"Tell me about a time you failed"

Let’s face it, no-one likes failure, and for some it’s a horrible word that raises their anxiety levels. I’ve read inspirational quotes such as, “I’ve learnt more from my failures than I have from my successes”, but is it really something we all want to experience and do we really want these circumstances dredged up in the interview room? Surely interviews are the place to highlight the wonders of you and all that you’ve achieved?

True as this may be, failure is an inevitable part of working life, and your interviewer knows that. Whilst they will want to know about the times you have achieved success, and how you did it, the interviewer will also want to know how you approach and deal with failure; do you step back and assess where you went wrong, or do you sweep it under the carpet and act like it never happened?

Hiring managers will look for the former type of candidate. Failures are forgivable, inevitable in fact. But not knowing how to identify how and where you went wrong and learn for next time?  Well, that will put you on the back foot. Therefore, whilst you certainly won’t be the one to bring it up, you need to be prepared to answer that dreaded interview question, “Tell me about a time you failed” in a positive way.

Plan which example to talk about

This is a fine balancing act. You don’t want to pick a thinly veiled success story that isn’t really a failure at all, such as “I exceeded my monthly sales target by 120 per cent, but I really wanted it to be by 130 per cent, so I was disappointed.” Rest assured, the interviewer will see straight through this. At the same time, avoid talking about a huge mistake or failure which cost a monumental amount of time, money or even jobs.

Think of a genuine example of where you made an oversight or error in judgement that caused a slight ripple in the ocean, as opposed to a complete tidal wave. This could be something like missing a deadline, not closing a deal or failing to meet one of your KPIs one month – just ensure the example you select is not one of the key requirements of the job you’re interviewing for. Once you have your anecdote in mind, practice telling your story ahead of the interview and remember the below points.

Explain how it happened

Upon telling your story, make sure you can clearly indicate that you know exactly where you went wrong. Try to recall the situation as it happened and pinpoint the obstacles which prevented you from achieving what you wanted to. To me, this says that you know the root cause of the problem, and can prevent it from happening again. Having said that, your reasons can’t sound like excuses or you passing the buck, which brings me onto my next two points.

Don’t make excuses

Be careful not to attribute why you failed to things beyond your control, for instance, market fluctuations or a shortage of staff. In business, there will always be uncontrollable elements which can hinder your goals. What’s important is how you identify what is in your immediate control, and take ownership and responsibility for the times that you fail to take control. Doing otherwise will make you come across as defensive and unaccountable during the interview.

Don’t blame others

In a similar vein to the above, don’t blame other people as you talk about the situation. This is one of the worst things you can do in my book. An employee who always looks for the nearest person to blame, as opposed to reflecting on how they are personally responsible, will always be a threat to the team dynamic, morale and productivity. Talk about what you could have done to prevent the failure from happening, and show the humble self-awareness that all managers respect.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

There’s being humble and self-aware, and there’s going completely overboard and being self-deprecating. As you recall your story, don’t insult yourself or make any sweeping generalisations about who you are as an employee. Instead, stick to the facts and tell the story objectively. This will show that you can take these situations on the chin, rather than choosing to dwell on them for ages.

Show that you have learned from the situation

As Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Be sure to outline which lessons you have taken from your story, and how you have since applied them to similar situations to achieve a more positive outcome.

As I said at the beginning of this blog, mistakes and disappointments are inevitable in your career, so there’s no need to dread talking about them during an interview. Just be sure to choose your story wisely, and tell it in a way which depicts you as an accountable, self-aware candidate who will strive to learn from your mistakes in order to improve future performance.

Source: Jason Walker, Board Director and Managing Director, Hays New Zealand