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Tell Me About a Time You Failed

Failure is an inevitable part of life and, by extension, work. Still, it’s not a fun experience, and being asked to talk about it in a job interview can be unpleasant. We’ll explain how to maintain your composure and talk about failure successfully if you’re asked a question like ‘Tell me about a time you failed’ in an interview. 

Why do interviewers ask about a time you failed

We hear it all the time, starting from when we’re kids: failure builds character. An interviewer knows this and wants to see how the experience of failure has affected you.

Your response to failure–and your ability to talk about it afterward–can give the interviewer clues on your personality, maturity level, perseverance, response to feedback, and ability to adapt–all important elements of a successful hire.

What interviewers are looking for when they ask about failure

When asking how you would respond to an ethical dilemma, an interviewer hopes to learn more about what kind of person you are. They’ll be looking to understand how you determine the “right” thing to do and the factors you consider when deciding. 

An interviewer will also be paying attention to how comfortable you seem with the idea of such a scenario. Does it seem like something you’d struggle with, or would tackling an ethical dilemma be a no-brainer? Your response will be an indicator they’ll use in assessing whether your values align with the organization’s. 

How to answer the interview question ‘Tell me about a time you failed’

Name a real failure

It’s important to cite something that actually happened so you can speak about it authentically. On the spectrum of failures, the one you choose to talk about should lean toward the less serious side rather than being a monumental mistake. Some examples include missing a deadline, falling short of KPIs, or pursuing an unconventional idea that didn’t pan out.

Move on quickly to the lesson

After briefly explaining what happened, you want to spend most of your answer talking about the lesson you learned. Speak openly about what you wish you could have done differently or what you were able to see with 20/20 hindsight. This shows your interviewer you understand the reason for your mistake and accept responsibility for it.

Focus on your next steps

Share what you did to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again, like building safeguards into your workflows or adding an additional round of reviews to client deliverables. You can also explain how your outlook shifted in a way that makes you better at your job.

How not to answer questions about your failures

Cite a major mistake

You don’t want to bring up an incident that had a major negative impact, like costing your company a lot of money, breaking the law, or causing serious damage to your reputation.

Sample answers to ‘Tell me about a time you failed’

Example #1

“When I was a new account executive, I was enthusiastic and always pitched these wild and creative campaign ideas. One day, my account manager gave one of these wild ideas the green light. I was blinded with excitement–so blind that I didn’t see the red flags that began to pop up almost immediately. There were challenges with the budget, the timeline, the logistics…but unfortunately, I was too proud to admit that the idea wasn’t working out and forged ahead. 

Ultimately, my manager pulled the plug, and my team rallied to create a much less exciting but solid campaign with which the client was happy. I learned a huge lesson: creative ideas are worthwhile, but only if you have the time and money to execute them. Now, I think through campaigns much more methodically to determine if they can work with the resources we have available to us before deciding to pursue them.”

Example #2

“One of the first times I ever led a team, I was overly concerned about being viewed as a micromanager. As a result, I went too far in the other direction and let my team pretty much do whatever they wanted. Unsurprisingly, our performance numbers suffered.

After a few bad months, I knew I failed to provide the necessary leadership. I quickly changed course, implementing daily stand-up meetings with everyone on my team and month-end one-on-ones to review progress and discuss action items. Thankfully, our results turned around quickly. I continue to use the same policies I put in place. I learned that you don’t have to micromanage people, but you do have to provide structure and regular feedback to get the results you want.”

As you can see, giving a winning answer is all about how you frame your failure. With the right approach, you can position a negative experience as a positive one and use it to show how you’re more capable and qualified because of it.