Interviews / Job market

How to answer ‘Tell me about at time you failed at something’

Mistakes are inevitable, we all make them. But what is the employer really assessing in your answer to this interview question? 

Although this is becoming a somewhat predictable question in graduate job interviews, it can nonetheless be a difficult one to answer.  How can you make a positive impression when discussing an experience where there was a negative outcome? At interview the employer is assessing the candidate’s strengths, skills, personal attributes and ultimately their suitability for the job role. It can be a challenging experience reflecting on a time when you may have failed, answering a question that effectively highlights something that may be perceived as a weakness.

Why do employers ask this question? 

To understand your level of  self-awareness.  In a work context being self-aware can mean understanding how your emotions, thoughts and behaviours can impact on your performance in the workplace, particularly your relationships with colleagues and clients. In a 2017 survey less than half of recruiters felt that graduates demonstrated self-awareness. Are you are a reflective person and therefore more likely to be a potential employee that the company are willing to invest in? Or are you someone who never learns from or even reflects on the mistakes that you may have made? This is a question that the employer is trying to resolve during the interview process.

‘The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new’ (Einstein)

The employer may also have other motives when asking for an example of when a job applicant has failed. If you describe a situation for example where you took a risk, this may resonate with an employer recruiting for a creative role that requires an innovative approach. On the other hand, a recruiter seeking someone who is highly organised and methodical may not want someone who is deemed to take unnecessary risks. (A reminder of the importance of reading the job description and person specification carefully to understand the employer’s requirements.)

Use the STAR model

The effectiveness of using the ‘Situation, Task, Action and Result’ structure has been referred to in other Warwick Careers Blog posts   There is a lot of anecdotal evidence from employers to suggest that it is the most effective way to answer competency or behavioural type questions. The following example illustrates the use of the STAR model to answer the ‘tell me about a time when you failed’ question:

Situation: ‘Last year I was a member of a student society executive and part of a sub-group that was given the responsibility of organising an event to raise our profile and membership’

Task: ‘A lot of organisation and planning for the event was required, including for example booking a venue, marketing the event through social media and liaising with other societies and students throughout the university.’

Action: ‘I took the initiative to publicise and market the event and created what I thought was an effective strategy which would result in a good attendance and increased membership of the society.’

Result: ‘The event wasn’t a success. It was poorly attended and there were lots of problems on the day. With hindsight this was due to our lack of planning and communication. I didn’t really work well other members of the executive and didn’t keep them informed of what I had done during the planning. I tended to work on my own initiative because I got frustrated working with other people that I didn’t really gel with. I also didn’t seek any feedback on the effectiveness of  the marketing strategy I had devised to publicise the event, on reflection it could have been more engaging. What I have learned from this experience is the importance of communication. Rather than work on my own I should have listened to others, negotiated and compromised so that we could all have worked together more effectively.’

Top tips: What should you include in your STAR answer to this question?

1. Give a specific example, it’s much more convincing than a generic reply such as ‘Yes, I have failed in the past but I have learnt not to make those mistakes again…’
2. Clearly explain what it was that you did wrong. Take responsibility for your actions, a candidate who blames others is not someone who suggests they have the ability to work collaboratively in a team
3. What did you learn? Can you demonstrate self-awareness and the ability to reflect on why you weren’t successful?
4. What would you do differently next time in similar circumstances? What steps would you take to ensure that you would succeed in the workplace if a similar situation arose?

It does seem counter-intuitive to discuss failure when our instinct is to highlight our successes in an interview. But remember the interviewer is really assessing how you respond to failure, not the failure itself. As Henry Ford said, ‘the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing’

 

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