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How to Answer the Interview Question: "What Was Your Biggest Setback?"

How to Answer the Interview Question: "What Was Your Biggest Setback?"

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During your interview, you will be asked a variety of questions. Some of these will be specific for the role, whereas others are designed to give insight as to what you could be like as an employee.

One of the insight-related questions that you may hear is: “What was your biggest setback?”

You may be unsure as to how best to answer this question. After all, you will want to be honest but not in a way that might cost you the position.

This article is designed to help you approach such questions and answer them in a way that highlights your positive attributes.

Why Do Employers Ask This Question?

It’s not uncommon for interviewers to ask this style of question to evaluate candidates.

The objective is to gain a clearer picture of what you are like as a person and how you could potentially behave as an employee.

It is common for stress and setbacks to happen within the workplace. Each person will handle these situations differently.

By asking about your previous experience of handling a setback, the interviewer is looking at your resilience and problem-solving skills.

They will want to know that you handled the situation and either found a solution to it yourself or were willing to ask others for help in solving the issue.

What Are Some Variations of This Question?

There are many ways that an employer could word this question. It is important to understand the wording to be able to answer it properly.

You should also make sure that you understand the difference between a career setback and a career failure.

Some variations that you may come across:

  • "Tell me of a time when you have had to overcome an obstacle in your career"
  • "Are there any situations when things haven’t gone quite to plan? How did you solve this?"
  • "How do you deal with setbacks?"
  • "Has there been a time when you have had to rethink your strategy?"
  • "What would you do if a plan hit a roadblock?"
  • "Can you describe a challenge that you have had to overcome?"

Career Setback vs Career Failure

Just because you have had a setback doesn’t mean that you have failed. A setback means that you may have reached a roadblock in a project or professional Situation.

Things may not have gone the way you wanted them to; however, the important thing is that you learned something and created a solution.

What Employers Are Looking for in Your Answer

That You Have Resilience to Workplace Setbacks

Resilience is vital in the workplace.

There will be occasions when things don’t go the way that you want them to.

While it is normal to feel disappointed, stressed or let down, it is important to move on from it and turn the situation into one that can benefit you more.

How you answer this interview question will show your potential employer that you can face issues and overcome them without being beaten.

That You Can Strategize a New Plan When Faced With a Setback

When something doesn’t go to plan, what you choose to do next will tell an employer a lot about who you are as a person and your potential as an employee.

Whether you choose to give up or find a way around an obstacle gives valuable insight into how you would be likely to perform within a new company.

That You Can Be Flexible to Changing Situations

Workplaces are very often changeable environments.

A target or objective may change, or you may need to work with a different team than you are used to, and you will be expected to work around this.

Showcasing your ability to be flexible and adjust to changes will tell an employer that you are willing to work in a variety of ways to achieve a goal.

That You Are Able to Ask For Help When Necessary

Sometimes it is impossible to solve a problem by yourself.

This is true in all areas of life, but it can be difficult to admit that you need guidance or help in the workplace.

By answering the question in a way that indicates that you value the knowledge of others when you are trying to solve a problem, it tells the interviewer that you can work well in a team and understand the advantages of insight from others.

That You Can Improve and Succeed After a Setback

The overall aim of your answer to this interview question should be to show that you were able to overcome an issue and that it also helped you improve as a result.

This will show the interviewer that you are keen to learn from any mistakes or setbacks and willing to find new ways of doing things if you need to.

How to Answer the Interview Question: What Was Your Biggest Setback?
How to Answer the Interview Question: What Was Your Biggest Setback?

How to Answer the Interview Question: "What Was Your Biggest Setback?"

There are a few things to consider when answering this question.

As well as being relevant, you will want your response to highlight the steps that you had to take to rectify the problem and also the lessons you learned from the situation.

As always, it is important to stay on point and avoid unnecessary information.

Step 1. Identify an Appropriate Situation

If possible, you should always use an example from the workplace. Whenever you can, it should also be relevant for the position you are applying for.

This helps to give an employer insight into your working style and can also help them imagine you working in the role.

Some possible examples include:

  • Missing out on a promotion
  • Not hitting a sales target
  • A difficult coworker

Step 2. Think About the Strategy You Used to Overcome the Situation

When talking about how you overcame an issue or setback, it is also useful to consider whether there was a specific strategy you used.

Having strategies in place will impress your interviewer and show that you have really thought about the best ways to deal with setbacks.

This could be something as simple as deciding to take a positive attitude to dealing with unexpected problems.

Alternatively, it could be a more complex strategy that involves having colleagues you can ask for assistance.

Some possible strategies include:

  • Change your mindset so that you can see the positives which can come out of a potentially negative situation.

  • Connect with others for advice. An outside perspective sometimes helps to find a solution.

  • Acknowledge any of your actions that may have led to the setback occurring. If you were turned down for a promotion you really wanted, is there something that you could have done differently? Accepting responsibility where needed rather than placing blame is a great workplace skill.

  • Think about your next steps. If you really wanted that promotion, how are you going to make sure that you are the right person for the job next time? If delays happened during a project, what could be done differently to make sure that you finish on time?

Step 3. Use the Star Technique to Explain the Situation, Your Actions, the Process and the End Results

The STAR technique is a useful tool when it comes to answering interview questions.

It helps you to structure your response while also thinking about what you want to stay. It also enables you to keep on point.

  • S-ituation – This is all about setting the scene and describing what led to the setback.
  • T-ask – Explain what the setback was, how it happened and why it was a difficult experience.
  • A-ction – What action did you take to resolve the setback. Clearly explain your thought process and role in finding a solution.
  • R-esult – It is important to fully explain the result and how your actions helped to achieve this.

Step 4. Finish by Talking About What You Learned From the Situation

In a way, this is the most important section of your answer.

By talking about what you have learned, you are showing that you can move on from a difficult situation and turn it into something positive.

This is a valuable insight for an employer as they will want to know that you can learn from your setbacks.

Step 5. What if You Don’t Have Workplace Experience?

Not everyone has workplace experience, especially if you are a new graduate. This can be for various reasons and doesn’t have to mean that you are unable to answer the question.

Situations occur within school, hobbies and home life which are obstacles to be overcome.

Using one of these examples shows a potential employee that although you may not have experience in the role you are applying for, you have the skills and resilience to be able to solve problems and adjust to different situations.

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Example Answers

How you answer this question will vary depending on factors such as your personal experience and the position for which you have applied.

Some example answers are:

Example 1

I used to work for [insert company]. Unfortunately, they had to make some budget cuts, and that meant that redundancies were made. I was one of the people to be made redundant.

At the time, it knocked my confidence, and I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation as there wasn’t another position similar to my previous job available. But, I decided to retrain and eventually qualified as an accountant.

Since then, I have worked for [insert company] and have carried on learning. By stepping back and reevaluating what I wanted to do after I lost my job, it meant that I was able to learn a completely new skill and discover a career which I really enjoy.

Example 2

When I worked as a [insert job title], I was part of a team organizing a project.

Unfortunately, there were issues within the project, which meant that things took longer than we had planned. To overcome this, I asked my manager to allow us an extra member of staff to become part of the team to enable the work to be completed.

By doing this, we were able to speed up the completion of the project and were able to finish ahead of our deadline.

By asking for an extra staff member, it initially felt as though I was admitting defeat and saying that we couldn’t complete the project. But afterwards, I realized that I was actually just understanding the limits of my team.

By having an extra person, it meant that everyone was able to complete their own personal tasks without feeling overwhelmed, and that meant that it was actually finished to a higher standard overall."

Example 3

I don’t have a workplace relevant situation, but I do have experience of handling a setback within my personal life.

In my spare time, I volunteer at my local church. There was a situation where I was heading up a project for the youth group, but two members of the volunteer team didn’t get on. Whenever they worked together, it became very tense and uncomfortable.

To handle this, I tried to make sure that they were each involved in different areas of the project so that they didn’t have to work alongside each other. When this couldn’t be helped, I worked with them both to create a more harmonious working environment.

In the end, it all worked out. The project finished on time, and they were both able to complete their roles without any negative experiences. It really tested my negotiation and peacekeeping skills at times. Still, it has been a valuable experience for the future when similar situations might occur.

What to Avoid

As well as things which you should definitely include in your answer, there are a few things which should be avoided:

  • Avoid talking about anything too personal – While it may not always be possible to use a work-based example, keeping your work and personal life separate is still important. Talking about relationship issues or family problems should be avoided. Instead, talking about problems you may have faced within voluntary organizations, clubs or groups

  • Don’t lie – This may seem obvious, but it is important, to be honest. Any answers that you give may lead to further questions. If you lie, then you could quickly be found out, and it doesn’t make a very good impression. You should also never lie about skills you have gained as there could come a time when you are asked to show those abilities

  • Keep it short – Your answer should be detailed but also concise. There is no need to repeat information or add irrelevant details. This could mean that you lose the interviewers interest and don’t put enough focus on the most valuable information in your answer

Tips for an Effective Answer

Try to Put a Positive Spin on the Situation

The way that you respond to a setback will tell a potential employer a lot about your personality and what you might be like as an employee.

Being able to see the positives in a situation tells them that you can cope under stress and are willing to move on from negative experiences.

Keep to the point

This may seem obvious, but a potential employer wants to know about your personal experience of setbacks, not your aunt’s pet cat or what you had for lunch that day.

Keep your answer fairly concise and relevant.

Long, drawn-out answers can lead to an employer losing interest. It may also mean that the valuable sections of your answer are lost among irrelevant information.

Talk About Any New Skills You Learned to Resolve the Issue

Did you learn something new in order to resolve the problem? Perhaps you had to approach the situation in a different way to how you usually would? Make sure that you tell the interviewer about this.

By talking about new skills you gained or a new approach you took, you are telling them that you are willing to learn on the job and adapt your strategies.

It also helps to give further insight into any useful skills you may have which wasn’t necessarily mentioned in your application.

Final Thoughts

If you are faced with a question like this in an interview, then it may leave you feeling flustered.

Taking some time ahead of the interview to think about potential questions and answers will mean that you are prepared for whatever may happen.

Remember, they want to know about your resilience and ability to adapt.

These are the things you should be focussing on.

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