Answering "Tell Me About A Time You Failed" In A Job Interview

Interviews are all about evaluating your expertise and experience concerning the job in the offer. Hence, a candidate should expect questions that not only test their knowledge but also their reasoning, logic, and approach to a problem. A query "Tell me about a time you failed" is standard in interviews for testing which a candidate might struggle with.

Therefore, it is vital that you know what and how to answer the question "Tell me about a time you failed" to have a successful job interview.

So, let's start.

tell me about a time you failed

What to answer with

Interviews can be daunting unless you know the answers to the questions. That said, let"s see what to answer when you are asked, "Tell me about a time you failed."

So, what do you answer with?

Speak up about your mistakes. But hold there. Don't just blurt out any error that comes to your mind.

If you have decided about a mistake that you are going to speak about, make sure of the following things:

Why? Let me elaborate.

The mistake that you made somehow relates to the job you are interviewing for.

You should not be talking about you leaving the stove on which caused a massive fire in the kitchen in a corporate interview. Don't expect much from the interviewer than a sigh or blank stare. Cite a mistake that can be related to the job in question.

For example, talk about a mistake that caused a delay in a project you were working on. Keep things in context. Do not wander around in your thoughts.

You learned something from the mistake.

You can commit mistakes and so does everyone. But, the key is learning from it. It is the second thing the interviewer would want to know about after you speak about the mistake.

Why? It lets the interviewer know that:

a. You are less likely to cause the same error.
b. You have a sense of responsibility.
c. You provide evidence that you can evolve and learn from things around you.

Hence, do not just speak of the mistake that you made, but also talk about what you learned from it.

The response should cite an event where you applied your learning from the mistake.

After you state the things that you learned from the mistake, also talk about how you were able to use it in another scenario. Citing an instance where your learning helped you, acts as proof. It is a proof for the interviewer that not only you learned from the error, but also know how to apply your learning in practical situations. Interviewers want assurance that you can learn and use the knowledge from your failures.

Citing the mistake should not diminish your chances of getting the job in the offer.

In an interview, talk about a significant error but not a massive one. For example, don't talk about a mistake that resulted in you causing a loss in millions for the company or something that made you lose your past job. Think wisely and explain an instance where you were wrong, caused some problem and learned from it without compromising the chances of getting hired.

Here's an example answer to 'Tell me about a time you failed':

"In my previous company, I was tasked with a project from one of the big clients of the company. Seeing the importance of the client, I was eager to impress both the client and the company heads. Thus, I claimed the project could be finished in 4 weeks. However, it was a bit skeptical about the time-frame, but in the wake of impressing both parties, I firmly said that we could complete the project in 4 weeks. The work started, and it took five weeks to complete the project. Though we got the job done, the client was not too impressed with us. The incident taught me the lesson of under-promise and over-deliver.
Hence, the next time I asked for four weeks for a project to complete which I estimated would take only three weeks to finish. The client was very much happy with our work and time of delivery of the project."

The above answer has all the elements:

And that completes the "what to answer" aspect of "Tell me about a time you failed."

How to answer

Now that you know what elements your answer should contain, let"s focus on how to answer the question "Tell me about a time you failed."

So, how to answer?

There are two things you need to incorporate in your answer:

  • Answer in a way showing that you feel accountable for the error.
  • Keep the answer short and precise.

    Let me elaborate to explain these two things better.

    Answer in a way showing that you feel accountable for the error.

    When you are talking about your slip-up, speak in a way that makes the interviewer know that you realize your accountability for the mess. It is easy to make mistakes, but harder to accept them. Companies want employees who take responsibility for their good deeds as well as their errors. So, expect an interviewer to assess you on this front. He or she will ask this question and gauge your response for realization, learning, and accountability. Keep the answer short and precise.

    You need to keep your slip-up story short. Your story should not be extending up to 5 minutes. Always try to end the story within 2 minutes. Keep the story short but do not lose the plot. It is easy to be swayed into undesired territory when talking, so keep a check. The interviewer wants to know about your slip-up, realizing what you learned from it in the minimum time possible. Hence, never drag your story and go off the topic. Consider the previous sample answer.

    "In my previous company, I was tasked with a project from one of the big clients of the company. Seeing the importance of the client, I was eager to impress both the client and the company heads. Thus, I claimed the project would be finished in 4 weeks. However, it was a bit skeptical about the time-frame, but in the wake of impressing both parties, I said that we could complete the project in 4 weeks. The work started, and it took five weeks to complete the project. Though we got the job, the client was not too impressed with us. The incident taught me the lesson of under-promise and over-deliver.
    Hence, the next time I asked for four weeks for a project to complete which I estimated would take three weeks to finish. The client was very much happy with our work and time of delivery of the project."

    The answer ends in around 1-minute mark and is precise to the point (i.e., how the speaker made the mistake of over-promising, learned from it and rectified the error in their next project). And that ends the "how" aspect of "Tell me about a time you failed."

    Summary of answering this interview question

    Here"s a recap of everything we learned here.

    Tell me about a time you failed.

    The question is not just about citing a slip-up; it is much more than that. An interviewer wants to judge characteristics like accountability, honesty, and learning in candidates. Unless you show the right attributes from your answer, there is a high probability of not being in consideration for the job. So, have an attentive approach to this question.

    There is a "what to answer" and "how to answer" aspect to the query "Tell me about a time you failed."

    What to answer

    Your answer should have the following elements:

    • The mistake cited should somehow relate to the job you are interviewing for.
    • There should be a lesson learned something from the mistake.
    • There should be an instance supporting the application of your learning from the mistake.
    • The mistake cited should not lessen your chances of getting the job in the offer.

    Incorporating these four elements, you have an answer covers all the aspects that the interviewer is concerned with.

    How to answer

    Keep the following elements in mind when responding:

    • Your answer should reflect your feeling of accountability for the error.
    • Your answer should be short and precise.

    Following the above guidelines, you should keep your answer relevant to the context of the interview.

    The next thing to do

    Practice. Do not rely on spontaneity. You should practice refining your answer. Take the help of friends and relatives. Work on the feedback provided. I hope that helped you in the regard of answering the question "Tell me about a time you failed."

    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

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