Interview Question 'Tell Me About a Time When You Failed'

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The interview process is an important part of any job application. The interview allows you to showcase your growth and development as an industry professional. You may be asked to answer typical questions like ‘tell me about a time when you failed'. In this article, we explore how to prepare your answer to this question and provide examples for your interview.

Why do interviewers ask, 'tell me about a time you failed'?

If an interviewer asks, 'tell me about a time you failed', it's essential to understand what the interviewer is asking. While it might sound like they're asking you to reveal your greatest flaws, they're actually asking you to describe a time when you failed and how you overcame it or to tell them about a time when you failed or made a mistake and how you handled it. This unspoken second half is why interviewers ask this question to future employees. It offers you the chance to demonstrate your problem-solving skills, growth potential, previous experience and workplace attitude.

Related: 31 Common Interview Questions and Answers (With Tips)

How to prepare your answer

As with all interview questions, the key to success is in preparation. To ensure this question doesn't catch you off guard, it's vital to prepare and rehearse your answer in advance.

Be honest with yourself

To answer the question 'tell me about a time you failed', spend some time creating honest reflections about your past performance. Remember that the interviewer wants to hear from you and about your experiences. If you're drawing on a team project, reflect on your role and responsibilities within this scenario. To get started on your reflective practice, you can:

  • read up on the current recommended practices in your industry

  • ask your current or previous colleagues for feedback

  • write down your thoughts and feelings about a completed project

  • reflect on a time where you felt stressed or stuck and what you did to solve it

Related: Reasons for failure in life

Analyse your solution

Now that you've identified a time you failed or faced barriers to success, it's time to analyse your solution to the problem. If you can, choose an example where you can demonstrate your success and growth following your initial failure. When you focus on the outcome, you also showcase a positive outlook and responsiveness to constructive criticism. Some potential solutions to identify when answering the question include:

  • adapting your practice the next time you do the task

  • undertaking a personal development course

  • learning from other industry professionals and improving your approach

  • asking for help from your manager

Rehearse your answer

So, you have the two halves of your answer: the failure and how you solved the situation. Next, you need to practice your response for your interview. On average, answers to interview questions need to last between 2-3 minutes, so rehearsing your response can help you find the appropriate level of detail to include. Your answer needs structure and clarity to communicate your experiences effectively. To achieve this, you can use the STAR technique as a way to structure your answer and ensure your answer covers these four key areas:

  • Situation: Where were you working when you experienced this failure? What was the context around your example?

  • Task: Can you identify where things went wrong? Following your failure, what steps did you plan to take to resolve the situation?

  • Analysis: What did you do to rectify the failure or improve for the future? What effect did this have on your workplace and professional practice?

  • Result: What outcome did you experience following your failure and subsequent professional growth? Can you provide quantifiable evidence for this development?

Related: How To Use the STAR Interview Technique in Competency-Based Interviews

Ask for feedback

Once you have a polished, well-rehearsed answer, ask a friend or colleague for some feedback to improve your performance. Honing your non-verbal communication alongside your verbal answer to this interview question may boost success. If there's no one on hand, you can try practising in front of a mirror or recording your answer to assess your response. When delivering your answer, remember to:

  • maintain eye contact with the interviewer

  • keep a friendly facial expression

  • use open body language

  • speak slowly and with good annunciation

  • only refer to notes when needed to maintain a conversational tone

Related: Job Interview Tips: How to Make a Great Impression

'Tell me about a time you failed' sample answers

Here are some 'tell me about a time you failed' examples to help structure your interview answers. Where possible, relate the response you use to the advertised job description, allowing you to demonstrate your professional development is an important area for your prospective position.

Example 1: time management

'In the past, I've struggled with time management in the workplace and balancing my commitments. One time, when I was working for business A, this flaw became particularly apparent when I'd mixed up the date of two meetings, leaving me wholly unprepared for an important meeting with a high-profile client. The situation left me feeling embarrassed and unprofessional, which is when I decided to take action. I trialled a few different time management tools, including an electronic calendar synced to all my devices and a personal Gantt chart.

I found the calendar worked best for me, as it notified me of each upcoming appointment or task wherever my location was. I also informed my manager of my plan to improve my time management skills so that I'd have someone to help hold me accountable and talk to about my skills development. Overall, I found this process beneficial to my professional development, and it helped me create a self-reflection process to proactively improve my own performance.'

Related: How to Create an Actionable Personal Development Plan

Example 2: leadership

'During my time as a workplace services assistant, I had my first experience in a leadership role. My team nominated me for the project lead on an upcoming event we needed to organise. I had never been in charge of a project before, so I didn't know where to start. I struggled to assert my authority and effectively delegate tasks, meaning the event lacked direction and vision. After the event, I reflected on my failings as a leader and knew I wanted to develop this skill for future opportunities.

I spoke to my manager about my struggles with leadership, and they agreed to send me on a leadership development course as part of the company's professional development program. Here, I learned about the different types of leadership and developed my leadership style. I clearly showed my success in developing these leadership skills at the next event I organised, where we had 45% more attendees than my first project.'

Related: Top 9 Leadership Skills to Develop

Example 3: customer service

'In my first job as a customer service provider in my local shop, I encountered a problem when a customer asked me about a service I'd never heard of before. I felt flustered because and I told them we didn't offer it. The customer asked to see my manager and reported that I'd failed to offer a service guaranteed by the company.

While I could have resigned this as a failure, I decided to take a positive outlook and reframe the experience as a learning opportunity. I asked my manager to fill me in about the service, admitting my mistake and improving my business knowledge. This attitude reflected positively in my subsequent performance review and increased my overall customer satisfaction rating by 18%.'

Example 4: an honest mistake

'When I was working in payroll for company X, I realised I'd been making an error in processing employee paycheques for my first two weeks on the job. It was an honest mistake, and once I realised that I'd been making the errors, I immediately flagged the issue to my line manager. I felt really bad at the time, as my mistake impacted a whole department of employees. However, in taking full accountability for my mistake, I was able to work with my line manager to rectify the issue and correct the mistake across the previous month's paycheques.

Once I had resolved the issue, we discussed where I'd gone wrong and went back over the training documents until I was confident in processing the paycheques for the subsequent month. While it was difficult for me to face my failings, it ultimately improved my professional performance and created a constructive relationship with my line manager.'

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