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How to Answer "Tell Me About a Time When You Failed"
Interview questions about failure give job applicants a chance to show off their soft skills and self-awareness. Here's how to answer the question "tell me about a time when you failed" the right way.
4 Steps for Answering "Tell Me About a Time When You Failed"
by Lily Zhang
PhotoAlto/Eric Audras/Getty Images
While not the most common job interview question, the failure question—should you get it—is rather perplexing. How do you answer this honestly while also not scaring away your potential future employer by bringing up that time you lost your company a lot of money?
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It’s a tricky situation to be in. You want to impress, but you’re explicitly being asked to talk about something you failed at. So, what do you do?
First things first, stay calm. Take a deep breath and say something like, “Wow, that’s a great question. I’m going to have to think about that for a second.” Then, think about it for a second and follow these four steps.
1. Pick a Real Failure
Step one is to pick a failure. Don’t try to weasel your way out of this by talking about that one time you got a B in a college class. You’re not fooling anyone. At the same time, you probably also want to shy away from any colossal failures related to the kind of work you’re applying for. If the interviewer specifically asks for something related to work, try to at least pull the story from something that happened a long time ago. Choose a story in which something fairly important didn’t go right due to your personal actions (or lack of actions).
Note that I said “something” and not “everything”—the reason people so frequently trip up on this question is because they’re looking for a situation in which everything went wrong. You only need one thing to go wrong for your answer to work.
2. Define Failure in Your Own Words
The reason why you don’t need to talk about some immense failure in which everything goes catastrophically and comically wrong is because you’re going to spell out why you felt this situation was a failure.
After you’ve picked your story, define failure in a way that works for it. Once failure is defined, your story no longer needs to be an obvious failure; it just has to be whatever you define failure to be.
What This Sounds Like
To me, failure is about not meeting expectations—others’ as well as my own.
As a manager, I consider it a failure whenever I’m caught by surprise. I strive to know what’s going on with my team and their work.
I think failure is more than just not meeting a goal, it’s about not meeting a goal with the resources you’re given. If I end up taking more time or supplies than I was originally allotted, that feels like a failure to me.
3. Tell Your Story
Now that you’ve established how you evaluate failure, tell the story that you chose. Try not to spend too much time setting the stage, and get to the punch line quickly. Interviewers don’t ask this question to see you squirm, they want to know how you handle setbacks—so get to the part where you’re dealing with the failure as quickly as possible.
Start with the situation, and explain why it was challenging. Then go into what you specifically did to try and rectify it. Presumably, since this is about failure, you will not be successful or will only be partially successful. That’s fine. Do not try to cover up the fact that things didn’t all go as planned. It’s impossible to do well in an interview if the interviewer doesn’t believe what you’re saying, so don’t try to sugar coat things.
4. Share What You Learned
Finally, at the end of your response, after you relay the awful outcome of your story, you get to the good stuff. You want to wrap up with your lessons learned.
Talk about why you think things went badly, maybe what you would have done in hindsight, and, of course, what you’ll be doing going forward.
What This Sounds Like
Our big problem was assuming that we would be able to get clean data from users. It’s one of my biggest takeaways from the experience: Never make assumptions about the data. I haven’t made that mistake again.
If I had just communicated the first few bumps in the road, we could have managed our client’s expectations, but because we didn’t, we damaged the relationship. Now, I never let an uncomfortable conversation prevent me from communicating the status of a project transparently.
The failure question frequently takes people by surprise. Even if you’re prepared for it, talking about failure is difficult. The key to answering this question well is first framing the way you evaluate failure and then finishing with your key takeaways from the experience. If you sandwich your story with these two components, you’ll definitely have a strong answer.Read More: The STAR Method: The Secret to Acing Your Next Job Interview
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Interview Question: “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”
Answering questions about failure can be daunting if you didn't prepare. Have a solid plan in place to answer the question and you will leave a lasting impression on the interviewer.
Interview Question: “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”
By Indeed Editorial Team
June 10, 2021
This article has been approved by an Indeed Career Coach
This question can be the most important determinant of landing the job, but this depends on your story and the impression it leaves on the recruiter. From your answer, the interviewer can deduce if you are growth-oriented or flounder in the face of challenges.
It’s challenging to detail one’s failures or setbacks to a potential employer. But, these questions are often necessary. The 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 and the habits you possess, and define your own perceptions of success and failure.
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In this article, we’ll share some tips for how to provide a satisfactory answer to this question while increasing your chances of getting hired.
Related: How to Prepare for a Behavioral Interview
“Describe a time you failed” example answers
An effective approach to the “failure” interview questions have a story about the failure. While creating a few talking points is helpful, it can be even more helpful to use those points to create a narrative free of loopholes or unoriginality.
Use the STAR method (Situation/Task, Approach and Results) to prepare your story, detailing what you learned from your experience. The format is an effective way to approach the important points of your story while keeping it short.
Related: How to Use the STAR Interview Response Technique
In the example answers below, you’ll see the failure type followed by context sentences:
Example failure 1: Task errors
“My current job involves processing claims for our client. In this instance, I unknowingly made an error regarding the client’s information, and as a result, the company received major pushback from the client. This put a lot of stress on my team in particular, as it is our responsibility to remain accurate and thorough. The error was alarming, and our team suffered because of it. I was determined to not make a mistake like this again, so I spoke with my manager about work strategies I can implement to prevent an error like this occurring again. Since then, I have not made task errors like this, and am able to keep track of my work in a more efficient way.”
Example failure 2: Procrastination
“When I first started the position, I would find myself falling behind on work due to procrastination. This affected my work, as I was not meeting production standards, making things harder for my team overall. After speaking with my manager, I realized that my procrastination was a symptom of my lack of confidence in my abilities in my role. Upon discovering this, my manager and I decided it would be best if I shadowed other team members to watch how they work and ask questions. I have now been at the company for two years, no longer procrastinate, and regularly review training materials to remain current about my job functions.”
Example failure 3: Management
“I manage a team of 10 people in our department. It is my job to inform the team of system updates via meetings and emails. In one instance, I sent an email about a system update, but forgot to include a key detail. Because of this, the team was confused, and the department endured several hours of back-and-forth conversation through email and instant message. Because of this, our harmony and workflow were disrupted. As leader of this team, I called an emergency meeting to clarify the changes made. I also apologized to my team for the error, ensured any errors made due to mine would not be counted against them and promised to update everyone accurately moving forward. I also let the team know that if they have any other questions or concerns, they can observe my open door policy and express their thoughts with me in person.”
Related: Problem-Solving Skills: Definitions and Examples
How to prepare your answer
When preparing your answer, consider these tips:
Think deeply about the answer
When choosing an instance of failure to discuss, think hard about the outcome of the failure and whether it will boost your chances of getting the job. We all make mistakes in life, but some failures are best kept to ourselves. Choose a story that highlights some of your key qualities relevant to the position you are applying to.
For example, if the position involves quick thinking and adapting to change, describe an instance when you struggled with rapid change and have since learned from that experience.
Also, when choosing your answer, stay away from examples that end in poor decision-making or a skewed view of the workplace. Instead, focus on stories whose ending shows you as a person who is self-aware, willing to accept good counsel and learn from mistakes.
Practice your answer
Regardless of your level of preparation, the question may still meet you unawares. However, you can reduce the chances of this happening with practice. A good way to practice interview questions and answers is through role play.
Give your prepared answers to a friend or family member and tell them to pretend to be the interviewer. They will ask you the questions and you provide timely and concise answers. Make sure your rehearsals mimic the conditions of the real interview as much as possible. Practice will improve your confidence and make it easier to recall your stories and key points during the real interview. With this and other methods, you can prepare well for the interview.
Describe a difficult task you were faced with and how you addressed it
Highlight your problem-solving skills by responding to this interview question with a story that ultimately had a positive outcome. We'll show you exactly how to position your response!
Describe a difficult task you were faced with and how you addressed it
Updated Mar 28, 2022 • 6 min
As you prepare for upcoming job interviews, it’s to your advantage to think about all likely questions that might come your way. Doing this helps you generate ideas and responses at a time when you aren’t under extreme pressure. This calm environment, when you truly have the time to think, is when you’re going to come up with your best ideas.
If you’ve been scouring the internet to find common interview questions so you can rehearse your answers, you’ve likely stumbled upon this behavioral interview question:
“Describe a difficult task you were faced with and how you addressed it.”
Whew, that’s a doozy!
Not to fear - we’ve got you covered on exactly how you should answer it so you impress the hiring manager and ace your job interview. With the framework we’re about to show you, you’ll be ready with an impactful response that the hiring manager loves.
Before we dive into the framework, let’s get grounded in why this question is asked in the first place.
The Purpose of the Interview Question
This is a common job interview question asked by recruiters and hiring managers. It’s often used because how you react gives the recruiter valuable insight into:
Your problem-solving abilities (you were faced with a difficult task, after all!)
Your ability to stay calm under pressure (this is a tough interview question, many people would panic)
How you reflect on prior experiences and learn from them
Your comfortability moving forward from a challenging situation without letting it drag you down
Your storytelling skills (can they follow along with your answer?)
How you’ll respond to similar situations in their workplace
If your approach in high-pressure work challenges aligns with the culture of their company or their team
By providing a response to this interview question that highlights your problem-solving skills and ability to overcome challenges, the hiring manager can trust that you’ll be able to do the same in the job you’re interviewing for. That’s important because every job has difficult tasks and situations - it’s not about avoiding them, it’s about powering through them!
Note that this type of example from your career isn't something you would choose to highlight in your resume, a cover letter, or your LinkedIn profile. However, it's important to be able to talk about difficulties in interviews because you can turn it into a story about your key learnings and ability to navigate a challenging situation.⚡️Go faster with a coach
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Choosing a Story or Example of a Difficult Situation
The story you choose to tell is equally as important as how you tell it.
To brainstorm ideas for what task you want to talk about, jot down all of the jobs you’ve had in your career. Then, think about what was most challenging for you in each role. Also, consider situations in each role where things did not go as planned, or a teammate fell short.
These are all good examples you can use.
After you’ve identified a few ideas of examples you could respond with, narrow down your choices by choosing the example that ultimately had a positive outcome and where you took the lead. Your goal is to show that you can take initiative when the going gets tough and that you can succeed despite difficulties.
Here are a few examples of stories we’ve seen work well for job seekers:
A huge project was assigned at the last minute
A colleague left the company and you had to take on all of their work
You had to lead a project that you knew little about or had never done before
There were miscommunications across teams and you had to figure out how to get everyone back on track
Layoffs had to be made and you were responsible for creating the restructuring plan
Teamwork was the only way to get something done
You had to use conflict resolution skills to turn an angry customer into a happy one
Your emotional intelligence allowed you to understand what was really going on
You should always use an example of a time that really happened. Making up a story almost always backfires (trust us, we’ve seen it all!). A recruiter can tell when a candidate is making something up, and it’s also easy to forget the made-up story over time. Stick with what really happened :)
In terms of if the task was when you were in a full-time or part-time role, you can go either way. The type of employment isn't the focus here. It's also perfectly acceptable to choose an example from your current role. Your example doesn't have to be from a job from the past.
What story comes to mind for you?