Disucssing Your Failures in an Interview

August 28, 2023

What was your biggest failure in your current/last job?

What was your most recent failure at work?

Tell me about a time when you made a major mistake at work and how that turned out for you?

Regardless of how the interviewer asks, this question is all too often completely mishandled. Most candidates believe that the purpose of this question is to uncover or explore their weaknesses, leading them to answer from a very defensive posture.

An experienced interviewer may have several motives for asking about the low points of your career. Here are a few:

  • Risk aversion. Are you able to take smart/calculated risks?
  • Self-awareness. Are you able to acknowledge where you screwed up?
  • Ownership. Do you take responsibility for your failures or do you place blame on others?
  • Ability to learn from mistakes. There will be plenty of failures in any employee’s tenure. Your ability to recognize your failure, understand what led to it, learn from it and move forward is paramount to future success. Read “Failing Forward” by John Maxwell.

If you find yourself being asked about your failures be sure to keep in mind that the interviewer isn’t interested in your screw up. It’s how you handled the situation, handled yourself in the situation, and what you learned from your failure that is of interest to the person running the interview.

Keep In Mind: Nobody is Perfect

Avoid the temptation to make yourself out to be perfect. Everyone has heard the stories of Michael Jordan being cut from his High School basketball team, Steve Jobs getting canned, or Bill Gates’ first company failing miserably. The road to success is often paved by the lessons learned from failure. A candidate who doesn’t share his/her failures in the interview risks being perceived as illusive, not forthright, unable to take responsibility and unable to learn from his/her mistakes.

In “The Practice of Management,” Peter Drucker wrote, “Nobody learns except by making mistakes. The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make—for the more new things he will try. I would never promote a man into a top-level job who has not made mistakes, and big ones at that. Otherwise, he is sure to be mediocre. Worse still, not having made mistakes he will not have learned how to spot them early and how to correct them.”

Can you spot your mistakes? Have you studied your biggest failures and learned from them?

5 Steps to help you handle those dreaded “biggest failure” questions

  1. Always be truthful. Only share examples that actually happened and are relevant to your potential new job.
  2. Dedicate some interview prep time to recalling a few of the major screw ups you’ve had in your recent career and build a narrative. Your interviewer will be blown away when you answer in STAR fashion!
  3. Explain the Situation.
  4. Explain the Task(s) for which you were responsible.
  5. Explain the Actions you took or did not take that contributed to the failure.
  6. Explain the Results that, well, resulted from your failure.
  7. After sharing your example, quickly explain what you learned. Lesson Learned stories drive home both your acknowledgement of the failure and ability to learn from it.
  8. Talk about work failures ONLY. This is not your confession time with Father Patrick! Keep your cringe-worthy stories about how your last relationship was an absolute disaster to yourself!!
  9. Tell a full story but be quick, to the point, and don’t ever get negative.

Example Answer:

I’d have to say that my biggest professional failure occurred in my current role at ABC company. I was in charge of a very large account and one of our competitors was able to secure a large contract from this account. I had failed to exhaustively penetrate all prospective buying centers in the account and we missed out on an additional major piece of business. Allowing a competitor into my account was a major blow to team moral, not to mention our pocketbooks!

After that day, I made it a point to ALWAYS ask for introductions into new departments and potential buying centers resulting in increased revenue growth and further account penetration in that account and many others.

If you’re having trouble discussing your biggest failures send me an email and we’ll try to figure it out together!

All the best!

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