How To Answer ‘Tell Me About a Time You Failed’?

Discover expert tips and examples to effectively answer the interview question, "Tell me about a time you failed.”
Safa Asad
Reviewed by:
Mina Wasfi
February 6, 2024
0 min read time
Safa Asad

Failures are often overshadowed by our discussions of success, as failure is commonly regarded as a negative aspect of life. When it comes to our resumes or cover letters, we tend to emphasize our accomplishments.  However, it is impossible not to make any mistakes. 

Consequently, when job seekers are confronted with the question., "Tell me about a time you failed," they often face difficulty in responding effectively. They may find themselves pondering whether they should tell the truth or take the risk of lying and getting exposed later.  
By focusing more on your learnings, using the right words, and not focusing too much on the failure itself, you can leave a lasting impression. 

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Why Do Employers Ask The Question ‘Tell Me About a Time You Failed’?

You can’t blame the recruiter for asking this question because this question tells a lot about your resilience, temperament, open-mindedness, and ability to handle constructive criticism. 

[fs-toc-omit]✨Testing how you behave in tough situations

Your personal skills are as important as your technical skills when it comes to applying for a job. The recruiter wants to assess your ability to handle challenging situations by asking this question. Your response will give them an idea of your problem-solving skills, and the thought process you have during a time when everything’s falling apart. 

[fs-toc-omit]✨Analyzing learning and growth mindset

Recruiters want to know how you reflect on your mistakes and gather insights from them that you can implement in future situations. They love individuals who have a growth mindset and a willingness to continuously improve. 

[fs-toc-omit]✨Cultural fit and teamwork  

The approaches you take to respond to a failure also reveal your abilities like teamwork or communication. They want to gauge your personality and how well it aligns with their company’s culture. 

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How to Answer the Question ‘Tell Me About a Time You Failed’?

[fs-toc-omit]1. Focus more on the learning than the failure 

The recruiter is interested in hearing about your failures but he is more interested in the outcome. While discussing your failures, don’t just revolve your story around the mistakes but reflect more on the learnings. You can talk about the strategies you took to outline the project and your realizations or improvements during the process, and what effective approaches you used to fix that problem. For instance, 

A year ago, I suggested X as a tool that could be used for our communication, but unfortunately, things were just not working. I discussed it with my team and considered it as an opportunity to come up with the best possible solution. After a deep discussion and analysis, we decided that going ahead with B would be a more feasible option. 

[fs-toc-omit]2. Don’t just say ‘Failure’ again and again

The choice of words during an interview is crucial, while explaining this question you can use the word ‘Failure’ once or twice but repeatedly emphasizing it may imprint it in the recruiter's mind. You can minimize the effect by using alternative words like, “setback”, “consequence” or “challenge”. 

[fs-toc-omit]3. Use the word “we” rather than “I” 

You have to paint the picture in a way that doesn’t put you in a negative spotlight. Always use the word “we”, rather than “I” as it indicates that only you were not responsible but it was a team decision. This also has another benefit, it demonstrates your ability to work well in a team, so look for episodes that involve a group or team mistakes rather than personal ones. For instance, 

We didn’t realize the impact instead I didn’t realize the impact  

[fs-toc-omit]4. Use STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) technique 

The STAR technique enables you to structure your answer in a way that incorporates all key points without veering off-topic. It gives you an edge over other candidates, as your examples will make more sense or logic when explained through this method. 

[fs-toc-omit]5. Keep the story short

When narrating your failure, don’t focus on the nitty-gritty details but just give a high-level overview of the situation and the solution you devised. The more you get into details, the more questions the recruiter will like to have.

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How To Choose A Failure?

[fs-toc-omit]1. Select a trivial failure

Stick to failures that have low impact, remember, your goal is to secure the job so, you want the recruiter to perceive you as a flexible and responsible employee, rather than a burden. Don’t explain the failures that brought significant losses for your previous employer. 

[fs-toc-omit]2. Choose the one that relates to the job post 

If you’re interviewing for a sales position, you’ll never impress an employer if you start giving examples from your experience in finance. Instead, provide examples that are relevant to the job post, explain how you identified the issue and highlight the specific skills you utilized to resolve it.

[fs-toc-omit]3. Give real-life examples

Ensure that you explain a real-life event during the interview, as the recruiter may be able to relate to it. Fabricating a story is risky because if the hiring manager detects your lie, it will greatly diminish your chances of success. You will be more confident discussing a real event as you have experienced it. 

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Sample answers for Each Situation

Let’s move through some examples that will assist you in answering the dreaded question, “Tell me about a time you failed”.

[fs-toc-omit]Example - Teamwork

My team hastily released a smartphone application last year. However, we discovered that we hadn't taken customer considerations into account when the team reported consumer annoyance and discontent. In order to resolve this we launched a campaign along with our communications team that included how-to videos,  Q&A opportunities, and a specific email address for assistance. I regret that we didn't include this in our roll-out strategy, but we worked incredibly hard to learn from the mistakes we made and now give user education top priority with all new launches. 

[fs-toc-omit]Example - Time Management 

In my former company, I was in charge of a project for one of our major clients, and I was so eager to get their approval that I assured them we could complete the project in only two weeks. 

This took longer than I anticipated—three weeks—and they weren't thrilled about it. Looking back, I see that I should have given the client a more conservative estimate. I came to understand that if you are upfront and transparent with your client about the timeline, they won't be dissatisfied, but if you make a promise and then can't keep it, they will be disappointed. I, therefore, used this knowledge to improve my ability to manage client expectations during the projects I manage. 

[fs-toc-omit]Example - Communication

There was a time when I forgot to share the client design guidelines with my team, which resulted in misunderstandings and the necessity for alterations at the last minute. Since then, I've prioritized holding a 15-minute morning team meeting and providing written instructions to make sure everyone is on the same page because I discovered how crucial clear and concise communication is.

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The time you failed must be a turning point of your professional journey, but the way you highlight your resilience and commitment to learning in an interview will show your ability to embrace failure as a stepping stone towards success.

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