How To Give Examples of Failure in a Job Interview
Updated November 11, 2022
An interview is your opportunity in the application process to build a rapport, connect with a hiring manager, and show them why you're the best candidate for the role. One common question interviewers ask is for you to provide an example of a time you failed. Learning how to answer this question effectively can help you give the interviewer a response that highlights how you learn from mistakes and apply them to professional development. In this article, we discuss why interviewers ask for examples of failure, provide tips to answer this question successfully, and share some example answers to guide you in preparing for your interview.
Why do interviewers ask for examples of failure?
Job interviewers like to ask for examples of failure for several different reasons. It gives them a chance to learn a little about you and gain insight into how you behave when you make an error on the job and how you learn from mistakes. Many job interviewers ask this complex question as a test to see how you manage tricky situations, so it's to your benefit if you think of some ways to answer this question before the interview.
This question is important because it demonstrates your ability to improve from your mistakes. Other interview questions focus on your skills and the relevant knowledge you possess. By asking you to talk about some of your past failures, the interviewer understands how you learn from your errors and how you respond to adversity. Being able to discuss past failures also demonstrates self-awareness and confidence.
Tips for answering effectively
Each interviewer might be looking for something different depending on the position you're applying for and the skills involved. Hiring managers know the position presents challenges, and they know people make mistakes. They need to understand how you rebound from errors, how you learn from them, and how you respond to constructive criticism. Talking about your past failures is also a topic that can be uncomfortable, and seeing how you deal with that potential discomfort helps them learn about you. See these tips for developing effective responses:
Show confidence when answering
Confidence is essential in job interviews, especially when talking about past failures. The interviewer wants to hear about your mistakes and how you have recovered and learned from them. Talking about past failures humanizes you and demonstrates how you respond to adversity, which you're bound to encounter in your new job.
Be honest when answering
It's important to be honest about a time when you made a mistake or got something wrong. You can be frank when admitting to past failures without speaking negatively about your professionalism. Try to answer in a way that is humble but not self-deprecating. For example, you could discuss a past mistake made in the workplace and how you responded.
Ideally, you can show a sense of pride when discussing how you responded to failures and how you have learned, grown, and improved because of those experiences. Hiring managers usually look for candidates who have confidence but are also reasonable and easy-going.
Demonstrate that you've grown and learned from past failures
Share stories that highlight your ability to grow from difficult circumstances. During an interview, your goal is to give a positive impression of yourself to the interviewer. While it's challenging to discuss a failure of yours in a positive light, it's necessary to discuss it in a way that illustrates how you learn from your mistakes. Demonstrate that you acknowledge your past failures, that you're capable of holding yourself accountable for them, and how you might deal with similar scenarios in the future.
Prepare to answer a question like this
As with many aspects of a job interview, it's essential to prepare as much as you can beforehand. Think of previous errors but try to keep a positive mindset because there's no sense in being overly harsh on yourself about past mistakes. Instead, the point is to learn how you have become a better person because of past failures. Try to think of an example with a straightforward narrative in which you failed at something, learned what you did wrong, and then applied that lesson in another situation to great success.
Choose a relevant example
In an ideal situation, you can think of a previous failure involving some of the same skills or practices involved in this new position. For example, a marketer applying for a job at an advertising firm can think of a previous marketing strategy that went poorly and explain why it went wrong, what they learned, and how they succeeded with this knowledge later. But not everybody has such a relevant example. Try to link whatever example you choose back to the skills you need to succeed in this new position.
Keep the STAR method in mind when answering tough behavioural questions
The STAR method is helpful for crafting easy-to-follow narrative answers that show a clear conflict and resolution. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. Using this strategy helps you ensure that you're fully addressing the interviewer's question while emphasizing that you have recovered from that previous failure as a wiser and improved person. The STAR method is great for answering open-ended questions that involve sharing stories or examples from your life, especially stories in which you made a mistake or failed to accomplish a goal.
Here are some examples of ways you can talk about past failures
Below are some examples of how prepared interviewees might respond to providing examples of failure in their professional life. While these may not be positions for which you are applying, they still give you an idea of how to frame your story and present yourself.
Example 1: applying for a copywriting position
A copywriter might use this interview question as an opportunity to highlight how they've developed their client relation skills:
"I once had a client who wanted me to rewrite their whole website, and they wanted this done quickly. I worked hard and got everything done just in time, but the client was unhappy. They didn't like my use of contractions, and they wanted me to use precise language for their products. I did not fully understand what the client wanted before starting, and I had to rewrite almost everything.
Since then, I have always made sure to understand the client's expectations before starting a job. I send clients a form to fill in their preferences for specific details before I start a project."
Example 2: applying for a position in event management
Here's an example of how an event planner might use an example of failure to focus on their time management skills:
"I was in a university group project to draft an event plan for a theoretical business conference. I volunteered to draft the budget and called venues to see how much they charge to rent their spaces, but some venues didn't reply for over a week. I got busy, and I lost track of my budgeting responsibilities. We ended up working all night before our project was due. We still got an A, but I felt bad for letting everybody down. That's when I learned to prioritize responsibilities with project management software to stay on top of everything."
Example 3: applying for a position as an administrative assistant
Below is an example of how an administrative assistant can use this interview question to discuss their attention to detail:
"My first assistant job was working for a law firm, and I once accidentally sent an invoice to the wrong client. This is an embarrassing mistake at any job, but there are possible serious legal consequences when working for a law firm. As soon as I realized my mistake, I called the client I sent the invoice to and explained my error before asking them to get rid of it. I am now much more careful with these things, and I always carefully check addresses and names before sending anything out. I've never made that mistake again."
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