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How to Answer the Biggest Failure Interview Question

During your job interview, you may face a few curveball questions that you can’t possibly anticipate, and you’ll have to deal with these in the moment, since there’s no way to prepare your answers in advance.

But you’ll also face plenty of questions that are traditional, standard, and completely predictable. One of these usual suspects will probably sound something like this:

  • “I know you’re driven to succeed, but let’s talk about failure for a minute. Can you tell me about a time when you gave your best efforts but still failed?”
  • “We’ve all failed at one point or another…Can you tell me about the biggest failure you’ve ever encountered in the workplace?”
  • “Have you ever wanted to succeed very badly at something, but things just didn’t go your way? Tell me about that.”

Why ask this question?

A job interview may seem like an awkward place to tell the story of your biggest career screw-up, but there are plenty of reasons why employers like to ask this question. First, they’d like to know what you envision when you hear the word “failure”. If you seem afraid of the word, and it generates shame, fear, or an urge to protect your brittle ego, employers want to know this. They also want evidence of the opposite: If you see failure as a challenge, an essential aspect of working life, and an opportunity for growth, this will usually come as welcome news.

In either case, this question is a character-revealer and a mechanism that can give the employer insight into how you behave. Your reaction to this question can speak volumes about your life experience, your willingness to take risks, your ability to take ownership for your mistakes and your interest in learning and trying new things. Keep these tips in mind before you answer.

  1. Don’t dodge the issue.

This may sound like a trick question, and refusing to answer may seem like a clever way of avoiding a trap, but before you shrug and declare you’ve never failed at anything in your life, think twice. You most certainly have (we all have), and refusing to admit or accept the truth won’t impress the interviewer. Remember, this is a character question. It’s your opportunity to demonstrate resilience, self-awareness, honesty, and the ability to take responsibility for your actions. Don’t waste it.

  1. Choose the right story.

Don’t just dip one toe in the water and tell the story of a lukewarm failure that hardly registers on the scale. And on the flip side, don’t choose a devastating failure that was the result of reckless risk you took. You want to choose an example that demonstrates that you take smart chances, and you want a narrative that plays to your strengths.  Finally, the mistake you rehash should always end in a lesson learned.

  1. Watch the responsibility ball.

When it comes to responsibility and blame, keep your eye on the ball; your interviewer definitely will. It won’t escape their notice if you tell your story in a way that pins the failure on someone else. (For example, “My team did a terrible job on the report, but then I swooped in and saved the day.”)

  1. Make your answer shine with the STAR method.

The STAR interviewing technique, which stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result, is a strategy that can help you answer tricky behavioral interview questions, like this one. It encourages job seekers to start by describing a specific situation, to follow-up by outlining the actions taken, and to finish by recounting the outcomes of your action. This approach lends your response structure, and it delivers the exact information the interviewer is searching for.

—For more on how to create a show-stopping application and ace your job interview, turn to the resources at MyPerfectResume.