Handling 'previous failure' question

"At an interview last week, I was asked 'Tell me about a time you failed'. I really struggled to know what to do or say or how to handle it. Do you have any advice for next time?"

Face your previous failures head on, if asked about them.

Michael was applying for a job with a major employer and was subsequently offered the job, so I guess he didn't do that badly with it. There's no doubt that it's a nightmare question to get suddenly caught out with, though, and the interviewer knows that too.

I think you’ve got two choices: a) aim to ‘survive’ this question by skidding over it or b) decide to own it.

The second could give you a winning edge, so don’t bodge around it with a shallow answer, really go for it. You’ll show some real balls by doing so and the chances are high that it will pay you back in spades. But what sort of example might be good to use? Choose something:

  • significant, the bigger the better, possibly with a ‘wow’ factor, but use common sense;
  • you really wanted (or needed) to achieve so you can show how important the task was;
  • where you still achieved a fair proportion of what you set out do so that you don’t show a complete disaster.

The real keys to making an impact with your answer are to talk about:

  • the scope of the challenge;
  • why you failed;
  • what you learned;
  • how you recovered;
  • how you’ll proceed differently in future.

Use the STAR technique to help you structure your answer, then try to show:

  • you had real ambition to even attempt it;
  • genuine regret that you didn’t achieve the desired result;
  • pride in how you handled the aftermath of the situation;
  • ambition to blast past it, smarter and wiser.

Think carefully before you choose an example, though. The story of how you accidentally killed 16 people on a bus because you were out of your mind on vodka and forgot to close the swing bridge might not be a great one to use. By contrast, your attempt at climbing Everest, but not quite making it, would be great, but how many of us can draw on an example that big? Trying to raise a large sum of money for charity would be a good example, as would running a significant project with a chunky budget, but not quite staying within target or deadline.

Try to stay away from straight failure, say where you applied for promotion or a position, but lost out. That would show that others think you’re not worthy and that can make an interviewer hesitate over you.

I hope that helps for next time?