How to Respond to 'Tell Me About a Time When You Failed'

Updated 21 May 2023

During your job interview, the recruiter may ask the interview question 'Tell me about a time when you failed'. With this question, they want to know how you rectified the situation and if you were able to learn from your experience. Being honest and confident enough to discuss your past mistakes can impress the interviewer and increase your chances of securing the role. In this article, we share why employers ask this question, explain how to answer it effectively and provide some sample answers to help you prepare your own response.

Why employers ask 'Tell me about a time when you failed'

Employers may ask you to describe a time you failed or made a mistake to gauge your level of self-awareness. They want to see if you're able to acknowledge your weaknesses and take responsibility for your mistakes. They also want to hire a candidate who learns from their past experiences and uses those lessons to improve themselves. Explaining how you took the necessary steps to prevent the situation from happening again may impress a potential employer.

Interviewers may want to evaluate your interpretation of the question and choice of example. This can reveal a lot about your personality, allowing the interviewer to understand who you are as a person. Your answer can provide them with insights into your maturity, resilience, temperament and ability to receive criticism.

Related: Fixed vs Growth Mindset: Traits and How to Develop

How to respond to 'Tell me about a time when you failed'

Follow these steps to answer this question effectively:

1. Choose an example

The first step is to consider your work experience and choose an example of when something didn't go according to plan due to your actions or lack of action. Select a situation that only had a minor consequence instead of one that had a large impact on the team or company. If possible, choose an example of a potential failure or where you made a miscalculation rather than a mistake. For example, talk about when a strategy you used was ineffective. This occurs frequently in workplaces and usually doesn't reflect on your character.

Related: Interview Question: 'What Are Your Strengths and Weaknesses?'

2. Define what failure means to you

After choosing an example to share, define what failure means to you. This helps the interviewer gain insight into how you approach your work. For example, you may define it as not meeting your own expectations or the expectations of your colleagues and supervisor. Alternatively, you could discuss a time when you didn't foresee the impact of certain actions or didn't use the available resources.

Related: Interview Question: 'How Do You Define Success?' (With Tips)

3. Describe what happened

Describe the situation and the events that transpired in a concise way. Explain what happened, when you realised that you'd made a mistake and what you did to try to rectify it. Focus on describing the actions you took to minimise the consequences. Try to use an example of a team situation where there was consensus behind the decision-making rather than a situation that arose from your actions as an individual. Nevertheless, make sure that you take responsibility for your actions.

Use the STAR technique to organise your ideas into a cohesive story and ensure you cover all the important aspects. The STAR acronym stands for:

  • Situation: Describe when this event took place and where you worked at that time.

  • Task: Explain what you were trying to do.

  • Action: Explain what happened and how you reacted to it.

  • Result: Share what you've learnt from the situation and what you did to prevent it from happening again.

Related: How to Use the STAR Interview Technique

4. Talk about what you've learnt

The interviewer is likely to want to know what you've learnt from the situation and how you turned that insight into a more productive approach. Even though you're talking about a failure, try to focus on the positive outcomes of the situation. Think about the moment when you realised what had happened. Sharing what you might have done differently shows the interviewer that you're able to reflect on your actions and learn from them in a constructive way. You can also talk about changes you've made to the way you work since that incident.

Use a variety of verbs to explain how you've learnt from and overcome these situations to avoid sounding repetitive. Here are some words you can use:

  • learnt

  • gained insight

  • realised

  • overcame

  • improved

  • corrected

  • recalibrated

  • adjusted

Related: How to Answer the 'What Demotivates You?' Interview Question

Sample answers

Review the following examples of answers to help you craft your own:

Example 1

Here's an example of not pre-empting the users' response to a new technology:

'To me, failure is about oversight and not considering all the factors that contribute to a project's success. In my previous role, the team developed and launched a new cloud-based customer relationship management software. We'd introduced several new features to improve contact and lead management. We had been confident that the staff would be keen to use the system and that it would increase their productivity, but they had several complaints about using it. We then realised that we hadn't considered how learning to use the new software might present barriers to staff.

The team immediately started working on training materials to educate the staff on how to use the software. We created how-to videos and organised live training sessions with question-and-answer sessions for them to resolve any remaining issues. We also created a dedicated email address for help and delegated a team member to handle the queries. Following this experience, I now prioritise user education with every new product launch. Since the implementation of user training, the staff have reported that their productivity has increased and the security of customer data has improved.'

Related: 5 Types of Interview Questions (With Sample Answers)

Example 2

Review this example about not utilising resources adequately:

'I define failure as not making use of the available resources. Last year, my team planned a company dinner and dance on a tight budget. We spent a lot of time looking for an appropriate venue, various entertainment options and lighting and sound equipment. Despite this, we eventually decided to forgo some of the decorations that we had initially planned and chose a simpler design to adhere to the budget.

After the event was over, we realised that we had decorations and lighting equipment in the company's storage unit from a previous event that we could have used. If we'd checked the storage unit before looking for items and equipment, the decorations would have been more elaborate and impressive. I've now learnt to always check the resources we have before making any purchases.'

Related: How to Sell Yourself in an Interview (With Interview Tips)

Example 3

Review the following example about not preparing a thorough plan:

'I define failure as not being able to fulfil what I've promised to a client. Three years ago, I was team lead of a project for the first time, and I was eager to impress the client. I promised the client that we could deliver the product in two months and agreed to the budget they outlined. The team faced several challenges when developing the mobile application, and the project went over budget. We also delivered the final product a month after the deadline. I realised that I had set unrealistic goals and overpromised to the client.

I've learnt to do thorough planning before making any agreements with the client. Since this project, I create a detailed budget and timeline before developing a proposal for the client. I've also used this experience to manage clients' expectations better. For example, in the next project I oversaw, I told the client that we would take six weeks to deliver the product, but we completed it in four weeks. They were very pleased and became one of our long-standing clients.'

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