talk about failure
in a job interview

“Tell me about a time you failed” – a tricky question in the interview

"I have learnt more from my mistakes than from my successes" – this sentence is often used when it comes to getting something out of a failure. Especially in job interviews, applicants prefer to sweep mistakes under the carpet rather than to talk about them. Nevertheless, the question regarding failures is very likely to come up in an interview at some point. This is the best way to respond to it:

Failure is an unavoidable part of your professional life and your interviewer knows that. Of course, your counterpart wants to know something about your successes and how you achieved them. However, interviewers are also interested in your attitude towards failure and how you deal with mistakes: Can you look at them from an objective perspective and analyse where your behaviour was wrong, or do you ignore failure and pretend it never happened?

Mistakes are forgivable, even inevitable. Hiring managers know this as well and do not look for a candidate who makes no mistakes. Quite the contrary, they want to find out whether the candidate can draw the right conclusions: How and where did something go wrong? What have you learnt from that?

You shouldn’t be the one to bring the topic up, but be prepared for the question regarding failures and be able to answer it in a positive way.

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  2. 1. Think carefully about which failure you want to talk about

    This is a fine balancing act. You don’t want to pick a thinly veiled success story that isn’t really a failure at all, such as “I exceeded my monthly sales target by 120 per cent, but I really wanted it to be by 130 per cent, so I was disappointed.” Rest assured, the interviewer will see straight through this. At the same time, avoid talking about a huge mistake or failure which cost a monumental amount of time, money or even jobs.

    Think of a genuine example of where you made an oversight or error in judgement that caused a slight ripple in the ocean, as opposed to a complete tidal wave. This could be something like missing a deadline, not closing a deal or failing to meet one of your KPIs one month – just ensure the example you select is not one of the key requirements of the job you’re interviewing for. Once you have your anecdote in mind, practice telling your story ahead of the interview and remember the below points.

    Clarify the cause of the failure

    Upon telling your story, make sure you can clearly indicate that you know exactly where you went wrong. Try to recall the situation as it happened and pinpoint the obstacles which prevented you from achieving what you wanted to. By this, you show that you know the root cause of the problem, and can prevent it from happening again. Having said that, your reasons can’t sound like excuses or you passing the buck, which brings me onto my next two points.

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  4. 2. Don’t present excuses

    Be careful not to attribute why you failed to things beyond your control, for instance, market fluctuations or a shortage of staff. In business, there will always be uncontrollable elements which can hinder your goals. What’s important is how you identify what is in your immediate control, and take ownership and responsibility for the times that you fail to take control. Doing otherwise will make you come across as defensive and unaccountable during the interview.

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  6. 3. Don’t pass the blame

    In a similar vein to the above, don’t blame other people as you talk about the situation. This is one of the worst things you can do. An employee who always looks for the nearest person to blame, as opposed to reflecting on how they are personally responsible, will always be a threat to the team dynamic, morale and productivity. Talk about what you could have done to prevent the failure from happening, and show the humble self-awareness that all managers respect.

    Don’t be too strict with yourself

    There’s being humble and self-aware, and there’s going completely overboard and being self-deprecating. As you recall your story, don’t insult yourself or make any sweeping generalisations about who you are as an employee. Instead, stick to the facts and tell the story objectively. This will show that you can take these situations on the chin, rather than choosing to dwell on them for ages.

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  8. 4. What you have learned from the failure

    As Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Be sure to outline which lessons you have taken from your story, and how you have since applied them to similar situations to achieve a more positive outcome.

    Everyone will make at least one or two mistakes in the course of the career and will possibly have to explain them in an interview. You should prove you are a responsible and self-confident candidate who wants to learn from mistakes and to use every job for further development.

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