Landing an interview after sending in your job application feels like a victory.
But how do you impress employers and handle questions that seem like a trap? One question that trips up many job seekers is “tell me about a time you failed.”
Fortunately, with some practice you can easily ace this common interview question. This guide provides you with all you need to answer this question like a pro.
Why do employers ask interview questions about failure?
The main reason employers ask interview questions focused on failure isn’t to trap you. They just want to find out if you’re adaptable and how you confront challenges.
“Tell me about a time you failed” is also frequently phrased as a behavioral interview question, and is used to get a better idea of how you’ve handled failure in the past.
For example, many interviewers will use a variation of this question like “describe a time when you failed and how you overcame it” because they want to know if you can own your mistakes, learn from your failures, and improve.
Admittedly, it’s easy to freeze up when asked a question focused on a negative part of your career. How do you describe a time you failed without looking bad?
Luckily, answering this question is not as daunting as it might seem. With enough preparation, you can learn how to present a perfect answer to the interview question.
“Tell me about a time you failed” is also a common phone interview question. Phone interviews are usually shorter than a regular interview, so it’s especially important to have an answer prepared so you can answer quickly.
How to answer “tell me about a time you failed”
If you’re wondering how to answer this interview question, we’ve got you covered. We’ll take you through three simple steps to follow to make a good answer and then provide you with several examples.
Here are three steps to help you expertly answer the interview question, “tell me about a time you failed,” and set yourself apart as a candidate.
1. Choose a good example
The first step to answering the question “tell me about a time when you failed” is to choose a good example. The example you choose to share should be one where you used failure as a learning opportunity and grew professionally as a result.
Before the interview, check the job description for the vital skills needed, and avoid using high-stakes failures that could cost you your chance at the job.
As a rule of thumb, avoid examples that involve money. Even if you learned a great lesson, telling employers how you cost former companies profits will probably do more harm than good.
It’s also crucial that you answer the question truthfully. Choose a failure example that actually happened, because interviewers can often see through insincere responses.
When you use an actual example you’ve experienced, you’re more likely to answer follow-up questions confidently and provide details when asked.
The goal is to show your prospective employer that you have no problem acknowledging where you went wrong and that you can learn from your mistakes.
2. Use the STAR method
The STAR method is an excellent format for structuring and effectively answering interview questions. This technique helps you structure your interview question responses into four parts: Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
This strategy is useful for answering behavioral interview questions where you need to provide context when responding. To use the STAR method, give details on the following:
- Situation: What was the situation or problem you faced?
- Task: What was the specific task you were involved in?
- Action: What steps did you take to complete the task at hand?
- Result: What were the outcomes of your actions? (Preferably positive outcomes)
It’s advisable to have your STAR responses prepared even before the interview. Brainstorm and write a list of STAR questions to expect so you’ll be equipped with the answers when the time comes.
Here’s an example of an answer that uses the STAR method:
When I was working as a Barista Lead at Flo Coffee, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated by one customer in particular who would come and use our wifi for hours without ordering anything.
I knew I had to find a way to ask her to pay for something, but I didn’t know how to handle confrontation. One day I let my emotions get the better of me and angrily asked her if she would like to buy something. While I wasn’t necessarily wrong to do so, I confronted her in a way that made her very upset.
I had to find a way to de-escalate the situation and make sure that the customer felt welcome and appreciated, so I apologized to her and gave her a coupon for a free pastry. She came back the next day and was pleased to use her coupon, and after that, she always ordered something when she came in.
I knew that I could have handled the situation much better, and wanted to make sure I would be able to do so in the future. I attended a workshop on healthy confrontation practices and learned how to approach difficult situations in a much more calm, positive, and professional way. My manager recognized my effort and how well I was handling customer complaints, and was so impressed she promoted me to Cafe Manager.
3. Describe what you learned and how you improved
Finally, you get to the most critical part of your response: the lessons you learned and how they’ve helped you improve in your career or life.
Ideally, you should have tangible results where possible to demonstrate how you’ve improved because of your failure. This can include numbers and other specific details like time saved or percentages.
Even if you don’t have tangible results, you can describe how the lessons have impacted your work or outlook, or how you’ve developed your soft skills.
“Tell me about a time you failed” example answers
To help you structure your answer based on the tips shared above, here are a few “tell me about a time you failed” sample answers:
In my previous company, I led a task team for one of our clients. We were on a tight deadline, and since this was a very important client, I opted to do most of the work myself instead of delegating. Unfortunately, we didn’t complete the project on time.
Afterward, I sought resources on leadership and management skills to learn how to delegate effectively. Since then, I’ve learned to trust my colleagues and delegate tasks when necessary. So, the failure was an essential part of my growth that helped me become a better leader.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a challenge transitioning from the office to the home environment when working from home. I didn’t have defined boundaries for my work and home life, which led to stress and burnout. As a result, my productivity took a hit, and my direct supervisor noticed this.
I scheduled a meeting with my therapist to help me set clear boundaries and took active steps to separate my work and personal life. In less than three months, my productivity level was higher than before, and I was promoted to supervisor.
The first time I was promoted to team leader, I promised my manager that I’d improve the production process by 15% by the end of the quarter. I did what I could, breaking down the cycle into smaller processes and assigning responsibilities to the team members.
However, 15% was an ambitious goal in the first place, and we only managed to improve the production process by 6% by the end of the quarter. This experience helped me learn the importance of setting achievable goals and getting the input of my team members before making important decisions.
Additional interview resources
“Tell me about a time you failed” won’t be the only question in your interview. To make sure you’re prepared, read up on some of these other common interview questions and answers: