Employers use interviews as a tool for learning about a candidate’s work experience as well as their personality. They will use your resume and portfolio to gain insight into your work experience, but with personality, the best insight is gained through simple discussion. In your next interview, be prepared to engage in conversation about yourself. The framework should remain professional, but the insight an employer is looking for is more personal.
Of all the usual personality questions, one of the most common is, “Tell me about a time you failed.” Today we will dissect this question and work through a number of sample answers so that you can be prepared the next time you’re asked it in an interview.
In this article we’ll discuss:
Why interviewers want to know about your failures
Tips for deciding what is a good failure to describe
Sample answers to use when formatting your own response
Why do interviewers ask about your failures?
When an interviewer asks you to describe a time you failed, they are looking at two main elements.
First, they want to know how you define failure. For some, a failure represents an extreme, like being fired for poor performance. For others, failures are frequent and less consequential, like underestimating how many attendees would be at your work event. There is no right answer, it’s simply a gauge. But remember that during your interview you are still trying to impress the employer, so lean into some of the more mild forms of failure unless you feel confident that an extreme failure represents you well.
Second, interviewers want to understand how you overcome hardship. How did you work through the failure? Did you scramble to correct it immediately, or did you thoughtfully analyze your error to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Again, there’s no right or wrong answer. They just want to better understand your process.
How to decide which failure to describe
Life is filled with failures big and small. So when you’re asked about them in an interview, which one should you pick? Let’s work through it.
Despite any advice you’ve been given about making up a failure to describe, we don't recommend it. Sure, you can cater the example to whatever is asked in the discussion. But the point of asking a question like this is to understand your personality. It would look terrible if an interviewer caught you in a fabled story.
Even if the interviewer doesn’t ask specifically for a work-related failure, you should try to give one. This is purely for relevance. We all have different responses to conflicts in our personal versus professional lives. Your example should represent the side of you that your employer will see.
As we talked about earlier, everyone has a different definition of failure. When you’re thinking about a good failure to describe in an interview, ask yourself how it was a failure. Did you give up on a problem, not meet expectations, or cause an interruption in production? Once you’ve identified the definition of failure associated with your story, go ahead and share it with the interviewer so you’re on the same page.
If you have a failure and you’re still not quite sure what the lesson of it was, that's not the failure to describe in an interview. You want to show your ability to reflect on your errors and overcome them. We all make mistakes, but the worst ones are when there’s no accountability for yourself. Pick a failure where you have grown from it, and ideally where you’ve already been able to implement the change you learned. If there’s a story of follow-up success, add it in too.
Examples of how to answer the question
Below are some samples you can use to format your answer to being asked about a failure. You might also see this question asked as: What’s your greatest failure? How do you handle failure? Describe a failure and how you overcame it.
When you failed to follow through
“To me, failure means not following through. At my previous job, I was tasked with developing a new summer youth program. I was able to get all of the participants registered by the deadline I set, but I was less focused on the content of my program. Some of the details I had used to attract participants ended up being left out of the program, and I received some complaints from participants and from my superior. The following year I was given the opportunity again. That time I hammered out the hard details of my curriculum and got signed contracts from third parties. I was able to register all of my participants and the program I marketed was exactly what was delivered.”
When you failed in meeting expectations
“My greatest failures tend to relate to not meeting someone’s expectations of me. I was honored to receive a promotion within my last company. A condition of the new role was being proficient in Adobe XD. I told my boss that I had a little bit of experience but would take time the following week to refresh my knowledge. They needed someone to make a seamless transition, and it took me three weeks before I was operating the program as well as my predecessor. We met the deadline, but I didn’t respect my boss’s expectations, so for that reason, I felt like I failed.”
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We all experience failures. Interviews provide an opportunity to describe how you’ve grown from them.
Predetermine which failure you want to discuss in an interview. There are good failures to share.
It’s best to use a professional failure example in an interview.