Interviewing

What Is the Best Way To Answer an Interview Question About a Time You Failed?

You’re in a first-round interview, and it’s been going great. You’ve been able to share your most valuable skills and experience with the employer, and they seem impressed.

But then they pitch you one of the most dreaded interview questions: “Tell us about a time you failed at work.”

Your heart starts racing. How should you answer this question? Landing on the correct answer will help you demonstrate you’re always willing to learn from your mistakes. The wrong response will make you look bad in one way or another.

First off, why do interviewers ask this question?

“An interviewer wants to know whether you can acknowledge your weaknesses and take responsibility for your failures. This can also reveal the kinds of risks you take, your habits, and your perceptions of success and failure,” said Indeed.

How can you answer this question by demonstrating that you learn from and even value your mistakes?

Here are our top tips:

Be prepared for similar questions that you might be asked instead.

If you’re only prepared to share “a time you failed at work” with the hiring manager, you may be ill-prepared for similar, yet not the same, questions.

Similar questions include the following:

  • What are your weaknesses?
  • Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a coworker. How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a challenge you faced and how you dealt with it.
  • Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision at work.

You don’t have to figure out answers to each of these questions; instead, you can use the same response you came up with a solution to the question about failure as a response to any of these.

Choose a real example of a failure.

You might be tempted to make up an example demonstrating almost-heroic overcoming adversity. But your response will always seem more authentic – and useful – if you talk about something that happened. So, avoid the urge to fictionalize and choose a mistake you learned something from.

At the same time, be sure to avoid mentioning three types of failure:

  • Don’t talk about any failure you repeated multiple times. Choose a failure that happened once rather than something you struggled with numerous times over an extended period.
  • Don’t mention any failure that won’t be relatable to the hiring committee. If you include too egregious failures, you’ll shift in the committee’s eyes from someone who struggles into a candidate who probably shouldn’t be hired.
  • Don’t talk about any failures that could have jeopardized your employer or damaged its reputation. If this has happened to you, it’s best to choose a different failure. Think of minor failures that helped you grow as an employee – don’t use your response to this question as a confessional!

Identify your failure, not a failure your whole team or the company shared.

Another way NOT to answer this question is by talking about someone else’s failure. Perhaps you mention your team’s failure or even blame someone else, only then swooping in to show how you cleaned up this mess.

A response like this one won’t make you look like a hero. Instead, it will demonstrate that you’re not willing to be accountable for your failures – or you’re so over-confident you don’t think you make any!

Here’s how NOT to answer a question about “a time you failed at work”:

During the pandemic, my team started procrastinating. I would set deadlines for them and offer them praise and reinforcements to meet those deadlines, but they weren’t living up to my expectations. To solve this problem, I started implementing weekly team meetings and a “buddy system” where they reported their progress to each other at the end of each week. Eventually, the procrastination issue resolved itself, and my team was able to overcome this failure. 

Consider the type of learning and growth you want to demonstrate in your response.

Come up with an answer that demonstrates how you grew and developed in a particular competency the company will require of you in the position you’re interviewing for. 

For example, if you’re being considered for a management role, you might consider listing your failures in managing others or leadership.

For instance:

When I started working at (company), I wasn’t sure what kind of a leader I was. I wanted everyone to respect me, so I changed my leadership style depending on who I was talking to. Unfortunately, this backfired, and my team came to think of me as wishy-washy and inconsistent. So, I went back to the drawing board and came to identify myself as a Participative Leader. Then, I told my team the truth about what I’d been trying to do – and how I failed. From then on, I leaned into my strengths as a leader. I involved my team the way I’d always wanted to – and eventually, I gained the reputation as a predictable, even-handed leader. I took a survey before and after I landed on a style – and my team reported trusting me 30 percent more than they had before. 

Use the STAR method to structure and prepare your answer.

The STAR method helps you answer situational questions like these with a specific story and concrete results.

STAR stands for:

  • Situation
  • Task
  • Action
  • Result

Preparing for an Interview Questions About Failure

It isn’t easy to talk about yourself in an unfavorable light, especially when you’re trying to “sell” yourself in an interview.

But “Tell about a time you failed at work” is a common interview question, so you’ll want to prepare an answer before your interview. Remember, tell a story, choose a situation everyone can relate to, and focus on a skill you developed from learning from your mistakes.


Want to prepare for more common interview questions? Read Ivy Exec’s guide “How to Answer the Top 30 Interview Questions.”


 

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