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Winning the “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” Question

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The dreaded “failure” question is common in job interviews. It’s meant to help a hiring manager determine if your behavioral tendencies are a match for their team.

When a hiring manager ask you to “tell me about a time you failed,” they’re looking for certain red flags including:

  • Pronouns that shift the blame: Using “I” when things go right and “they” when things go wrong is a surefire way to illustrate you’re not a team player and will not hold yourself accountable when the heat is on.
  • Not including what you learned. Every answer to this question should end with lessons learned, whether they’re specifically asked for or not. Accountability is a soft skill that is surprisingly rare. Making excuses, not recognizing valuable lessons when they present themselves, and even not being able to produce an answer because of a lack of vulnerability are signs of poor emotional intelligence as well.
  • Disorganized and hard-to-follow answers. The question is a raw, disarming way to find out if you can tell a clear, concise story with poise, confidence, and a little humility. Doing so will highlight both your strategic thinking and communication skills.

Sam Wood, The HT Group’s Director of Consulting Services, frequently asks the question for three reasons: To identify someone who isn’t afraid of failure (especially if they fail fast), learns from failure, and takes ownership of failure on both an individual and team level. 

“If they struggle with this question, they either lack humility or are afraid to tell the truth. Either way, I move on,” Wood admits.

One way to ace the “failure” question is to form your answer using the STAR method: State the SITUATION, describe the TASKS you were responsible for, then the ACTION you took and, finally, the RESULT. Of course, you’ll want to add what you should have (or could have) done differently and why you know that now.

“It’s all about how you respond to failure,” offers The HT Group Executive Recruiter Hannah Hunter. “How did you move forward? How did you make it right? How did you grow? Use the question as an opportunity to showcase your perseverance, your integrity, or your ability to adapt and improve. Don’t focus on the failure, focus on the way you handled that failure.”

Ready to practice?

Career Sidekick recommends choosing a story that Goldilocks would love: Not too weak (“I once got a ‘B’ in college…”) and not too disastrous (“l lost the company $2 million due to a pattern of behavior that I think I’ve got a handle on now…”). Check out their tips and examples here. The Muse can help you decide on the right story for the right occasion. Their top advice is to first take a moment to collect your thoughts before jumping right in. Read more of their tips here.

And for specific advice, contact your recruiter. They want you to ace the interview as much as you do.