference between showing your story and saying it.
The difference mostly boils down to emphasis, clarity and content.
- While one candidate is saying: “I worked as a research assistant and failed at a project management role. I missed some information about the product of the company and it affected them negatively. I later learned my lessons and got the right training.”
- Another candidate is saying: “I was assigned to help a small business complete a market research for a new product. I missed out some vital information about the product. The experience taught me to pay more attention to details. Afterward, I completed two different projects for the company successfully. I got promoted the following year.”
The latter not only sounds better but also can impress the interviewer. Make sure your story does not just emphasize how you managed the situation, but clearly shows your wins afterward.
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 they 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
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 .”
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.”
Action: “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.”
Situation: “A few years ago, I worked as a digital marketer for an e-commerce company.”
Task: “My manager delegated a task to me. The task involved analyzing market data for one of our company’s campaigns and giving possible ideas to increase leads.”
Action: “I was not so attentive to the task because I had a busy day. I ended up missing out on some information and delivered the wrong analysis to our campaign manager.”
Result: “My manager later confronted me about the mistake, so I apologized and went through the records again and gave a better analysis. The marketing team implemented the new sales strategy and we got a 60% boost in product sales.”
“I also got to learn some mental tips for managing my attention whenever I am working.”
Situation: “I got a job as a project assistant for a social development project.”
Task: “I was assigned with recruiting interns interested in working with us on the project.”
Action: “During the recruitment process, I noticed that most of my team members were using low standard criteria to recruit lower-level interns. I felt so timid to point it out as I was not so sure if my opinion would be accepted. After a few days, the interns performed badly and slowed down the project.”
Result: “I have learned to communicate confidently and contribute better to teamwork. I have worked with several teams afterward and I consistently communicate my views.”
Situation: “I worked as a software engineer in a mobile manufacturing company.“
Task: “I was assigned to organize a one-month orientation for some of the new employees on my team.”
Action: “I got too busy and didn’t notice that one of the new employees was not adjusting to the new environment. I even went ahead to delegate tasks to her. Most of these tasks were burdensome for her and I didn’t notice. Subsequently, she opened up to me.”
Result: “I demonstrated how sorry I was and assigned an older employee to teach and supervise her. I learned to pay more attention to my new employees and to delegate tasks whenever I am too busy. Within two weeks, the new employee became more effective and delivered more efficiently.”
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 heed 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 risky examples
Do not choose an answer 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. Make your response sequential, brief and clear.
Do not blame others for your failure.
Be answerable and take every responsibility for your operations. Interviewers will be thrown off if you leave an impression of poor accountability.
Show how you learned from your mistakes
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. Highlight instances where you were found in the same situation and you were successful.
Avoid memorizing your answers
Practice your answers but do not memorize them. Your answers need to flow naturally. Memorizing answers interrupts the originality of your story and your interviewer might notice. It will flag off as a lack of confidence.
Do not fake a story
Tell a real-life story. Even if you do not have a story that is specific to the job application, choose a real story that you can connect to general workplace skills. Examples of such skills include good communication skills, teamwork, time management and so on. Dishonesty is an automatic disqualification.
Common variations of the “time you failed” interview question
Because not all companies devise their interview questions from the same script, you might get asked one or more variations of the ‘time you failed’ interview question. Here are two common variations to keep in mind:
Tell us about a time you identified mistakes that were overlooked
So far we’ve focused on how you respond and react to your own failings. But this doesn’t inform the interviewer about your attitude to failure in its entirety.
Often it’s the case that interviewers will ask questions like the one above to understand your attitude to failure in others. After all, you’re applying to work for the company as part of a team. So, how you treat colleagues in adverse times when you did everything right will go a long way to helping them determine if you’re going to be a suitable candidate for employment.
For some people, it’s much easier to forgive their own failings and mistakes than those of other people. This type of question is designed to probe your levels of empathy and cooperation. Your response also says a lot about your willingness to place the collective well-being of the company ahead of personal considerations.
But it’s still a question that seeks self-examination. How did you go about pointing out the mistakes? Were these points made clearly and explicitly enough? Did you point them out at the right time and to the right people? Were you seeking constructive dialogue or were you venting frustration that might indicate a defective attitude?
You should know all of this prior to attending any interview. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” - Benjamin Franklin.
Tell us about a time you had to deliver disappointing news
Whilst not necessarily pertaining to failure specifically, this is another question that often comes up in modern job interviews. The aim behind asking this question is not only intended to ascertain if you’re able to deliver bad news with delicacy and diplomacy - though that is certainly a part of it - but to also gauge how you deal with foreseeable challenges.
For instance, if your story involves you missing out on KPIs in a quarterly review with your immediate superior, did you simply state this as a matter of fact? Or, did you come prepared with clear reasons as to why the targets weren’t met and demonstrate that you knew what actions were needed to avoid this happening in the next quarter?
If you were able to preempt your manager’s concerns in the review, it shows that you were mindful of the need to put continuous efforts into improving your performance. And, without being instructed to do so. This shows you to be a self-starter who prioritizes the company’s requirements.
If you didn’t go into the review prepared with the answers, but came out recognizing that this is what you should have done, then it’s another valuable lesson learned from an instance of failure.
Whichever way it really happened, your response to this question should be developed to provide the interviewer with confidence that you understand the intent behind the question.
Tips for answering “tell me about a time you failed” 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.
- Prepare your mind to deliver your answer.
- Draft your story before practicing it, don’t miss the good stuff.
- Show your lessons from your experience and how you have successfully completed the same tasks without making the same mistakes.
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.