How To Respond to “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published September 29, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Related: 8 Short Answers to the Most Difficult Interview Questions + What NOT To Say

In this video, Sinead shares strategies for responding to difficult interview questions including what NOT to say in an interview.

During a job interview, the employer may ask you to reflect on situations when you failed in the workplace. Though it seems intimidating, this question is actually an opportunity to express your professional development and show how you've learned from your mistakes. Improving how you answer this interview question can help you impress the hiring manager. In this article, we discuss why employers want you to describe a time when you made a mistake, explore how to respond to "Tell me about a time you failed" in an interview, and provide examples and tips to help guide you.

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Why do employers ask you about a time you failed?

Employers may ask "Tell me about a time you failed" to assess how you respond to challenges. In your new role, your efforts may sometimes be unsuccessful, but having adaptability and a willingness to learn from your errors can enable you to perform better in the future. The interviewer may expect a specific, honest answer to show you take responsibility for your mistakes. As a job candidate, consider using your response to exemplify your ability to critique your own work.

Related: 10 Types of Interview Questions You Can Expect

How to respond to "Tell me about a time you failed" in an interview

Follow these steps to develop an impressive response when the interviewer asks you to describe a time you were unsuccessful:

1. Describe the situation

The first step is to provide context for the situation. It is important that the interviewer can visualize what happened, helping them understand how your efforts failed to yield the results you expected. Consider summarizing the specific project you were working on and what you wanted to accomplish. You can also summarize the purpose of the project, which can enable the hiring manager to compare your goals to the actual results.

2. Take responsibility for your actions

The second step is to acknowledge how your actions contributed to the failure. Show the employer that you have the self-awareness to recognize your faults. Use clear language to exemplify your accountability. For example, you can say, "The mistake that I made had a negative impact on my team, and I took full responsibility for what transpired." To provide additional context, you can recall measures you may have taken to change the outcome. The interviewer may appreciate how you've contemplated the situation and made adjustments to your processes to improve yourself professionally.

3. Reinforce how you applied the feedback

The third step is to indicate the outcome of the situation, including feedback you received. Discuss what you learned from your failure and how the experience helped you become a better employee. This allows you to demonstrate to the interviewer that you have learned from your mistakes. The employer can also gain confidence that you've taken appropriate measures to avoid making that same error again. Finally, talking about the feedback you received from management or a colleague and how you applied it to your role can reinforce your commitment to professional growth and receptiveness to feedback.

4. Practice delivering your response

Once you've brainstormed on how to answer the question, rehearse your delivery to ensure you communicate your message properly. Consider practising in front of the mirror to examine your nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, posture, and mannerisms. It may be helpful to record yourself delivering your response so you can assess your voice. For example, you can practise articulating your words clearly and speak at a rate that's comfortable for the interviewer to follow your story. Rehearsing your answer may also be helpful as you prepare to respond to other interview questions.

Related: Interview Preparation Tips

Tips for answering "Tell me about a time you failed" in an interview

Here are some additional tips to help you describe a time you failed in an interview:

  • Provide an example that relates to your desired position. A relevant story may capture the hiring manager's interest. When brainstorming a response, consider occasions that occurred when you worked in roles similar to the one you're seeking.

  • Discuss how you improved your skills. Your journey to improve your performance can ensure your story has a positive ending. Mention how you spoke with your manager, for example, or searched for resources to strengthen your abilities.

  • Explain your reaction to the failure. Talk about what you did to remedy the situation after you learned of your mistake. A quick reaction time can show your ability to remain calm and strive to overcome workplace challenges.

  • Reference your work experience. When you explain the circumstances of your failure, consider referencing your level of responsibility and the job title you held. The employer can better understand the extent of your work experience, and your positive outcome can show you've grown in the role.

  • Specify your appreciation for the experience. The ending of the explanation can also show how you value what you gained or learned as a result of your failure. Include a statement about how you feel more dedicated to the industry, for example, or how your work ethic has changed.

Example responses to "Tell me about a time when you made a mistake"

Here are several sample responses for this potentially tricky interview question:

Task errors

This sample response describes a mistake made during an assignment.

"My current job as a marketing coordinator requires me to design graphics for social media. For an upcoming fundraising gala, I designed a flyer that showed our followers the date and time of the event, which encouraged them to attend. When the event occurred, our guest attendance was uncharacteristically low. Upon further examination, I learned that I'd included the wrong date on the flyer, confusing potential guests. I designed an updated flyer to apologize to our donors. Since then, I've paid greater detail to the content that I post to prevent future mishaps."

Procrastination

The following sample answer illustrates how procrastination with job duties posed challenges for the employee.

"When I first began my current role as a content writer, I fell behind because of procrastination. My goal was to write three articles a day, but I struggled to remain focused to meet my word count requirements. After speaking with my manager, I discovered my procrastination habits stemmed from the lack of confidence in my abilities. We decided it may be helpful to undergo training to better understand the client's requirements for the writing. I also recorded new knowledge on note cards that enhanced the quality of my work. Now I can write five articles per day efficiently."

Leadership

Here is an example of a newly appointed manager attempting to establish their authority.

"My supervisor appointed me as the leader of the sales team while he was out of town. That made me responsible for directing a group of my peers. I struggled to find a balance between maintaining my personal friendships with them and holding them accountable for their conduct in the office. My leadership resulted in all of us failing to meet our sales quotas, and I had to answer to our manager when he returned. I realized I needed to assert my authority and establish boundaries with my peers. I appreciated my manager offering tips because it improved my leadership skills exponentially."

Related: 10 Interview Questions for Supervisors

Time management

Here is an example of a leader missing deadlines because of unsuccessful scheduling.

"In my first development process as a project manager, I worked with a client who wanted my team to create a new mobile application. They asked me how long it may take to deliver the final product, and I told them I estimated two months. I had underestimated the complexity of the project and failed to reserve enough time for troubleshooting and code inspection. We finished the project, but it took us three months instead of the original timeline, and the client felt dissatisfied with our productivity.

I realize now that I could have prepared more for the project and given the client a deadline that considered setbacks and unforeseen circumstances. That's a practice that I do today to ensure there's clear understanding between the client and me, and the deadlines are realistic."

Collaboration

In this example, an employee recalls a time when they failed to collaborate with others in the department.

"I worked as an academic advisor for a university and was one of four advisors in the department. The provost asked us to develop ideas for a curriculum that attracts new students. I failed to take the time to build a relationship with my colleagues, so our collaborative efforts were inefficient, and the provost expressed we may have done a better job. I realized I was the only member who failed to connect with the other advisors and failed to be as supportive of their ideas as I could have been.

I worked with them to improve my interpersonal skills and be more welcoming to their suggestions, so they felt comfortable offering a different perspective. Our teamwork improved greatly after that experience."

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