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 failure 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.

There are also several other questions the interviewer can ask to get information from you, such as:

  1. Tell me about a time you were on a team project that failed.
  2. Describe the biggest challenged you faced at work. How did you overcome it?
  3. What is your greatest weakness?
  4. Tell me about a time you faced an unexpected challenge at work and how you dealt with it.
  5. How do you deal with setbacks?

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 failure?

In this blog, we discuss why the interviewer is asking questions about failures. Also, we tell you what you should focus on when answering this question. Furthermore, read more about frequently asked job interview questions here and check our job interview preparation checklist.

Why Interviewers Ask About Your Biggest Failure

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.

Also, 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. Furthermore, you can discuss what you have already done to improve yourself recently.

Just remember, the interviewer is far more interested in what you have learned than 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 assess:

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

What Answers To Avoid When Discussing Your Biggest Failure

It’s important to know what type of answers you should avoid. If you have not prepared for this question, it could catch you off guard, and you might end up giving an answer that makes it 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. However, it’s not from the interviewers’ perspective because your answer is not related to the question.

Not answering or claiming you make no 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 an 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, what you learned from the experience, and how you’re currently working on becoming a better professional.

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 example, were responsible for the company’s 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

Below you’ll find a checklist of steps you can take to structure your answers to common interview questions you expect about failures.

  1. Be honest

Make sure you prepare an honest answer that includes a time in which you actually failed. A seasoned interviewer will always ask you follow-up questions to get more information, and he or she will definitely know if you’re not telling the truth. Therefore, make sure you prepare a strong answer that uses this question about a failure to your advantage.

  1. Give your answer in the form of a story

Answer the question in such a way that you provide the interviewer with a logically structured story about how the failure came about. 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 interview technique. We will discuss this technique of structuring answers in more detail later on in this blog.

  1. Take responsibility

Always take responsibility for your mistakes and don’t make any excuses. Furthermore, don’t badmouth any colleagues or bosses; this will only make you look bad for the interviewer. Explain what went wrong and why it went wrong and take responsibility for your role.

  1. Explain what you have learned

After walking the interviewer through the situation in which you failed, it’s important to focus on the positive; what you’ve learned. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to prepare to discuss what you have learned.

It’s smart to bring this up yourself. However, don’t be surprised if the interviewer asks you a follow-up question such as ‘What did you learn from that particular situation?‘ during the interview.

  1. Discuss how your follow-up actions made you a better professional

After discussing what you learned from the situation, you can talk about what actions you took to make sure it won’t happen to you again in the future. Include how you have used the experience to become better as a professional.

  1. Don’t use any disastrous failures that could hurt your chances

Go for a real failure that allows you to include a learning scenario. However, make sure you don’t use any disastrous failures that could hurt your chances of landing the job. For example, a failure that was very costly for your employer.

  1. Keep your story concise and to the point

It’s important that you are able to give a strong and concise answer. Preparation is key, and this will also help you avoid rambling during the interview. Aim for 2 to 3 minutes to give your answer. Practice your answer in advance and make sure to time it.

STAR Interview Technique

By using the STAR method, you can give an answer that includes exactly what the interviewer is looking for. Below we discuss the STAR interview technique step by step to explain what to include in your answers to structure it logically and concisely.

Situation

Start your answer by explaining the situation that you faced. The start of your answer ‘story’ should answer questions such as:

  1. What was the situation/problem?
  2. Who was involved?
  3. Why did the situation happen at that time?

It’s important to provide context around what problem needed to be solved. Furthermore, make sure to provide relevant details.

Task

Next, explain your specific role in the task ahead. Include important details, such as specific responsibilities. Focus on giving the interviewer an understanding of your task in solving the problem. This part of your answer should answer questions such as:

  1. Why were you involved in that specific situation?
  2. What’s the background story?

Action

After you describe your task, it’s time to specifically discuss the actions you took to solve the problem. Give the interviewer a step by step description of the actions you took. This part of your answer should answer questions such as:

  1. What steps did you take to resolve the situation you were in?
  2. Why did you choose to complete your tasks this way?

Result

Finish your answer by discussing the results you got from your actions. If your actions failed, explain this here as well. Detail the outcomes of your actions and ensure to highlight your strengths.

Focus on the experience you got from failing and positive learning experiences. This part of your answer ‘story’ should answer questions such as:

  1. What exactly happened?
  2. What did you accomplish?
  3. How did you feel about the results you got?
  4. What did you learn from the situation?
  5. How did this particular situation influence who you are as a professional today?

Example Answers To Discuss 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. As discussed earlier, this is called the STAR-method.

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 – Tell Me About Your Biggest Failure

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 – Tell Me About Your Biggest Failure

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