Answering "Tell Me About A Time You Failed" In A Job Interview [2020 Updated]
While in a job interview, you will likely have to answer some tough questions. Like, "Tell me about a time you failed?" Or other tough questions like “Why did you leave your previous position?” or “Tell me about a time you went above and beyond in your past position.”
All of these can be difficult to answer, but one common interview question tends to stand out from the rest: “Tell me about a time you failed.”
Answering this question is like walking on eggshells. It’s also quite a vulnerable experience, as nobody likes to talk about their shortcomings. However, you can absolutely answer this question in a way that will make your hiring manager see you in a humble and viable light.
Let’s dive into why interviewers ask this question, what some good and bad answers look like, and a few sample answers for you to get inspired by.
Why Do Interviewers Ask This Question?
There are numerous reasons why a hiring manager would ask this question.
The biggest reason behind “Tell me about a time you failed” is to look at how you plan on avoiding such an issue in the future. For example, say your biggest failure in the past involved a project failing because you, as a project manager, did not hire a large enough technical or engineering staff. Your hiring manager wants to hear what your solutions would be now that you have that experience behind you.
Another reason hiring managers will ask this is to see what kind of failure it was. If the situation was very avoidable and the result of poor effort on your part, that may be a red flag they will want to avoid.
Your hiring manager also wants to know how the failure changed you for the better. We’re all human, and all make mistakes, and your hiring manager is well aware of this and has probably experienced at least one professional failure in their past. Failure can bring about vital experience and change.
What Type of Answer Are They Looking For?
As we mentioned above, there are several main elements hiring managers will look for in your answer:
- What the failure was.
- If the failure was very avoidable or unavoidable.
- What you did to remedy the situation.
- How you plan on avoiding such issues in the future, particularly as their employee.
While it is vital, to be honest about your answer, it is also vital to follow up with a well thought out solution to such issues in the future.
What Does a Good Answer Look Like?
A good answer to “Tell me about a time you failed” will include a handful of things.
- Your mistake.
- Your lesson after the fact.
- How you are changing going forward.
- Eloquence and honestly.
- A solution that is related to the position you are interviewing for.
- A compelling story that engages your listener.
your answer needs to be brief and detailed enough to give your hiring manager a vision of the bigger picture. Have you learned your lesson? How did you learn your lesson? How has the experience made you a better employee in that particular field, industry, or position?
What Does a Bad Answer Look Like?
You can definitely answer this question “incorrectly” or in a not-so-good way. Luckily, most of the bad answers you’ll need to avoid have more to do with common sense.
Some bad answers to avoid include:
- “I have never failed professionally before.”
- “I caused the downfall of an entire company.”
- “I did some dirty work or engaged in illegal activities that got me fired.”
- “I failed at X, Y, and Z, but it was not my fault.”
- “I failed at X, Y, and Z in my last position and simply decided to change positions or industries to avoid such a mistake again.”
If you can avoid these answers and similar answers, you’ll be fine.
How to Respond to “Tell Me About A Time You Failed?” with 5 Example Answers
"When I was a project manager, I failed to hire the appropriate engineers and technicians for the production process to save money. The result was a lackluster product that didn’t do well compared to other products the company produced. From this experience, I learned that sometimes it is worth not cutting corners to get the results needed."
"I worked in customer service and had to deal with an irate customer. Our product had failed on them, and they wanted their money back. The company policy was stringent on "no refunds," and this customer was a rare unsatisfied one, as our products were often quite dependable. I stayed calm, remained polite, and offered a store credit, coupons, and other solutions. The customer did not have any of it and let me know we would not receive their business again before hanging up. From this experience, I learned that working within the policies of a company can indeed be difficult. However, I could have taken more time to listen to the customer's concerns and level with them, rather than throw solutions out there. Customer service is about making the customer happy, and being an effective communicator is a big part of that."
"I recall a time where I was giving the final approval on a product that my previous company was manufacturing. I was working on multiple other projects at the same time and was overwhelmed. The product had been reviewed and approved by several employees ahead of me, so that I couldn't expect any major issues. I ended up approving the product, but after it was sent to the manufacturer's warehouse and mass production began, my supervisor found a massive flaw. I learned that rushing through a project isn't wise and can be catastrophic and can actually take up more time and budget allotment. It's vital to give every project my full undivided attention and take my time in the approval process. If I'm responsible for approving something, I can't rely on others around me to do my job. Since that situation, I have made it my mission to remind myself to take my time. My previous supervisor once told me recently that he was very angry with me when I made that slip-up. Still, since I've learned from it, he noticed that my attention to detail has been wonderful and that I'm one of his most dependable project managers."
"I previously worked in office management. Though I wasn't responsible for the manufacturing department, I would occasionally have to go to the warehouse for some of my responsibilities. I noticed that a particular machine was sparking, but I didn't do anything or tell anyone since that wasn't my job. A few days later, the machine completely failed, and the manufacturing team had to delay production for several weeks. If I had taken just a moment out of my business schedule to tell a maintenance employee, that might not have happened. I learned that even if something isn't in my job description, I represent the company as a whole and need to make an effort to do things that aren't necessarily part of my daily tasks."
"At my last job, I was responsible for supervising the IT team. We had one particular team member who was always late to work and late on deadlines. At the time, it never caused any substantial problems, and he honestly contributed some of the best work on the team, so I didn’t say anything to him. I’m assumed he took that as a sign that I didn’t care about his work, so he started failing on crucial deadlines and projects. Because of his actions, we lost a big client, and my manager ended up firing him. If I had talked to him personally, the whole thing could have been avoided, and he would still be employed there. We would also still have that client on board as well. I feel really responsible for this, and the whole situation has made me realize that as a supervisor, I’m responsible for my team. If I find myself in another situation like this, I will immediately talk to the team member in an approachable but firm way."
Below are common questions job seekers ask regarding this interview question.
What type of interview question is this?
This is considered one of the behavioral questions that are asked during behavioral interviews. A question like this one may also be asked in a regular interview. But is still considered a behavioral interview question.
Why is this question asked?
This is a tough interview question that tests the interviewer to present a vulnerable moment in the workplace that they could resolve. The interviewer is most likely looking for a STAR response when answering the question. This is when you present a situation, task, action, and result.
What story should I tell the interviewer or recruiter?
Think of a story that shows your ability to comprehend where you could have done better. You can show one of your weaknesses but present how you think you might overcome that weakness. Maybe it was a missed deadline that you realized had a lot of fault on yourself. How are you going to grow from that? Tell that story to your future employer.
How can I better prepare for answering this question?
Spend time with a friend or family member to perform mock interview sessions. Practice telling your story when your friend or family member asks this question. Keep your response to 90-seconds or less, and keep your answer honest. The example of using a missed deadline is the most frequent for most job seekers. It is easy to discuss a failure or problem you may have created that prevented meeting a deadline. And explaining what actions you'll take along your career development to remedy the mistake you made.
What is one big mistake I can avoid when answering this question?
A common mistake is to answer with a dishonest response. It's best to explain an honest story when you answer the question. One that is empathetic and heartfelt. And one that aligns with your work history. It is okay to fail. And to be vulnerable about that failure. Explain the steps you took or would have taken to remedy the situation with your boss or team members.
Why is expressing a failure so important?
Knowing a failure you have shows leadership, not weakness. Being about to express a failure but have resolutions to resolving it shows maturity and solace in your work.
How can I align one of my failures to my skills?
It's pretty simple. If you want to speak to your empathy skills, speak to a failure that you had regarding not hearing another employee or not seeing their work ethic—something along those lines. Show your interviewer that you were not thinking about the person behind the work for a moment. And it was an error.
Should I express a character flaw or conflict?
I would avoid mentioning any sorties that speak to a character flaw or conflict. Because you'll then have to describe how you would handle the situation again in the future, and that can be troublesome.
What tough interview question could the interviewer ask that is similar to this one?
They might say, "Tell me about a time you failed and how you would resolve it in the future." Or "Tell me about a time you failed your team." Both of these would make a tough interview question to see pop up during your session. It's important to recognize that when you're asked these questions, the interviewer has turned this into a behavioral interview (for at least a brief moment) and change your mindset from answering questions to telling stories. Try to make your failure sound like a success through your story.
What is the method of using follow-up questions to make a better answer?
It's simple. If you don't know exactly what the interviewer is expecting out of your story. Have follow-up questions that help you to determine what their expectations are. For example, "Can you tell me more about what type of failure you are looking for? Personal or professional?"
Related Interview Questions
If you are looking for related interview questions, the following should be helpful:
What are your leadership examples
Describe your leadership style
How did you hear about this position
What do you know about our company
What motivates you
What makes you unique What interests you about this position
Our favorite resources are included below.
Job interview resources
- Common Interview Questions by Marquette University
- Prepare for Behavioral Interview Questions by Marquette University
- Preparing for Job Interviews by the University of Kansas
- Mock Interview Handbook by CSUCI
- Interview Guidebook by Lebanon Valley College
Resume and cover letter resources
- Writing a Resume and Cover Letter by USC
- Resume Writing Tips by the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Resume and Cover Letter Guide by Harvard University
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