Approach this tricky interview question with confidence and chutzpah by following the advice below

Admitting to mistakes in life is bad enough. It reveals that you're not perfect. Hang on a minute. You're human… and you're not perfect? Well, get outta here! The thing is, we all make mistakes… a lot of the time. It would be weirder if you hadn't ever done anything wrong or made a few errors along the way. It's how we learn and grow as people.

But having to describe a time when you failed? During an interview? It's enough to make you squirm. Surely that would be the worst time to talk about your biggest failure. It goes against everything you've prepped for when getting ready for an interview - probably one of the most important times in your life, up to now.

What you want to do is show off your key skills, your great personality, and how you'd be such a good fit for the organization while really selling yourself, but that can be quite difficult when faced with the “tell me about a time you failed” question.

As one of the most common questions recruiters ask, “tell me about a time you failed” is highly likely to be one of the interview questions, so you really do have to be prepared with a comprehensive answer. It's no good waltzing into the interview with the aim of winging it, as this could completely backfire on you. Make sure you've rehearsed a good answer to the “tell me about a time you failed” interrogation before opening that door.

Why do employers ask “tell me about a time you failed”?

No, it's not because they've got a cruel streak in them and want to see you suffer. There's a very good reason as to why this is often in the top 10 of interview questions. Not to be confused with the "what are your weaknesses?" question, this specific query is trying to gauge your overall attitude to failure along with how you deal with adversity.

For all they know, you could be the next JK Rowling, whose first draft from a rather well-known series of books on a certain boy wizard was famously rejected 12 times before being accepted. She proved that resilience and perseverance works, and that's how you want to come across as well.

How to answer interview questions about failure  

The hiring manager is looking for three key elements in your answer, so make sure you include all of them when you reply.

 1. Take ownership of the mistake or failure

Don't lay the blame on others, defunct technology, or the intern who happened to be in the room at the same time. Clearly lay out what you did wrong, acknowledging that you could've done better - and what you should have done, with hindsight.

2. Show what you've learned since then

As we know, everyone makes mistakes - it's how you learn from them and what steps you take to resolve them that's the key. It's also important to point out that you learned so much that you never made the same mistake again. Another tip, when choosing which failure to highlight, is to pick one that happened a long time ago, if possible. So you can start to answer the “tell me about a time you failed” query with “back in my first job, seven years ago…” This then sets it apart from the type of person and employee you are now, having grown in confidence and responsibility since then.

3. Tell the story succinctly, with a positive ending

Communicate clearly, without getting sidetracked, as this demonstrates other traits of yours that are beneficial to the employer. Keep it concise, between two and three minutes without waffle, and end on a positive note to show how you bounced back from the error, learned from it, and moved on.

And avoid these mistakes at all costs

Being in an interview situation can be scary, especially when the focus is on you and your failure story. There are ways to combat this fear and come out of it at the other end without a blemish on your character. However, be aware of adding to your failures by making the following mistakes while answering the question “tell me about a time you failed”.

Don't say “I've never made any”. This is almost certainly untrue and will make you look distrustful and unable to admit when you're wrong. Also, the interviewer probably won't believe you!

Additionally, be careful which mistake you pick. If you were fired because of the mistake or it led to the company losing a whole heap of money or missing out on revenue, then it's a brave person who can state that and then brazen it out. It might be worth considering choosing another, rather less extreme, example. 

“Tell me about a time you failed” examples

Below are three “tell me about a time you failed” sample answers which you can tailor to your own story.

Example 1

At my first job, over seven years ago, I was part of a team working on a contract when I landed the chance to oversee a project for a new client. I had built up good relations with the client and was keen to secure further work from them, so I calculated that the project would take three months. We had some setbacks and it ended up with the project taking over four months. The client was not happy. I didn't shy away from admitting to a lack of time management skills. It made me realize the importance of managing client expectations. So on the next project, I overestimated the time it would take to complete, and we finished before the deadline. This time the client was really happy because I'd delivered before the set timeline.

This is a “tell me about a time you failed” example relating to client satisfaction and managing expectations. Note how the candidate makes it very clear how they've learned from past errors and made good the next time they were faced with the same situation.

Example 2

In my entry-level job out of college, I joined a team where my Line Manager took an instant dislike to me. I had no idea why, but it rankled. One time, he was incredibly rude to me in front of several other colleagues. Afterwards, I was talking to one of my peers who I thought was trying to console me. Angry and upset, I vented my fury about the Line Manager to this person, who then proceeded to tell everyone what I'd said. I was shocked and hurt by the whole situation. But I didn't want to let it fester or cause further bad feeling in the office, so I approached my Line Manager for a chat. It turned out that he resented me for getting the job that a friend of his had been put up for, but he'd been rejected. After that, his behavior changed and we got on quite well. I learned that it's best to be discreet where interpersonal relationships are involved, and that talking to the person involved is much better than mouthing off to others.

In this communication / team / relationship building example, the interviewee is very candid and honest in what must have been a really awkward circumstance. However, they've done the right thing by talking directly to the member of staff, rather than ignoring the situation.

Example 3

I remember being overwhelmed by some targets we were set when I was a Shop Assistant six years ago. So I pushed them to one side, concentrating on the KPIs that I knew I could achieve. Halfway through the quarter, my boss asked how my targets were looking. I admitted I hadn't done anything different, so she challenged me to come up with some ideas that afternoon. It certainly made me focus, and I did put a list together. Implementing them made a difference. By the end of the quarter, my figures weren't as good as they could've been if I'd enacted the ideas straightaway, but they weren't so dismal as to have a detrimental effect. It made me realize that it's important to get on the case immediately, rather than putting things off that you don't necessarily like. Nowadays, I'm super aware and effective when tackling new challenges.

This is a target-based answer to the “tell me about a time you failed” question. The candidate learned that if something seems too big, they should either break it down into more manageable sections or reach out for help.

The next steps

Admitting errors can be excruciating, but as long as you're prepared with an answer that's not too detrimental to the way you work, then you should be good to go.

The above content will guide you in the right direction of what to say when asked “tell me about a time you failed”. But if you're still on the lookout for more support and advice, enlist the help of a professional by checking out our interview coaching service.

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