Interview Question: Tell me about a time you failed


Interviews can be terrifying enough. But how do you address a question that shows potential signs of weakness? How do you answer a question about a time you failed?

Many graduate programmes throw these into their behavioural questions selection as a matter of course. But it’s also becoming more prevalent elsewhere. Companies ask such questions to learn more about your past job performance and get a sense of how you respond to certain situations.

What are they looking for?

There are several things the company is hoping to find out. Firstly, they want to know how you react to the idea of “failure”. When you failed, was it a learning experience for you? How do you actually view success and failure? Are you able to take appropriate risks knowing you might fail?

Companies want to know how you adapt. If you don’t put yourself in situations where you can fail, there’s less chance for personal or professional growth.

Be ready for the question

The important thing to appreciate is that we all fail at some point in our lives and careers.

So, saying, “I really haven’t failed at all” isn’t an answer. Or rather, it isn’t an answer the interviewer wants to hear. At the core of it all is an ability to show self-awareness, humility and an ability to adapt to different and difficult situations. Being “perfect” isn’t something they want you to express.

Not only should you be preparing answers that highlight all your best assets, you should also build answers around genuine situations where things haven’t worked out so well. The bottom line is to prepare stories that show failures and how you responded.

Use the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) approach to provide a framework for your answers. This method allows you to hit all of your key points while keeping your answer concise.

What to avoid

Some candidates try to manufacture answers that essentially show false modesty. For example: “I was set a target but was too efficient and the project had to be delayed while everyone caught up.” That approach will not work.

Silly as it may sound, you’ve also got to remember to answer the actual question. Many candidates get caught up in the moment and start describing a situation that doesn’t show a clear failure, nor how they resolved it. Think answers through in advance.

Finally, there’s also a risk of being too honest or too personal. Anything that shows serious character flaws can be counterproductive in an interview. You don’t want to put yourself in a position for automatic disqualification for a role, so be mindful over what examples you provide.

What to include

Remember, the questions asked are there to test self-awareness, transparency, honesty and potential to grow in face of adversity.

A key principle is to show that you have learned from the original experience and you have been able to apply your learnings in your working life.

They are looking for someone who understands they are not perfect and that work doesn’t always run smoothly.

You’ve got to show evidence you take on criticism and are able to do something about it. You need to be able to show how what you have learned has shown up in your subsequent actions and career development.

Godfrey Oyeniran

Career coach, financial coach, passionate about personal transformation.

2 min read

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