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Tell me about a time you failed - sample answers

If an interviewer asked, "Tell me about a time you failed", how would you react? Talking about failure is hard. Learn how to answer this question effectively.

Nobody likes to talk about failures. However, from an employer's perspective, they want to know about your failures and how you overcame them before they hire you.

For many, when the interview question "Tell me about a time you failed" comes up in conversation, it's daunting. You need to reflect on these negative experiences, tell someone why you failed, and so forth. It isn't a nice feeling whatsoever.

However, the interviewer isn't trying to make you feel bad. Not at all. They just want to know how you failed and how you came back from such failure.

At MentorCruise, our career coaches understand the importance of nailing this question. With the right answer, you can sway the mind of the interviewer, making it more likely for you to land the role.

This article will help you understand the basics of this question. We'll go into:

  • Why interviewers say, "Tell me about a time you failed."
  • How to talk about failure in an interview.
  • Tips for answering ‘tell me about a time you failed’ interview questions.

Why Interviewers Say "Tell Me About a Time You Failed."

When interviewers say, "Tell me about a time you failed," they're not looking to make you sad.

Instead, they're evaluating the following:

  • Your reaction to failure: How you demonstrate maturity by acknowledging and learning from mistakes.
  • Your self-awareness level: How you recognize and admit errors indicates your level of self-awareness.
  • Your skills at handling pressure: How you stay composed during tough questions shows your resilience.
  • Your previous job performance: How you aren't afraid to take risks because you accept failure positively.

As you can see, there's more to the question than what first meets the eye. Instead of being confrontational, it's more about learning how you deal with failure. 

What Professionals Think About "Tell Me About a Time You Failed."

To gain a better understanding of this question, we need to look at what professionals think about it from multiple sectors.

Expert #1: Salina Hoque

Salina Hoque, a director of HR and community engagement at Sweet Briar College, thinks 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.

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

According to Steve Pritchard, the human resource consultant for Ben Sherman, you need to practice answering 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.

He also notes that 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 ensure you demonstrate that this failure was a learning experience that has pushed you to enhance your work ethic.

Expert #3: Laurie Richards

The CEO of LR&A, Laurie Richards, suggests that you want to respond in a way that expresses a willingness to take responsibility.

To do so, follow this process.

1. Accept the failure using a superlative

Use words like 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…”

2. 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. For example:

“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

You want to describe the less you learned why, also showcasing how it improved your career from there on. For example:

“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 what actions you have taken to stop the mistake from happening again.

How to Talk About Failure in an Interview

When it comes to handling the question, "Tell me about a time you failed", there are a million different ways you can handle it.

However, each and every one of them follows a simliar method to the following steps:

  • Step 1 - Choose a Real and Relevant Failure: Select a true setback that's not too severe and relates to the job.
  • Step 2 - Be Specific: Clearly define the situation and the skill involved.
  • Step 3 - Use the STAR Method: Frame your response with Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
  • Step 4 - Focus on Growth: Stress the lessons learned and subsequent improvements.
  • Step 5 - Maintain a Positive Tone: Take responsibility and show your willingness to learn and adapt.

By following this structure, you can handle this question confidently, showcasing your skills, expertise, and emotional intelligence.

Tips for Answering “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” Interview Questions

When it comes to answering questions regarding this matter, the following tips may help:

  1. Always have some sample answers in advance, which you can explain fully, which you learned from, and solved satisfactorily.
  2. Rehearse your response as much as you can so you can present it confidently and conveniently in the real interview.
  3. Be upfront concerning the mistake you choose to talk about.
  4. Ask your co-workers for frank feedback on any errors you made.
  5. Prepare your mind to deliver your answer.
  6. Draft your story before practicing it; don’t miss the good stuff.
  7. Show your lessons from your experience and how you have successfully completed the same tasks without making the same mistakes.

How to Choose a Failure to Discuss

When choosing a failure to talk about, there's a right and wrong failure to talk about. To pinpoint the right one, follow the below steps:

1. Prioritize a trivial failure

Cling to more trivial failures that wouldn’t paint you in an overly negative light. Your failure doesn’t need to be monumental or have a significant impact on a past employer.

Remember that your goal is to be seen as a flexible and responsible potential employee, not as a liability.

2. Choose a failure that relates to the job you are applying for

You wouldn’t impress an interviewer by bringing up a mistake you made in a catering class for a computer engineering job application. Make sure to choose a failure that relates to the job 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.

3. 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, talk about dealing with a situation where you failed to deliver on a project because you didn’t access the requirements properly. This is unique and authentic.

4. 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.

How to Prepare Your Answer

Now you've found your failure, you need to prepare your answer. You can do this by following the below steps:

1. 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 in 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 in the best outcome.

2. 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.

3. Draft a compelling story

The truth is that interviewers will 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 market research for a new product. I missed out on some vital information about the product. The experience taught me to pay more attention to details. Afterward, I successfully completed two different projects for the company. 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.

4. Practice your answer

Despite your level of preparation, this question may still take you by surprise. But you can lessen the possibility 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.

5. Ask co-workers for 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 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 gain insights that may help you during the interview.

Once you land 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

The STAR technique is a simple way to answer questions in interviews that ask about your past work or life experiences.

For example, an interviewer might say, "Tell me about a time you solved a difficult problem," or "Give an example of how you worked with someone who was hard to get along with."

STAR stands for:

  • Situation: Start by giving a short background to set the scene.
  • Task: Tell them about the challenge you had to face.
  • Action: Talk about the steps you took to handle the situation.
  • Result: End with the good things that came from your actions.

How to Use the STAR Technique

First, you need to prepare by researching common interview questions and reflecting on past experiences that showcase your abilities. Have your stories ready to share, structuring them with the STAR method for a clear and impactful delivery.

Then, during the interview, listen attentively to understand the essence of the question being asked. Choose an appropriate story from your background that best fits the question's intent.

Share your experience in a focused and concise manner, applying the STAR framework to guide your narrative and maintain the interviewer's interest.

Using STAR for ‘Tell Me About a Time You Failed’

Sample #1

Situation: I was tasked with engaging a new client at Netbox, a digital marketing firm, to discuss our services.

Task: As a vice marketing account director preparing for increased responsibilities, my manager advised me to use this opportunity to understand the client's needs and how we could assist them.

Action: During the discovery call, I was caught off guard by a question about Key Performance Indicators and provided an incomplete answer, leading to the client's dissatisfaction. After discussing the issue with my manager, I realized my preparation was lacking, which resulted in misinformation.

Result: I underwent training with my manager to better handle such inquiries and reached out to the client with a thorough explanation of our KPI tracking and reporting. The client appreciated the clarification and booked our services, leading to my successful acquisition of two more enterprise clients with contracts valued at £35,000 and £50,000.

Sample #2

Situation: In my previous role at an advertising agency, I was managing a team on a project for a high-profile client.

Task: Eager to impress, I ambitiously promised to deliver the project under budget and ahead of the client's timeline.

Action: As the project progressed, it became clear that my promise was too optimistic. The deadline approached, and we were not ready, leading to a discounted rate offered to the client as compensation for the delay. I owned up to my mistake with both the client and my team.

Result: This experience taught me the importance of setting realistic goals and maintaining honest communication. I adopted a more practical approach to client engagements, focusing on providing accurate estimates and transparent updates. This shift in strategy prevented future overcommitments and strengthened my professional integrity.

Sample #3:

Situation: A few years back, I was part of the digital marketing team at an e-commerce company. We were in the thick of a major campaign with high stakes.

Task: My manager trusted me to analyze crucial market data to identify strategies for lead generation. It was a significant responsibility that could impact the campaign's success.

Action: Unfortunately, due to a particularly hectic day, I overlooked some key information and presented an inaccurate analysis to our campaign manager, which could have derailed our efforts.

Result: When the error was brought to my attention, I immediately took ownership, revisited the data, and submitted a revised analysis. The team was able to pivot, resulting in a 60% increase in product sales. This incident was a tough lesson in focus and attention management, especially under pressure.

Mistakes to Avoid When Answering ‘Tell Me About a Time You Failed’

Without proper preparation, it's easy to provide a response that might not present you in the best light. Pay attention 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 on 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 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 your story's originality, which 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. 

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, 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 for 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?

Ideally, you should know all of this prior to attending any interview.

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 also to 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.

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 preparation, 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.

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