The "Failure" Interview Question

Over the course of the last several weeks, many people have asked me a question about how to respond to a failure question in an interview. It is one of those, “Tell me a time in your career where you failed …” questions that can often derail a candidate during an interview. The key to answering the question is to understand what the interviewer is looking for from the candidate.

  • The candidate is willing to take risks – Top performers who take on challenges and look for ways to grow take initiative and are more attractive to employers. Candidates who have few failures are typically playing it safe in their career – they have not put themselves out there to grow and stretch themselves.

  • The candidate is self-aware and can assess their failures - It can be hard to admit a failure. The challenge is that a person cannot grow from an experience if they are not willing to admit when things did not go well.

  • The candidate is confident enough in themselves to share their failures - Top performers know they grow from failure and that putting themselves in a position where they do not have all the answers will help them in their career. We all make mistakes. Being open to admitting when things didn’t go well provides the space for talking about future success.

  • The candidate learned from the experience – When a top performer reflects on the mistakes that they have made, they look for ways to change their approach in working through similar situations in the future. The interviewer will likely be looking for how you handled the situation and how you bounced back from the setback.

Not all failures are created equal. When you talk about a failure in an interview, it is best to focus on failures that are driven from a knowledge gap. For example, your background and experience are in Sales and then you take on a Customer Experience role. The first few months of being in the new role can be deflating when you realize that the approaches you have used in the past are not applicable and working harder is not helping the situation. Once you come to this realization, you look to increase your knowledge through reading and talking to experts to determine how to make the necessary adjustments. In your interview, describe the results that you achieved over time. Use metrics to communicate the improvements, because it provides objectivity to the results.

Good luck!