Tell me about a time you failed.
That dreaded interview question. It almost feels like a trick, doesn’t it? You’re interviewing for this role—clearly, you’re aiming to impress. Perhaps your dream job is at stake. And yet, you’re being asked to talk about a time you failed. Do you choose something small and risk it being perceived a cop-out? Or do you share a larger defeat and risk throwing your chances?
Let’s back up. The first step to success in any endeavor is to get to the heart of the matter. In order to achieve a goal, you first need to gain clarity around what that goal is.
It’s no different with interview questions. The key to delivering a well-crafted response to an interview question—especially a behavioral interview question—is understanding the goal of the question being asked. What is your interviewer hoping to learn about you by asking this question?
Answering behavioral interview questions:
Failure questions are classics in the repertoire of the behavioral interview. Behavioral interview questions are a big part of most job interviews—allowing hiring managers to gauge how you approach various types of problems and team dynamics. The rationale is that, by understanding how you performed in the past—and more importantly, how you think about how you performed—they’ll gain a better sense of how you’ll perform in the future.
Through this lens, the failure interview question becomes much clearer. Strategizing whether to choose an insignificant oversight or a big mistake is not the point (granted, something too small may still seem a cop-out, and too major an infraction could, likewise, be damaging). The point is to demonstrate how you respond to, think about, and grow from your failures. Your manner of talking about failure, more than the circumstance of failure itself, is what your interviewer is digging for.
The best answer to the failure interview question will accomplish three things:
- Show the interviewer how you acknowledge failure
- Show how you reacted
- Show a growth moment
Was this error your fault? Was it your teammate or manager’s fault? Was it caused by forces beyond your control?
The fact is, everybody fails. As Ford states, “One who fears failure limits his activities.” Your interviewer does not expect you to have never failed at anything, but a failure to accept failure is a major red flag. Choose a failure that you can truly own. The entire thing doesn’t necessarily have to have been your fault, but you need to be able to accept your failure in the role you played.
Be honest, be vulnerable, and be comfortable with your learning curve as a professional and as a human—your failures do not define you, but how you move forward will.
Explain the situation, and then share how you responded. Again, be honest—in an ideal world, you were able to respond correctly and set everything right, but it’s possible that the damage was irreversible, or your response was a continuation of the initial failure. Yes, your hiring manager will care about how you reacted under fire, but they’re likely to care much more about what you learned. Which leads us to...
This is the most important part of your response. What did you take-away from this experience? Did it teach you anything about your own work or how you should function in an organization? How will this failure become an opportunity for you to “more intelligently begin again”?
To illustrate, an anecdote...
In a recent Startup Institute standup, students were sharing the high(-and low-)lights of their mock interview night. The program director asked two students (let’s call these two “Fred” and “Wilma”) to talk about their responses to the failure interview question. Below are their responses:
I moved across the country to start a new role in which I was responsible for building a team that would fix a major issue the organization was having. I went over there confident—maybe arrogant—and certain I’d be able to accomplish this goal. Soon after I arrived, I found that the organization was in way over its head. The issues were much deeper than I had anticipated, and I couldn’t make the impact that I had promised. I was so frustrated with the situation that I quit before the project was finished and moved back home.
Looking back, I regret this. I realize that it wasn’t just the company’s fault—that I had failed, too. Yes, there was a lot that was beyond my control, but if I had stayed and focused on my team and those things that I could control, I could have made a difference. Now, this is something that I think about when I feel like everything’s going wrong and I’m in over my head—I focus on the things that I can control.
I spent the summer as an intern for a company that worked with massive amounts of data, and they asked me to help with inputting this data into their system. One day, while I was working on this, I accidentally deleted all of it. Then, I had to work out how to undo the damage I’d caused. It was a stressful day, but I managed to get the data back and everything worked out fine.
Who do you want to hire?
Based on the immediate reaction alone, you might choose Wilma. She made a huge error, but didn’t let fear or stress get the better of her. She kept a cool head and worked the problem out. Go Wilma.
But, the growth moment is key. Wilma’s story doesn’t include any reflection or learning. Seemingly, she fixes the problem and is able to move forward with her work—no better or worse for this accident having happened. On the other hand, Fred’s initial reaction to failure—quitting—does not position him as an attractive candidate. Still, he goes on to demonstrate growth. He’s able to look back on his actions with clarity around the mistakes he made and what he would’ve liked to have done differently. He then shapes these reflections into a lesson that can inform his behavior moving forward. This shows self-awareness and a desire to grow—two qualities that are incredibly attractive to hiring managers at growth companies.
If you’re interviewing for a role that you’re excited about, there’s no question that the failure interview question needs to be handled with care. Behavioral interview questions can often seem like curve balls if you're unprepared for them—this is why it's good to keep a few stand-out examples in your back pocket that you're ready to share and reflect on. Remember: with this, or any other interview question, you can best communicate the things that your interviewer is really trying to learn about you when you understand what they're asking. Don't be afraid to ask for a moment to collect your thoughts, take a deep breath, and dive in deep.