Most interview questions are all about how amazing you are. They’re about your incredible actions and professional experiences that highlight your competence and skill in the job that you’re applying to. Every so often though, the interviewer is going to ask you to share with them a less-than-flattering experience, which can make it a bit more difficult to form a good response. One of the most common questions that fall into this category is “tell me about a time you failed, and how did you overcome it?”
A great answer to this interview question will need to do two things right: use a strategic failure story, and highlight specific actions taken to turn that failure into a success. When these two things are done correctly, this question can be a great opportunity to showcase your problem-solving skills.
Why Do They Ask This Interview Question?
Before you start constructing your answer, you need to know the real question that they’re trying to answer. In most interviews, there’s the question they ask, and then the question they’re really trying to figure out. For every interview question, you want to be sure you’re answering this deeper question in your response. In this case, you might think they’re asking about failure, but really what they’re trying to get at is more about how you overcame that failure.
It’s easy to get caught up in the “tell me about a time you’ve failed” part of the question, but the critical part is “how did you overcome that failure?” The thing that interests the interviewer the most is hearing about how you had a plan to solve a problem and were successful in carrying out that plan! This is really your chance to brag about a time you crushed it and show that they’d be lucky to have you on the team. This is not a time to dwell on a failure or tough situation that you’ve been through.
So am I saying you should just ignore the first half of the question about failing? Not completely. You’re still kind of bound by the question literally asking about a failure, but you’ll need to mitigate the damage done. So, When you’re setting up your response, you’ll need to follow some general guidelines as to how you’re going to address that failure part of the question.
Guideline #1: The Failure Shouldn’t Highlight Your Incompetence
The number one thing you want to avoid when answering this interview question is having the interviewer walk away thinking that you’re an incompetent applicant. Most interview questions allow you to tout your skills and professional experiences, this one though forces you to admit to a failure on your part, and that has the potential to make you look incompetent if done poorly.
It’s really easy to think of a time when you singlehandedly failed spectacularly. You made a huge mistake that had crazy consequences that took days or weeks to clean up. These are the moments in your career that you remember because they were just so awful you can’t forget them. We all have these types of failures; don’t use this type of failure. These types of failures can make you look incompetent. Even if you feel like you can confidently spin the fact that you fixed the issue, it’s still going to plant the seed in the interviewer’s mind that “this is the type of person who makes big mistakes”.
In order to avoid this, you need to carefully select your failure story. Ideally, you’ll want to pick a failure scenario in which you were only partially responsible. You can spin this as a team failure in which you played a small role in the failure, but a large role in the solution. you can also choose a failure of inaction where you failed to prevent an issue, rather than directly causing it. Pick a challenging situation that was dropped in your lap, rather than a failure due to your individual actions. You might not always be able to do this, but if they give you the opening by asking how you faced a “challenge” rather than how you “failed”; use that opportunity.
Guideline #2: Avoid Any Failure Related To The Position You’re Applying For
When choosing the failure that you’re going to use for this question, you want to make sure that the role that you were in at the time of failure, is nothing related to the role that you’re currently applying for. Pick a completely different industry if possible.
I say all the time that the purpose of an interview is to make the interviewer imagine you in the role that you’re applying to. If they can envision you in that role, they’re far more likely to hire you. That same logic applies here but can work against you if you pick the wrong failure story in this interview question.
You want the interviewer to walk away from this question imagining you are able to address any failure that comes your way. If you pick a failure that is similar enough to the role that you’re applying to though, they’re going to be able to easily imagine you having that same failure in this new role.
In this question, you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too. You want the interviewer to envision you as the person who can resolve issues that come your way but don’t want them to envision you failing in the first place. Even if you succeeded in the end, there is absolutely no reason to even hint to the hiring manager that you’re incompetent in any way that might impact your future job performance. For that reason, always choose a failure story that can highlight your problem-solving skills in a completely unrelated job position.
Guideline #3: Personal Failures Can Be A Good Alternative Response
If you can get away with it, utilizing a personal failure rather than a professional one is actually a good alternative response to this interview question. Firstly, a personal failure is not going to really reflect poorly on your professionalism or technical skills. This is similar to guideline 2. You’ll want to draw the interviewer’s attention as far away from a related workspace as you can when discussing your failure.
An added benefit of using a personal example is that with a personal answer, you’ll be able to highlight skills that are generally not showcased elsewhere in your interview responses. You’ll be able to not only highlight your technical skills, but also your strength of character, and offer a glimpse into you as a person, rather than just an applicant.
Remember, only half of getting a job is showing that you’re competent. Once you’ve shown that, the rest is convincing the hiring manager that they want to work with you more than the other applicants, so you need to take every opening you can to stand out as that person throughout the interview, and a relatable story of you overcoming a personal failure could be the thing to make you a memorable candidate.
How To Craft Your S.T.A.R Formatted Interview Response
Now that you’ve got your basic guidelines on how to should identify and articulate your failure story, you can begin to set up your interview response. This interview question falls neatly into the behavioral interview question bucket, and because of that, you’re going to format your answer utilizing the S.T.A.R interview response format.
The S.T.A.R technique stands for Situation Task Action Result, and is how you’re going to be breaking down this behavioral interview question response (If you need a refresher on what the S.T.A.R interview response format is, check out this article here). In this case, the Situation will be your failure scenario.
Keep this Situation short and to the point. Use the guidelines discussed above to pick an appropriate failure that you can form the remainder of your response around. Remember, the scenario is only used to provide context for your action and result. You want the interviewer to understand why your result was so amazing, and that can only happen if they have the context around that success. You also want them to walk away from this question remembering just how amazing your actions and results were, without remembering your failure.
The Task part of your interview response is simply your plan to overcome the failure you laid out in the Situation. Basically, you’ll use the Tas k to identify what you hope to achieve with your actions, mainly, cleaning up the mess that was caused by your failure, or overcoming it in some way. Don’t dwell here, this is mostly a transition between the Situation and your Actions.
The Action portion of your response will be the step-by-step actions that you personally took in order to achieve your desired outcome. Whether that’s fixing a mess that you made, or becoming a rockstar after a lackluster performance. Either way, your actions need to be actions that the interviewer can envision you taking in the job that you’re applying to, so be sure to make them applicable.
Finally, your Results are going to consist of you explaining the final results of your actions. This is your chance to take a victory lap and show the interviewer why your actions really mattered. This is where you’re going to be able to really impress the interviewer with your accomplishments. Just like on your resume, a great response will quantify your achievements and highlight your accomplishment in a way that is related to the position at hand.
Below is an example of a S.T.A.R formatted response to the interview question “Tell me about a time you’ve failed and how did you overcome it?”
Situation: A few years ago I had just gotten my first position as the manager of a technical consulting team. I received my first project and had a meeting with the client to get an idea of what they were looking for. After those initial meetings, we worked hard throughout the entire next month to complete the project based on our client’s initial ask, however, when we presented our progress to them, they didn’t like it at all.
Task: after this meeting, we had to throw away most of our work, and I knew we had made a mistake in our process. moving forward I was determined to have more frequent check-ins with the client and present progress to them as it was completed.
Action: I broke the project up into five deliverable phases and had weekly touchpoints with the client to ensure we were creating exactly what they wanted, and could adapt based on their feedback.
Result: by following this plan, we were able to receive constant feedback from the client and deliver smaller incremental products in each phase. eventually resulting in a final product that the client was extremely pleased with.
You can see that this response sort of breezed over the “how did you fail” part of the interview question. In the real world, it matters less about who caused the problem, and more about how the problem was fixed. In this scenario, It was the candidate’s creativity and skill that overcame the issue, and that’s really what this interview question is all about. Showing that whatever problem might come your way, YOU will be able to solve it.
A great answer to this interview question relies on doing two things: picking the right failure story, and highlighting the actions taken to turn that failure into a success.
To pick the best failure story, filter your potential failure scenario through three general guidelines:
- Avoid failures that suggest incompetence.
- Pick a failure scenario in an unrelated area.
- Utilize personal failures if applicable.
Once an appropriate failure is selected, generate a S.T.A.R formatted interview response that showcases your ability to overcome failure and turn a tough situation into a success. When done correctly, this question can be a great opportunity to showcase your problem-solving skills and tell a relatable story where you overcame adversity and turned a failure into a win.
You might get slight variations of this question, for example, “Tell me about a time you’ve faced a challenge and how you overcame it”. Let’s not get this one confused with “Tell me about your greatest weakness”. They both have the same general vibe of “help me disqualify you” but they’re going to be answered very differently. To learn more about how you can form the best answer to “what is your greatest weakness”, check out this video.