"Tell me about a time you failed."
Updated: May 23, 2019
"What is your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?"
This is such a tough question for most to answer because well, let's face it--failures traditionally signal weakness, painful mistakes, and bad memories associated with them. We are accustomed to speaking about our strengths or why others would enjoy working with us, but when it comes to communicating past failures, unprepared candidates draw a blank. Here are some best practices to prepare for and tackle this normally uncomfortable question.
# 1 Get over yourself--everyone makes mistakes. It is common to be asked several questions around failures and conflicts throughout the interview for them to determine your ability to solve key problems related to projects, clients, and others in and outside of the organization. The ways you navigate through failures and conflict management demonstrate many key skills employers seek, especially problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, self-motivation, communication, collaboration, and initiative. A person who is faultless is a person who hasn't learned yet.
#2 Select the most appropriate failure to discuss. Not every failure is the one to discuss during an interview. Whether it's a personal or professional setback, pick a situation from which you truly learned insights which positively impacted the way you perform in the workplace. The outcome may have resulted in failure, but the significance is what you learned from it. Research the company beforehand and avoid examples which you certainly know will hurt your chances, such as unethical behavior, misconduct, or illegal situations. Some examples include:
Missing key deadlines which impacted a project delivery
Team member conflict which resulted in a lost relationship
Getting fired or laid off from a job
Not successfully closing a deal or converting a client
Not achieving goals
Failing necessary training, education, or certifications
Not adapting to a new work environment or culture
#3 Apply a strong, storytelling framework. Once you have a situation or two in mind, apply the PARL method to share the story of your experience effectively within two minutes. Be clear on what's happened since the failure.
Problem: Briefly setup the situation, highlighting what went wrong, the parties involved, and the impact to the affected parties.
Action: Describe what you did to solve or attempt to solve the problem.
Results: Share the results, in this case, the results of the failure.
Learning: What behaviors have you changed as a result of this situation? Have you overcome the failure, and if so, what is an example of new success?
# 4 Practice before the interview. Just like your elevator pitch, practice saying your story out loud to remove the anxiety around answering this question. Repeat the response at least 10 times aloud or in front of a mirror until it sounds like you're proud of what you learned instead of pained by the thought of this past mistake. Remind yourself that you did not let the failure hold you back, and you pressed on instead of allowing defeat to overcome you.
# 5 Be authentic and confident. Your comfort and confidence in communicating your greatest failure and what you learned from it are equally important to the content of your story. The delivery of your message signals to the employer your ability to solve future problematic situations. Remain cool and collected, and be prepared for follow up questions to your response.
Remember, you are being hired to solve an organization's key problems around processes, people, and other resources impacting their day-to-day. Your failure story helps them understand how you overcome future problems based on how you overcame past ones. When the question arises, be calm and remember your training.