“Tell me about a time you failed” is one of the interview questions job seekers most dread, up there with “Tell me about yourself” and “Why do you want to work here?”
But you can’t blame interviewers for asking it. Stories of failure can reveal important insights about an applicant’s maturity, resilience, temperament, openness to learning, and ability to receive critical feedback — qualities that won’t appear on a resume or cover letter and probably won’t be brought up by the applicant unsolicited.
Does this mean you should respond with your most epic screw-up ever?
No. Your screaming self-preservation instincts are correct. Sharing an embarrassing and consequential failure during a job interview could leave a lasting negative impression, but you still don’t want to seem evasive. So, where’s the safe zone between a revealing response and a repellant one? This can be tricky to navigate, so it’s important to practice in advance.
How to Respond to “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”
Here are eight tips for answering this common behavioral interview question, along with examples of what to say (and what to avoid).
1. Focus more on the learning than the failure.
What the recruiter ultimately wants — and they may even state this explicitly — is not so much your story of failure but what you learned from it and how you turned that insight into a productive approach. So, pick a story with those reflections in mind. These are often failures of realizing, appreciating, or preparing versus failures of doing, ruining, or harming, which emphasize the consequences of the failure.
To source those episodes, don’t even look first for failures. Start by looking for moments of revelation, realization, course correction, and improvement. Those moments can be presented as a “story of failure” if you share them chronologically. For example:
Three years ago, we were doing A, but realized the result fell short of the goal. Things were just not working. Many saw it as a failure, but we also saw it as an opportunity to improve, so we did a thorough analysis and realized that B was a better tactic. We activated it, and now we’re seeing a greater C.
Notice also how the failure is followed up immediately by the fix (“Many saw it as a failure, but it was also an opportunity to improve.”) Don’t let the failure and its impact linger and possibly damage your reputation — emphasize the correction and let it take the spotlight.
Finally, know the difference between learning/realization and correction/improvement. You didn’t go from failure to solution magically — the learning/realization was a critical step and catalyzed the correction/improvement. Make sure to articulate both steps so the interviewer knows how you traveled from failure to learning to improvement, not just failure to improvement.
2. Choose a miscalculation, not a mistake.
Everyone makes mistakes, but in a job interview, a simple mistake may be perceived as a personal flaw — which can damage your reputation. Ultimately, the most productive learning comes not from a mistake but from a miscalculation. When did something not go as planned? When was a strategy ineffective? When did an approach miss the actual target? These events happen frequently in modern workplaces, are not seen as personal or connected to flaws, and are more likely than mistakes to produce impactful recalibrations. For example:
When we started the project, we made assumptions about what our customer base already knew. But when the first phase didn’t go as planned, it became clear that we misjudged their awareness. To correct that problem, we conducted focus group testing before the next phase to ensure our campaign matched the understandings of the audience we were targeting, and I carry that lesson with me today.
3. Don’t draw extra attention to the failure.
Saying the word “failure” one time is appropriate to demonstrate that you’re answering the question directly. Afterward, you can minimize the sting of a failure by calling it a “result,” “event,” or a “consequence,” which are neutral, not negative terms. For example:
Our failure to foresee that problem compelled us to examine that event (not “error” or “mistake”) closely and take measures to avoid that result (not “failure”) in the future.
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4. Look for a we, not a me.
If a team failed as a group, that might seem more relatable (and excusable) than an individual failing because there was consensus behind the decision-making. It may also have the side benefit of reinforcing your commitment to teamwork, so look for episodes that involve a group or team miscalculation versus a personal one. Examples of “me-to-we” elevation:
“I didn’t realize” to “We didn’t realize…”
“I didn’t foresee that result” to “Our team didn’t foresee that result”
“I didn’t know” to “My colleagues and I didn’t know…”
5. Aim toward low consequence, not high consequence.
Feel free to share a moment where the consequence was minor but make sure the correction was significant because remember: they’re much more interested in your response than what triggered it. The consequence could even be a potential failure, but make sure it was a possible peril, not a hypothetical one. Examples:
While we were able to correct the brochure in the next edition, we immediately added an important step to the process: instituting multiple levels of review before we publish new material.
We nearly lost the account — which would have been a considerable failure — but we regrouped and reimagined the pitch to better match the client’s needs.
6. Keep the failure story short.
Think of your failure as an opening act, not a featured performer. Its only purpose is to provide context for and set up your story of improvement and elevation, so keep it tight: “Z happened. And Y was the result. But we learned A and applied B.” When sharing the failure itself, get in and get out.
7. Don’t defend a failure.
After presenting a failure, some applicants try to limit the damage by simply defending, rationalizing, or minimizing it. But remember the point of your answer: learning, correction, and elevation. Deliver a compelling story that reflects your dedication to improvement, and that failure will become a footnote, not a focus.
Examples of defensive responses where the spin only draw more attention to the failure:
“It didn’t set us back that much, but many people overreacted.”
“I was right all along — they just didn’t see it.”
“My mistake was actually beneficial in the long run because…”
8. Be thoughtful about the words you use.
Throughout this article, I used a variety of words to indicate how one learns from and overcomes failure. Familiarize yourself with them to avoid sounding repetitive:
When speaking about learning, use words like:
- Gained insight
When speaking about overcoming a challenge, use words like:
When speaking about reimagining a challenge, use words like:
Putting all of this advice together, here’s how an effective story of failure might sound.
Last year, my team introduced a new cloud-based internal filing system to the company and launched it as quickly as possible. But when the staff reported errors and frustrations using it, we realized that we hadn’t taken their learning curve into consideration. So, we met and worked with our internal communications team to develop a company-wide education campaign, including how-to videos, Q&A opportunities with IT staff, and a dedicated email address for help. I regret we didn’t make this part of our roll-out plan, but we worked very hard to learn from what happened and now prioritize user education with all product roll outs. Today, 95% of our staff use the cloud platform daily, which means more efficiency and greater safety for our files.
While no one expects job candidates to have flawless records, you don’t want to give prospective employers reasons for doubt. If you respond to the “failure” question in a way that highlights your resilience and commitment to learning and progress, they will likely remember how you prevailed, not how you failed.
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