“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.