How to discuss your failures in an interview


One of the most awkward questions that you may face in an interview is to list out your past failures. Like most other interview questions that evaluate how you handle the question than if you are giving the right answer, discussing your failures is a way in which the interviewer gets to know your definition of what failure means and what you take back from it. John Hamm, author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership, rightly calls this question a smokescreen. When the interviewer poses such a question, writes Hamm, they could be testing how you see the situation and if you are ready to take up responsibility and be accountable for it. So how does one tackle this question in the best possible way? Here’s what you could do:

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Talk about a real failure

Amanda Abella, a career coach and Founder of the famous blog ‘Grad Meets World’, says that all hiring managers know that no candidate is perfect. But they ask such questions to be sure of a few requirements the job entails. So, the best way to go about it is by being honest. Do not try to mask one of your strengths and say things like, “I overwork till I don’t have a good finished product,” or that “I push myself too hard to get things done.” These are not real failures. Talk about the time you really failed or were not happy with your performance. This will make you come across as a more genuine candidate who is mature enough to accept their failure, than just a boastful phony.

Give only the necessary details

Some people might bare all in front of interviewers. But it is smarter to know what not to say when you are talking about your failures. You don’t need to talk about the time when you made a huge mistake and were let go by your employer. Learn how to pick your story in order to strike a good balance between staying genuine and going all out and appearing to be someone who is unreliable. One way to do this is by defining what you consider as a failure in the story that follows before narrating it. You could talk about instances of missed deadlines, miscommunications, or falling short of expectations. Your idea of what constitutes failure also carries some weight here.

Take ownership

When you narrate your story, don’t try to blame it on others or the situation. Take ownership for your actions and admit that you made a mistake. Like we said earlier, it is only human to make mistakes. Moreover, hiring a person who points fingers at their co-workers is the worst move a hiring manager can make, says a study conducted by the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Southern California. The study found that blaming mistakes on others is socially contagious and that it makes employees less creative and perform poorly. Owning up to them earns you respect and trust, and makes you more relatable.

Show that you learnt something of it

Keep your story short and make it clear that you admit your mistake and you also really understand where you went wrong. Express that you learnt a lesson from your failure and you could even say that you take extra care not to make the same mistake again. According to Psychology Today, mistakes can make you smarter as even biologically it acts a ‘wake up call’ for your brain to pay more attention. So make it know that you did impart a growth lesson and moved a step ahead in terms of professional etiquette.

Even if you are prepared for it, talking about failure does bring back old memories and could be difficult. Following these steps might help you phrase your answer better. What was your response when you were faced with this question? How did you tackle it? Let us know in the comments section below.


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