Interview Question: “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”

Updated March 10, 2023

It’s challenging to detail one’s failures or setbacks to a potential employer but questions about a time you may have failed are often necessary. An interviewer wants to know whether you can acknowledge your weaknesses and take responsibility for your failures. This can also reveal the kinds of risks you take, the habits you possess and your perceptions of success and failure.

In this article, we share tips for how to provide a satisfactory answer to "Tell me about a time you failed" while increasing your chances of getting hired.

Related: How to Prepare for a Behavioral Interview

“Tell me about a time you failed” example answers

An effective approach to the “failure” interview question is a story about the failure. While creating a few talking points is helpful, it can be even more beneficial to use those points to create a narrative free of loopholes or unoriginality.

Use the STAR method (Situation/Task, Approach and Results) to prepare your story, detailing what you learned from your experience. The format is an effective way to approach the important points of your story while keeping it short.

In the example answers below, we describe the failure followed by context sentences:

Example failure 1: Task errors

“My current job involves processing claims for our client. In this instance, I made an error regarding the client’s information, and as a result, the company received major pushback from the client. This put a lot of stress on my team in particular, as it is our responsibility to remain accurate and thorough. The error was alarming, and our team suffered because of it. I was determined to not make a mistake like this again, so I spoke with my manager about work strategies I could implement to prevent an error like this from occurring again. Since then, I have not made task errors like this and can keep track of my work more efficiently.”

Example failure 2: Procrastination

“When I first started the position, I found myself falling behind on work due to procrastination. This affected my work, as I was not meeting production standards, making things harder for my team overall. After speaking with my manager, I realized that my procrastination was a symptom of my lack of confidence in my abilities in my role. Upon discovering this, my manager and I decided it would be best if I shadowed other team members to watch how they work and ask questions. I have now been at the company for two years, no longer procrastinate, and regularly review training materials to remain current about my job functions.”

Example failure 3: Management

“I manage a team of 10 people in our department. It is my job to inform the team of system updates via meetings and emails. In one instance, I sent an email about a system update but forgot to include a key detail. Because of this, the team was confused, and the department endured several hours of back-and-forth conversation through email and instant message. Because of this, our harmony and workflow were disrupted. As the leader of this team, I called an emergency meeting to clarify the changes made. I also apologized to my team for the error, ensured any errors made due to mine would not be counted against them and promised to update everyone accurately moving forward. I also let the team know that if they have any other questions or concerns, they can observe my open door policy and express their thoughts with me in person.”

Related: Problem-Solving Skills: Definitions and Examples

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How to prepare your answer

When preparing your answer to "Tell me about a time you failed," consider these tips:

1. Think deeply about the answer

When choosing an instance of failure to discuss, think hard about the outcome of the failure and whether it will boost your chances of getting the job. Choose a story that highlights some of your key qualities relevant to the position you are applying to. For example, if the position involves quick thinking and adapting to change, describe an instance when you struggled with rapid change and have since learned from that experience. 

Also, when choosing your answer, stay away from examples that end in poor decision-making or a skewed view of the workplace. Instead, focus on stories whose ending shows you as a person who is self-aware, willing to accept good counsel and learn from mistakes.

2. Practice your answer

Regardless of your level of preparation, the question may still meet you unaware. However, you can reduce the chances of this happening with practice. A good way to practice interview questions and answers is through role play.

Give your prepared answers to a friend or family member and tell them to pretend to be the interviewer. They will ask you questions and you will provide timely and concise answers. Make sure your rehearsals mimic the conditions of the real interview as much as possible. Practice will improve your confidence and make it easier to recall your stories and key points during the real interview. With this and other methods, you can prepare well for the interview.

Related: Everything You Need To Know About Job Interview Etiquette

3. Ask coworkers for honest feedback

It’s often difficult to assess yourself objectively when you fail. To get an honest assessment of your shortcomings and how they contributed to the failure, encourage a colleague to share their honest feedback over the event.

Look for someone whose position or role was affected by your poor decision and they will probably give you honest input. This can help put your views on the issue into a better perspective and enable you to highlight the key points of the event in your discussions with the interviewer. Not only will the coworker help you see things from a subjective point of view, but the insights you gain from such a conversation may help you in your interview.

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