How To Answer: ‘Tell Me About Your Biggest Failure’ in a Job Interview

You got invited to a job interview, and you’re ready to blow away the interviewer by discussing your strengths. But then, during the interview, you get asked about your biggest failures in your professional career. This is a very common job interview question. Just as the interviewer is interested in your successes and accomplishments, he or she also wants to hear about your failures. Usually, this question is followed up by ‘and how did you deal with it?‘ to get more information on how you handled the situation.

Whether you’re going to the interview for an internship, graduate position, or more experienced position, there’s a large chance that the interviewer will ask about your successes and failures. They don’t ask this because they like to hear about your failures, but they have underlying reasons. So what are these reasons? And how do you respond to a job interview question about your biggest failures? Read all about it in this blog.

Similar job interview questions are:

  1. Tell me about a time you failed?
  2. What is your biggest failure?
  3. Tell me about a mistake you made
  4. Tell me about a time when something did not work out as you planned. What actions did you take and what did you learn from it?
  5. What’s your greatest failure so far?
  6. Tell me about a decision that you regret
  7. What’s your greatest professional regret?
  8. How do you deal with setbacks?
  9. What has been your biggest failure?
  10. Tell me about your greatest failure, and what have you learned from it?

Why is the interviewer asking about your failures?

The interviewer is asking about your failures for a couple of reasons. For an employer, it’s important to get a feeling of your personality and to see if you’re accountable and upfront, and not making excuses. In addition, the answer that you provide the interviewer gives them information on if you can acknowledge mistakes, if you’re able to learn from them and if you use the experience to get better as a professional.

The interviewer knows that of course, everybody makes mistakes. However, for you as a candidate, it’s a big step to actually discuss your mistakes and describe what you may have learned from them. Just remember, the interviewer is far more interested in what you have learned that the failure itself. He or she is not trying to pinpoint your professional weaknesses, but they are trying to get an understanding of how you deal in certain situations.

In short, what the interviewer wants to know from your failure story is:

  1. Are you able to acknowledge you made mistakes?
  2. Are you someone that is capable of learning from your mistakes?
  3. Do you possess enough self-awareness to discuss your weaknesses?
  4. Do you take smart, calculated risks?
  5. What’s your general view on success and failure?

Answers to avoid when discussing your failures

It’s important to know what type of answers you should avoid. If you have not prepared for this question, it’s easy to immediately give an answer that might seem like you’re careless. Also, you never want to tell the interviewer that you don’t remember any failures, whether it is because you actually think this or by trying to hide it.

Not giving an answer or stating that you have not had any serious failures will probably indicate to the interviewer that you have not given it a serious thought yet, which could mean that you lack self-awareness. You might think that stating something like ‘Well, there are no significant failures that I can think of. I think I’m lucky to be successful as a professional in most of the positions I had so far’ is a safe answer, but it’s not from the interviewers perspective because your answer is not related to the question.

From the interviewer’s point of view, not giving an answer or stating that you did not make any mistakes can be interpreted in several ways:

  • You think that you’re perfect and you don’t make any mistakes. This indicates a lack of self-awareness or inability to grow as a professional.
  • You’re always playing it safe, and therefore you never take any risks.
  • It’s possible that you’re not keeping a high standard, which is the reason why you never failed.
  • You’re trying to hide (bad) failures that you do not want to discuss.

If you give the interviewer the feeling that you’re a person who rushes through things during work or someone who makes many mistakes in general, without being able to describe what you learned from them, this could hurt your chances of getting the job. Also, in case you really have not had any failures in your professional career, the interviewer might think that you’ve probably never succeeded on a significant level. Face it; everybody makes mistakes, so make sure you’re well prepared in advance so that you are able to describe your failures in a professional way.

Tips To Answer: ‘Tell Me About Your Biggest Failure’

Basically, you have three different ways of answering a question about your biggest professional failures. They can be broken down into:

  1. You tell the interviewer that you never had a big failure or you try to switch the conversation to another topic
  2. Describing a situation to the interviewer in which you almost failed but you overcame it, and what you learned from the experience
  3. Telling a story about how you failed, the reason for failure and what you learned from the experience

Needless to say, option 1 is a no go. Options 2 and 3 are both good to include as examples to answer this question. However, make sure that you avoid example situations that include a ‘disaster’ scenario. If you, for instance, were responsible for the company corporate bank accounts and due to your mistake, the company lost $500,000; this is not something you want to tell the interviewer.

Checklist to structure your answer to questions about failures

  1. Describe an actual situation you’ve been in which you failed.
  2. Speak clearly about what happened.
  3. Always take responsibility for your mistakes and don’t make any excuses.
  4. After you described your failure, according to the STAR-method, show what you have learned from the experience.
  5. When discussing what you’ve learned include how you have used the experience to become better as a professional and how you’re avoiding similar mistakes in the future.
  6. Go for a real failure that allows you to include a learning scenario. Don’t use any disastrous failures that were costly for your employer.
  7. Keep your story concise. Aim for 2 to 3 minutes to give your answer. Practice your answer in advance and make sure to time it.

Example answers to describe your failures

The situation you describe to the interviewer is the most important part of answering this question. Therefore, it’s important that you describe the situation (S), your tasks (T) in that situation, the actions (A) you took and the results (R) that came out of your actions. In short, this is called the STAR-method. The STAR-method is ideal for describing situations in a concise and concrete way. The interviewer will recognize that you’re able to structure a story from beginning to end. To finish your answer, you should include what you learned from your failure in that particular situation. Below some examples are described.

Sample answer 1:

Situation: ‘In my previous role as a junior project manager my director asked me if I wanted to lead a project for one of our main clients that was getting ready to sell off a large part of his real estate portfolio. Of course, I said yes to this because It would be my first time running my own project team.

Task: I was responsible for the team and the data collection to prepare the pre-sale process in which all the needed sales documentation was going to be created. The goal was to get this ready within 4 weeks. 

Action: To structure a portfolio sale in such a short period there was no room for error. I created a planning for the team, assigned responsibilities, and all contacts were approached to get the needed information in, in time. 

Result: After we were 2 weeks in the project, I found out that we missed a part of the information needed. I rechecked my earlier work and found out that when I structured the planning, I overlooked one important contact that had important data to include in the sales documentation. 

The learning: After I found out about the missing details I immediately contact our client to explain the situation and why the error had occurred. Fortunately for me, the client appreciated my honesty and even though it took some time to gather the data, we were able to get it in just in time to include in the sales documentation. For me, the most important learning of this failure is focussing on clear communication with everybody involved, especially if I’m in the lead of the project. Fortunately, I only had to make this mistake once in order to learn this. I’ve completed several large projects afterward successfully within that same company.’ 

Sample answer 2:

Situation: ‘In my last job, our team manager was looking to add more members to our team because we had an increase in work assignments that required a lot of work in a short timeframe. 

Task: My manager gave me the opportunity to interview a couple of graduate-level job candidates. The goal was to find 2 to 3 suitable candidates for our team.

Action: I order to do that, I had to be, of course, careful about which candidates I would advise to my manager. I picked three candidates that in my opinion, had the right qualifications, even though I still had some doubts about one particular candidate and if he would fit into the team.

Result: All three candidates were hired by my manager based on my advice, but the one I had doubts about underperformed and did not really fit well into the team. Eventually, my manager fired him after a brief period in the company.

The learning: What I learned from this situation is that important decisions are not to be rushed and that I should be more careful making them. Furthermore, I learned that if I have any doubts or if I’m unsure about something that I should talk to my team or coworkers who are more experienced.

Since this situation occurred, I was involved with 11 successful hires and never had a bad experience like that again. For me, it was a great lesson to learn to discuss thoughts within the team when in doubt.’

Job Interview Topics – Common Job Interview Questions & Answers

Below you can find a list of common job interview topics. Each link will direct you to an article regarding the specific topics that discuss commonly asked interview questions. Furthermore, each article discusses why the interviewer asks these questions and how you answer them!

  1. Accomplishments
  2. Adaptability
  3. Admission
  4. Behavioral
  5. Career Change
  6. Career Goals
  7. Communication
  8. Competency
  9. Conflict Resolution
  10. Creative Thinking
  11. Cultural Fit
  12. Customer Service
  13. Direct
  14. Experience
  15. Government
  16. Graduate
  17. Growth Potential
  18. Honesty & Integrity
  19. Illegal
  20. Inappropriate
  21. Job Satisfaction
  22. Leadership
  23. Management
  24. Entry-Level & No experience
  25. Performance-Based
  26. Personal
  27. Prioritization & Time Management
  28. Problem-solving
  29. Salary
  30. Situational & Scenario-based
  31. Stress Management
  32. Teamwork
  33. Telephone Interview
  34. Tough
  35. Uncomfortable
  36. Work Ethic