How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”

Talk about a time you failed — with confidence.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Person wondering how to answer the question: tell me about a time you failed at work

When preparing for an interview, we are usually looking at what we have achieved, thinking of examples to highlight our strengths, and ways to demonstrate that we are always striving to be better. That’s why thinking about times that we’ve failed might seem counterintuitive and a bit negative. However, this is a common question that recruiters ask. There is good reason for it, and a right way to answer it.

Take a look at our tips for answering the question “Tell me about a time you failed”, find out what employers are looking for when asking, and how to give a confident answer.

Why hiring managers ask this question

This behavioral interview question isn’t designed to slip you up and get you to spill all your bad habits, and it’s not a trick with the recruiter expecting you to demonstrate why you are actually perfect and never make mistakes. To the contrary, this question is asked to find out whether you can identify your weaknesses, own them, and learn from them. We all make mistakes and a recruiter does not want to hear from you that you never make mistakes — this would raise some big red flags.

A recruiter wants to see your behavior if things don’t go according to plan. Are you a problem solver who can turn things around? Are you a grafter who will work through the night? Do you learn from a failure and stratify to make sure it doesn’t happen next time? Or are you the sort of person who blames others, doesn’t accept that mistakes were made, or worse, hides it? This is all valuable information for an employer as they’re deciding if you’re a good fit for the team.

Tips for preparing a response

When crafting a response to this question, you are going to need to give a real-life example, because you are being asked to recount a time that you failed. A generic answer won’t cut it, so think of an example and follow our interview tips to craft a great answer.

1. Be honest, but not to the excess

Pick an honest example of a real failure but keep your example mild. If you made a mistake that cost a company millions, it might be best not to mention that one and think of something less impactful. Examples may include upsetting a client, not admitting that you didn’t understand something, or taking an approach that didn’t result in reaching your targets.

It’s also best practice to answer using the STAR method, which means starting out by explaining the situation and explaining the task, then discussing the action you took and, finally, the result.

2. Be a problem solver

Whatever your failure, a recruiter is looking at how you handled it. When you saw things going wrong, what did you do to try to turn things around? How did you problem solve to come up with a way to make changes? This may also apply after the failure. What did you implement to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again?

3. Show that you did your best

Whilst failing was definitely not the desired outcome, you need to show that you gave it your best shot and didn’t give up at any point. Give some examples to show that you put in maximum effort and even if you took the wrong approach, the failure wasn’t down to a lack of effort.

4. Turn a negative into a positive

Whatever you pick as your failure, the goal is to turn it into a positive. What has failing taught you? Was the failure down to a communication issue that has now been brought to your attention and received some professional development? Did the failure highlight a problem with a process that can now be rectified? It’s important to show that you have learned something, so the failure wasn’t completely for nothing. Everything is an opportunity to learn.

5. Be complimentary of others

When talking about failing, make sure you own it as yours and don’t blame someone else, as this would be a big mistake and wouldn’t paint you in a good light. Show that you are a team player and own up to your mistakes and learn from them, rather than blaming others or external events.

Example answers

Here are some sample answers that you can use for inspiration when crafting yours, or that you can adapt to make your own. It’s important to think of honest examples that have actually happened to you, but these might give you some helpful ideas.

Example 1: Not meeting targets

Sometimes, we miss our targets. And that’s okay! This is your opportunity to explain what you learned from the situation:

“In the first quarter last year, I was so motivated to succeed and do well within the company that I set my targets very high. My manager did question my numbers, but I was determined. It quickly became apparent that I had actually overshot, and my targets were not realistic. As a result, I didn’t meet them, despite working really hard, putting in extra hours and making £10K for the company. Setting my targets so high made my achievements seem like failures. If I had just been more realistic, I would have felt like I could have celebrated my wins. I’ve now learned that setting achievable goals is more motivating and effective.”

Example 2: Submitting client work late

Other projects sometimes make it difficult to meet deadlines, so here’s an example of how to answer if you submitted work late:

“I recently worked for a client that needed a lot of work done quickly. What he was asking was not very realistic, but I didn’t want to upset him or lose him as a client, so I agreed that my team could reach his deadline. Unfortunately, it was more than my team could manage in a short time and it left them feeling overworked and burned out and, as a result, their productivity dipped. We ended up submitting the work late, and team morale was low. I have learned that under-promising and over-delivering is more effective than over-promising and not being able to deliver. I should have been more honest with the client and fairer to my team.”

Example 3: Being late

If you had a period where you were late to work for uncontrollable reasons, here’s how you could respond:

“I had a period of time where I was pulled up by my boss for being late for work on a succession of occasions. The bus I took to work was often late and, as a result, I was turning up to work late. I could have blamed the bus service, but I knew it was my responsibility to find a way to get to work on time, so instead I joined the lift share scheme at work, and found a partner to travel in with, which meant I was always on time going forward.”

Key takeaways

While it may seem strange to talk about failing in an interview, it is an important question that allows a recruiter to understand how you deal with difficult situations, how you solve problems and how you learn from any mistakes you make along the way. It is a question that tells a recruiter a lot about your ability to learn and grow, and whether you take responsibility or pass the buck.

When answering the question, “Tell me about a time you failed,” always remember to:

  • Own the experience
  • Don’t blame others
  • Turn a negative into a positive
  • Address what you learned from the situation

Have you ever been asked this question in an interview? What was your response? We’d love to hear your answers in the comments below!


Originally posted 20 June 2014.