A Guide to Discussing Failure in a Job Interview

Whether you were unsuccessful in executing a corporate project, weren’t awarded a promotion you were gunning for, or lost a major client due to a mistake, the way in which you discuss a professional failure in a job interview is crucial to selling your candidacy. While your pulse may accelerate and your legs plead for you to evacuate, I promise you there’s a way to answer this question truthfully without scaring away your potential employer.

Behavioral questions, specifically ones that are negative in nature, perplex even the most seasoned candidate. Why? Because when you’re focused on painting yourself in a flattering light, the invitation to speak about a not-so-pleasing experience often makes interviewees feel like they’re about to sabotage their opportunity. Besides taking a deep breath, here’s what to do when an interviewer questions you about a moment you experienced failure in your career.

Choose One, Authentic Incident

First and foremost, you need to select a real professional failure – not a haphazard one, like you missed a project deadline because you’re a perfectionist, or worse, that you’ve never made a mistake. These responses not only demonstrate a lack of self-awareness and transparency, but they will also induce an internal yawn from the hiring manager. In the same breath, you may want to avoid any monumental failures, particularly if the circumstance resulted in you being let go from the same role you’re applying for.

The situation you choose to divulge should illustrate a time where something went awry as a result of an action or decision you either made or failed to make. Applicants frequently botch their answer by describing an incident in which one event snowballed into a labyrinth of failures. They wind up spewing a long-winded montage of debacles rather than focusing on a single, relative instance.

Clarify Your Definition of Failure

Explaining how you interpret failure, in your own words, will set the backdrop and provide context for why you considered the situation a disappointment. By defining failure, which is unique to each individual, you can set the precedent for how you personally characterize a blunder or setback in the workplace. This doesn’t mean threading together a story about how the aligning of planets instigated a cosmic catastrophe that negatively influenced your work – trying to win sympathy points won’t work here. Instead, your answer should be something like, ‘To me, failure means not satisfying or exceeding expectations set by my manager, team, or myself.’ Or, ‘As a director, I see lost clientele due to an incomplete project as a failure. I strive to provide my team with the support and resources necessary to accomplish the task at hand.

Take the Stage

Now it’s time for the main attraction – telling your interviewer your failure story. Don’t skirt around the punch line; be direct and concise in your delivery. Hiring managers aren’t trying to torment you with this question; they are looking to evaluate how you handle setbacks and respond to high-pressure situations. Briefly explain the challenge you faced, acknowledge what caused the failure, and place an emphasis on the measures you took to rectify it. The interviewer is looking for raw honesty, ownership, and a level of maturity in the way you react to the failure.

What Did You Learn?

The most important ingredient in cooking up a successful response is sharing what you learned from the whole ordeal. By taking responsibility for what transpired and reflecting upon how the failure impacted your future actions in the workplace, you can communicate how the incident furthered your professional development. Here are some examples:

“By failing to properly prepare for a meeting with a $500,000 deal on the line, I delivered an incredibly underwhelming performance and lost the contract to a competitor. After receiving the news, I reached back out to the company with an arsenal of relevant stats, info regarding their rival brands, and deal sweeteners. While I didn’t receive the original amount proposed, I did win back some of their business. Now, I use a checklist and perform my due diligence before every meeting with a prospective client.”

“In an effort to impress a new manager, I volunteered to create a design for a website project our team was working on. Due to my inexperience with the software the company used, I proceeded to spend an entire weekend enlisting the help of tech support just to create a lousy rendering of what was originally promised. I ended up asking a colleague for help mending my lamentable design – saving us from losing a valuable client. I bit off way more than I could chew and I’ll never make that mistake again. Now I always plan ahead for any projects that possess risk factors, such as a new tool that I’m unfamiliar with. I also strive to stay current with new technology, taking online training courses whenever I come across new software that could improve my work.”

It’s OK to Fail

As Bill Gates said, “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” Many people often find themselves issuing a slew of ‘ums’ when questioned about their greatest failure. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and then deliver a sincere answer that demonstrates the positive growth you’ve made as a result of that learning experience. While discussing failure is not a particularly joyous topic of conversation, taking complete ownership of the situation shows you are always evaluating ways to make improvements and are willing to leverage different resources to achieve a successful result.

Placing the blame on someone else or crafting a story that’s really a strength wrapped in a false guise of weakness, implies that you aren’t able to address your own shortcomings, and is certainly a red flag for a hiring manager. Rather than try to rationalize disappointments, look failure straight in the face and use it as an opportunity to pursue new skills and improve yourself professionally.

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Michele Loizzi Written by:

Michele Loizzi is the Director of Recruitment Marketing Services at Human Edge.

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