“Tell me about a time you failed” is one of the most dreaded interview questions for job seekers, as it can reveal important insights about an applicant’s maturity, resilience, temperament, problem-solving skills, and ability to receive critical feedback. However, you can’t blame interviewers for asking it, as these qualities may not appear on a CV or cover letter and may not be brought up unsolicited. So, how can you respond to this question in a way that is revealing without being repellant?
Here are eight tips for answering this common behavioural interview question, along with examples of what to say (and what to avoid).
1. Focus more on the learning than the failure
The recruiter ultimately wants to know what you learned from the failure and how you turned that insight into a productive approach. These are often failures of realizing, appreciating or preparing, as opposed to failures of doing, ruining, or harming, which emphasize the consequences of the failure.
For example: “Three years ago, we tried A, but it didn’t achieve our goals. We then analyzed our situation and decided that B would be a better strategy. We took action and now we are seeing a greater result with C.”
2. Choose a miscalculation, not a mistake
Everyone makes errors, but at a job interview, a minor blunder can be interpreted as a personal flaw. Miscalculation, not mistake, produces the most effective learning.
For example: “We made assumptions about what our consumer base already knew when we started the project. However, when the first phase did not go as anticipated, it became evident that we had underestimated their knowledge. To address this issue, we did focus group testing prior to the next phase to verify that our campaign matched the knowledge of the demographic we were targeting, and I still remember that lesson today.”
3. Don’t bring extra attention to the failure
Saying the word “mistake” one time is appropriate to demonstrate that you’re answering the question directly. After that, you can soften the impact of failure by referring to it as an “outcome,” “event,” or “challenge.”
For example, “I encountered an obstacle while working on a project, but I was able to learn from it and progress.”
4. Use specific examples
Instead of talking about general failures, use specific examples that demonstrate how you overcame a challenge.
For example, “I once had a difficult time managing a team of 10 people. I realized that my communication skills were lacking and I was not able to effectively delegate tasks. I took a course on team management and communication and it helped me to improve my skills. Now, I can manage larger teams with ease.”
5. Show how you have grown
Be sure to mention how you have grown and changed as a result of the failure.
For example: “I realised I needed to be more organised and better at time management. I started using a calendar to organize my tasks and set deadlines. This encouraged me to stay on track and be more productive.”
6. Show how the failure led to success
If possible, show how the failure led to a positive outcome.
For example, “I was once part of a project that didn’t go as planned. But we were able to learn from our mistakes and come up with a new strategy that ultimately led to the successful completion of the project.”
7. Show how the failure made you a better employee
Explain how the failure helped you to become a better employee.
For example, “The failure taught me the value of careful preparation and risk management. Now, I make sure to thoroughly assess potential risks and have contingency plans in place before starting any project. This has helped me to become a more proactive and efficient employee.”
8. Don’t place blame on others
Even if others were involved in the failure, avoid placing blame on them. Instead, take responsibility for your role in the failure and show how you learned from it.
For example, “I realized I could have been more assertive in my communication with my team, which resulted in a lack of clarity. I took the initiative to improve my communication skills and now I make sure to clearly communicate expectations and goals to my team members.”
In conclusion, answering the question “Tell me about a time you made a mistake” can be a tricky task but by focusing on the learning, choosing a miscalculation over a mistake, minimizing the sting of failure, using specific examples, showing growth and how the failure led to success, made you a better employee, and not placing blame on others, you can turn a potential negative into a positive.
To get tips on answering the different types of interview questions, read more on Interview Common Questions Answered Uncommonly Well. All the best in your next interview!