How do you answer the interview question, "What was your biggest failure?"

post-interview-follow-up-tips for veterans

You're on a roll, you're nailing this job interview. You have the interviewer and the interviewer's boss eating out of the palm of your hand. You can already see your new business cards, and how you're going to arrange your office...and then they ask, the hardest, most cringe worthy question of any interviewer, "What has been your biggest failure?" The room goes silent, your palms start to sweat, your mouth goes dry, and you try to speak, but all that comes out is a little squeak. You can't afford to fail this question. You see your business cards and new office disappear in a puff of smoke. WHY?!?? Why would an interviewer ask this question? Sadistic pleasure? Did you say something wrong, do they hate you suddenly? Are they trying to trip you up? Taking the easy way to weed out a lot of candidates? Relax, take a deep breath. Interviewers know that no one is perfect, they expect you'll have had a failure or set back in your career. They ask to understand more about you as an employee and a person. How do you handle failure, do you take risks that could end in failure or do you always play it safe, are you self-aware to know that you have failed and that you have weaknesses? This question is one of the biggest reasons why practicing your answers to key interview questions is so important. You must be prepared to answer the hard questions without sticking your foot in your mouth. Being able to think of a good failure on the fly is incredibly difficult, but to then describe it in a fair and honest manner would be neigh impossible!

Related Article: How To Prepare for Job Interviews

The "What has been your biggest failure?" question is no doubt about it, one of, if not the hardest top interview question to answer. You need to have an answer that says, "Yes, I know I've messed up in the past, and yes, I've most definitely learned from the experience." This question is hard to talk about because you're busy trying to put yourself in the best light possible during an interview, and not only would you not like to talk negatively about yourself, you certainly don't want to have to dwell on it. You do not need a failure that was so horrific and grand in a Titanic disaster sort of way that just the thought of it makes you want to disappear. It can be a situation where just one thing went wrong.

How do I choose a failure to talk about during the interview?

The failure you pick is important, you don't want to pick one that screams that you are clueless and no one should hire you. This is not the time to bring up your deepest darkest secrets. Don't choose a failure that shows serious personal negligence, the failure that led your company to being sued is not the one you want to share here. You do have to pick a failure that is serious enough that the interviewer doesn't feel like you're dodging their question. If the interviewer feels like you've not answered their question they will do one of two things. They will a) call you on it or b)write you off as a candidate. I mean do you want to work with someone who thinks they've NEVER failed at anything? In the first case you'll still have to answer the question, and in the second, you'll wished you had had a good answer to this question.

Interviewers will see through a non-answer

Some candidates may think that answering this question with some hemming and hawing followed with a "Well, I can't really think of any time I've failed, I've been lucky in that regard so far," is an answer, but it is not an acceptable answer. Any interviewer worth their salt will be able to see right through that 'not really an answer'. Not only is it not honest, it's won't help you get the job, the job that they already think you are a good fit for. Being able to seriously talk about a failure shows the interviewer that you have grown since your mistake. Having a good answer for this questions shows your integrity, that you can own up to prior mistakes without being defensive. Knowing that you have thought through the problems, on your own time shows that you are mature enough to see the benefits in looking at your past missteps and challenging yourself going forward.

Spend most of your interview time discussing what you learned, not the failure

Don't go on and on about the failure. Set up the story, but don't overwhelm the interviewer with details, you want to give just enough detail for you to flesh out what happened and why you believe it went badly. Then lay the failure out on the table, but don't belabor it. Finish the story up with what you learned from this failure. What could you have done in hindsight and how you've approached similar situations since then. Ideally you will spend the most time talking about the lessons learned from your failure. The interviewer wants to know how that one failure taught you how to make sure you were successful on later projects. It is important for the interviewer to hear that you took responsibility for the failure. Often times team failures are a good failure to pick. That way the failure can lay at the feet of many, rather than just you, but don't put it all on the team. Hearing a candidate tell me "I told them that our approach was off, but no one ever listens to me, and that's why we didn't win the bid for the $2 million job!" makes me doubt your ability to take any responsibility for the failure.

Discussing the lessons learned from your failure and how you've put them to use since then ends the questions on a positive note with the interviewer. Being prepared to answer this question will help you answer it with a focused and calm manner, showing that you're ready and able to handle your new job.

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