Answering the Interview Question: “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”
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The interview question “Tell me about a time you failed” is a popular behavioural question that you might be asked at your interview, but can be very tricky to answer correctly.
Being asked to talk through a negative experience is daunting for most candidates as it involves describing a personal flaw or mistake without putting your interviewers off hiring you.
In this article, we’re going to outline the ideal approach to a question like this and help you prepare the perfect reply.
Interviewers know that how you answer a question like “Tell me about the time you failed” can reveal a great deal about you.
With one simple question, a recruiter can gather a significant amount of important information to help them evaluate you for employment:
By approaching this question with openness and honesty, you can show your recruiter that you are not afraid to face up to your past mistakes or failures. Holding yourself accountable for your own decisions and behaviour shows a maturity that is valuable within the workplace.
You will also reveal a lot about how self-aware you are. If your first reaction is to deny ever making any mistakes, you are showing a lack of awareness that can raise red flags for your interviewer. It is simply a fact that everyone makes mistakes, and pretending otherwise (or, even worse, truly believing that you never make mistakes) is a definite interview no-no.
Whether a candidate keeps their cool when faced with a difficult question such as this, also tells the interviewer how they respond under pressure.
Your example and explanation will also reveal a lot about your past job performance. Your interviewer will get an idea of where and how you are willing to take risks, how confident you are and how you perceive your own shortcomings.
Your interviewers will also get to know exactly what you consider to be a failure (and this can be very different to different people!).
Before barrelling headlong into answering this type of question, it’s vital that you think about the answer you’re going to give and how that comes across. Choose your failure wisely or you run the risk of portraying yourself as risky, irresponsible or flaky.
Your interviewer doesn’t need to know about the time you unintentionally offended a top client, resulting in them withdrawing their custom and losing your company a lot of money in the process. Stick to more minor failures that don’t paint you in a disastrously negative light.
Remember that you are trying to get hired and your answer needs to show you as an adaptable and willing employee, not a liability.
The failure you choose needs to somehow relate to the position you are applying for. Identify a quality or skill you need in the job you want and think of a past experience where you made a mistake in this area.
Ensure that you choose an example where you learned from your mistake and went on to improve. Show yourself as being self-aware and willing to continuously learn.
When thinking about the type of failure to describe, you can use your own definition of what failure means to you. Everyone has their own standards, targets and ambitions, and you may have something personal to you that you failed to achieve or complete in the way you set out to do.
Your failure doesn’t have to be one that is huge or had a significant impact on a past employer.
Finally, make sure your example of a failure is based on a real event. Don’t make something up, your interviewer is likely to see straight through your lie.
We all make mistakes and owning up to a real one will make your answer more believable and relatable (and a lie will never go down well).
An effective technique to use when structuring an answer to a question like this is the STAR technique.
STAR is an acronym for:
Using this structure helps you create an answer that includes all the key points without rambling or veering off-topic.
Using a structured approach also enables you to be clear about what you're going to say and makes it easier to practice and remember a longer answer, as needed in this instance.
Check that any examples you think of will fit into the STAR format before using them in your interview.
Here are three examples of how to give a great response to the question “Tell me about the time you failed”, using the STAR technique:
When I worked as a junior marketing account manager in a large successful marketing company, a client approached us to ask about digital marketing services.
As I was gaining more experience and was preparing to take on more responsibilities, my manager suggested that I take the opportunity to discuss with the client what they were looking for and how we could help them.
I was a little nervous about this and didn’t feel quite ready, so to prepare for the conversation, I looked over the services we offered as a company so I could be clear on which would be relevant for the potential new client.
However, when I was having the discovery call with our lead, they asked me a question about monitoring Key Performance Indicators, and it caught me off guard.
I gave the best answer I could but, afterwards, the lead contacted our company again and expressed disappointment that we were not more proactive about monitoring and reporting on the figures. We realised that I had given minimal information and had misrepresented how our company approaches this area.
After talking it through with my manager, we realised that I hadn’t known which questions I might be asked by a lead and therefore had failed to prepare adequately, resulting in me relaying incorrect information.
To rectify the situation, I took part in a training session with my manager, involving a roleplay with her pretending to be the lead and asking all the questions that often get asked. I practised my responses and built up my confidence.
We also acknowledged that if I don’t know the answer to a question, that I can apologise to the client and offer to find out and get back to them.
I called the potential client back, apologised for the mix-up and clarified exactly how we track and report on KPIs for our clients. They were satisfied with this information and expressed thanks that I took the time to explain. They went on to book our services. Since then, I have taken the lead with two more potential clients who have both signed up as clients.
My last role was in a really busy civil service department.
Part of my job was to plan and arrange the monthly managers’ meeting. That included booking the meeting space, inviting the relevant staff and booking caterers.
On one particularly busy week, the relevant staff members had been invited and the room had been booked, but as the meeting was in progress, I realised that I hadn’t booked the catering service. This meant that 12 managers had their lunchtime meeting with no lunch.
When I realised I had done this, I was embarrassed and upset. I took in hot drinks, biscuits and cakes that we had in our kitchen and explained and apologised profusely to the attendees.
They were all very gracious and my direct manager assured me that it was ok and laughed it off. However, I was so disappointed in myself.
I booked a meeting to discuss it with my manager and ended up reviewing all my time management processes and project management systems.
We decided that I was taking responsibility for a lot of different tasks that I probably should be delegating to junior staff and that was leaving me overwhelmed. As a result, I had dropped the ball on this occasion.
I sent a direct email to every meeting attendee apologising again for the mishap.
I kept the responsibility for booking and arranging the monthly meetings and since I have more robust organisational processes in place, I have not missed or overlooked a task again.
I was leading my team in an advertising project at the last agency I worked at.
I was so eager to impress our new client, that I put together a proposal that promised to deliver the work under budget and in less time than they had specified.
The client was delighted and eagerly offered us the work. As the project went on, however, it became clear that we couldn’t deliver it in the shorter time frame I had suggested.
I had been overly optimistic and had over-promised in my effort to impress, and my company had to offer a reduced rate to make up for the delay. I had to apologise to the client (and to my boss) and admit my mistake.
I learned that it is much better to be realistic and honest from the outset, rather than to overpromise and underdeliver.
I have never made that mistake again. Now I take the approach of making conservative assurances and then delighting clients when the work comes in faster or under budget.
Without sufficient preparation, it is easy to mess up and give an answer that will paint you in a negative light. Make sure you avoid these common mistakes:
Don’t avoid the question. Stating that you’ve never really failed can be interpreted by the interviewer in a number of ways, and none will present you as the best candidate for the job.
Don’t use examples with disastrous consequences or significant repercussions for your employers. This will likely demonstrate a risky and irresponsible attitude to work.
Make sure your answer is concise. Don’t give a long-winded ramble about the lead up to the event if it’s not relevant.
Avoid blaming others for your failure. Be accountable and take responsibility for your actions.
Make sure not to appear to be making the same mistakes over and again. You want to show how you’ve learned from your failure and adapted to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Here are a few other tips to help you give the best possible answer to this difficult interview question:
Always prepare some example answers in advance that you learned from, and that were resolved satisfactorily.
Practice your answer as much as you can so you can deliver it calmly and comfortably in the actual interview.
Be upfront about the failure you choose to speak about. Your recruiter wants to see if you can be humble and willing to adapt and learn from your mistakes.
Ask your co-workers for their honest feedback on any mistakes you have made and what you could have done better. Take notes and use them to formulate your answer.
Under interview conditions, even the most prepared candidates can sometimes get flustered. If this question catches you off guard, it’s fine to ask for a minute to think about your answer before you reply.
Interviewers use tricky questions such as “Tell me about a time you failed” to find out more about how a candidate reacts to a negative situation.
How you answer this sort of question reveals a lot about your character, attitude, mindset and your willingness to learn.
There are ways you can plan and prepare a great answer, and using the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) technique provides structure to your response.
By thinking through an example of a past failure, you can turn a negative experience into a positive anecdote, whereby you impress your interviewer with your ability to grow and adapt in a humble and honest way.