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Susan ShorRobert Lyons
Written by Susan Shor, Robert Lyons

Tell me about a time you failed: sample answers, tips, and hints

11 min read
Tell me about a time you failed: sample answers, tips, and hints
How can you talk about a time you failed without seeming like a failure? What hiring managers want to know when they ask about a failure is how you handled it and what you learned from it.

Nobody has sailed through their professional life without a misstep, but did you correct course or get stuck on a sandbar? That’s what the hiring manager wants to know. This behavioral interview question is aimed at teasing out how you respond in difficult situations.

The best answer comes with preparation, so how do you answer the interview question “Tell me about a time you failed”? The blog below will guide you through with

  • Four sample answers and why they work
  • “Tell me about a time you failed” do’s and don’t’s

 Let’s start with some answers that describe different types of failures.

Sample answers to the prompt “Tell me about a time you failed.”

1.  A communication failure

We’ve all had a colleague with whom we just don’t click and that’s ok. The trick is learning how to work with someone whose style or personality clashes with yours. This typical situation may yield a good answer a perfect anecdote for the hiring manager.

  • “I had a colleague in the finance department who I just could not connect to. We were working on a budget proposal and, while we weren’t arguing, we couldn’t communicate our ideas to one another. We both wanted to do our best and were getting very frustrated, especially as our deadline for making recommendations to senior staff approached. 
  • “One night, I went home ready to admit defeat and report the trouble to my boss, when I struck upon the idea to create a graphic story of how I thought we should allocate funds and why. Not just pie charts, but almost like a graphic novel. I’m no artist, but the visual representation got through to him and we could proceed from there.”

This answer works because it was not a huge failure, but became a success because of the problem-solving skills of the candidate. It also did not blame the colleague for the difficulties and expressed that both were equally invested in doing a good job.

2. A detail failure

Typos and other quick slips happen, especially when we’re under pressure. But seemingly small errors can become big problems if you don’t have a backup system. These errors can also become a great story showing how you learned to focus on the small stuff.

  • “In a previous job in home construction, I was ordering material for a kitchen remodel. It was a complete redesign with lots of detail and hurry. I hit the send button to place the order before double-checking everything because it was a rush job and I felt a lot of pressure to keep the process moving. 
  • “Later that day, I went back to check and, it turns out, I had ordered 500 boxes of flooring instead of 50. I immediately picked up the phone to change the amount. It had gone through the company credit card, but we got a credit and 50 boxes of tile.
  • “That taught me that rushing ends up taking more time in the long run and leads to errors. Now, I double-check all my work before I finalize it and have someone else take a look when possible.”

Yes, this one includes an actual mistake, but it wasn’t egregious and didn’t cause any long-lasting problems. Plus, the end of the story points out the candidate’s increased attention to detail.

3. An organizational failure

Soft skills can be more important to hiring managers than hard skills. Organizational skills help you manage your time and make deadlines. Yes, the hiring manager wants to know you can do the job, but they want to know you can do it on time so others are not impeded by your disorderliness. Have you made improvements in this area because of a past failure? You’ve got your answer to this question.

  • “I was in a team meeting for a product launch campaign for a customer. We were going over the schedule when I realized that I was supposed to have the preliminary images for one of the proposed landing pages completed by that afternoon. Somehow, I had put it on my calendar for the following week.
  • “I froze for a moment because I couldn’t decide whether I should try to rush it through or let everyone know. I decided that we were a team and I shouldn’t let everyone down by doing last-minute work on an important project. I trusted the team and spoke up. A colleague a bit ahead of me on her deadline offered her assistance and we were able to get it done on time.”
  • “Then, I went back to figure out where I had gone wrong. I never did find the exact cause of my mixup, but I suggested to the team that we use project management software from then on. I researched them and proposed Monday to our director and we haven’t had that problem since.”

This candidate felt a responsibility to the team and project and was able to trust their response to his error. They completed the work with the collaboration of the team. Then, they suggested a long-term solution that benefited the entire company.

4. A planning failure

Interviewers won’t always ask “Tell me about a time you failed” in those exact words. Instead, they might phrase it as, “Tell me about a time something didn’t go as planned.” This more narrowly focused question gets to the heart of your analytical thinking and problem-solving abilities as well as whether you tend to figure things out on your own or seek the assistance of colleagues. 

  • “I’m an event planner, so, I know that it’s rare that everything goes as planned! I don’t want to make light of blunders, but it’s almost impossible to plan a conference and have nothing go wrong. The worst that ever happened was due to my lack of forethought.
  • “When I first started, I didn’t leave enough lead time for the caterers to arrive, set up, and have lunch ready for 500 hungry, restless IT professionals. First, I had a few of the vendors start playing with any of the toy-like swag they had to keep everyone happy.

Then, I had the caterers shift gears and announced that we were having a special upside-down lunch. We served dessert first since it was cakes and cookies which were easy to get going, and worked our way back to salad. It worked!

  • “Since then, I’ve planned dozens of conferences and every time I ask the caterer how much time they need to set up. Then I plan for them to be there three hours earlier.” 

This candidate uses a light tone to describe a stressful situation, giving the impression of grace under pressure. It also highlights that she has a whimsical side to her personality. In a job where something is bound to go wrong, these are great qualities to highlight. 

Expert tip

Know your audience

You’ve done your homework while you were preparing your resume and cover letter application package, so you understand the company culture and what they are looking for. Tailor your answer to the “tell me about a failure” question to that style. Answer 4, above, may be perfect for a more casual workplace, but may not be the right approach for a conservative environment.

Do’s and don’ts for answering, “Tell me about a time you failed” 

While your answers should be uniquely yours, following the set of rules below will help you craft a response that makes the interviewer sit up and take notice. 

The answers above have several points in common. They all:

  • Avoid the word “failure.” Yes, the interviewer used the word failure, but there’s no need to repeat it. You certainly don’t need to repeat it more than once. The stories you should be relating are temporary missteps, not true failures. Referring to them as failures may make the hiring manager think you are too hard on yourself or, perhaps worse, they will associate your name and face with the word failure. It’s not the impression you want to leave.
  • Describe the solution you used to correct the failure. Emphasize the self-awareness and learning that came from the experience. Never choose an anecdote that does not end with you growing as a professional.
  • Focus on a failure that did not cause damage to the employer or colleagues. Leaving the hiring manager with the impression that your team had to clean up after a mess you made is not going to win you the job. Even if it all turned out fine in the end, the burden to your company and colleagues is not a selling point.
  • Don’t highlight skill failures that are core competencies of the job. For example, you’re in HR and you failed to code someone’s pay raise correctly; you’re a waiter who gets diners’ orders wrong; or a teacher whose students all failed the AP exam. These are not the stories to tell to your interviewer (unless you are telling them why you are switching careers)
  • Choose a real failure. No one buys that your biggest failure is trying too hard unless it means you missed the forest for the trees. You’re going to have to fess up to a mistake and take responsibility for it.
  • Don’t get defensive. Adopt a tone of humility. Don’t spread the blame or explain away why you did what you did. Simply state what happened and how you corrected it.
Do
  • Describe your solution
  • Highlight skills outside the job’s core competencies
  • Relate a real failure.
Don't
  • Use the word “failure”
  • Focus on a failure that caused the company harm
  • Try to explain away your error

Key takeaways

Yes, your interviewer is asking you about a failure, but don’t dwell on everything that went wrong. Keep the mistake portion of your answer to 2-3 sentences (in which you don’t say the word “failure” more than once). Next, describe your immediate response to the situation. Finally, end on a high note by explaining how you fixed it and what you learned and incorporated into your work routine.

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