When I ask a job candidate to tell me a time they experienced a failure and how they handled it, I often get that ‘deer in headlights’ look.  I then may rephrase the question to allow them to share a disappointment, a loss, or any instance where they had to come to terms with an unexpected change in outcome.  When this question catches them off-guard, nerves get rattled, and I witness the unease this question can cause. This is not comfortable for either of us but it tells me a lot about the candidate.

True, the interview is peppered with questions designed to assess someone’s fit for skills, responsibilities, and the organizational culture they will step into; however, the failure question has a purpose and many have not taken the time to realize what is at stake.

When preparing for an interview, many shy away from addressing failure at all.  My InterviewingUP clients often ask, “Why would I want to talk about failure or loss when I’m supposed to be presenting my best self in the interview?”  This is a common question.

Granted, presenting your best self is about what you have done well. However, information around resilience, overcoming adversity, dealing with disappointment, and overcoming challenges, or change, is useful in assessing how successfully someone will handle problems as they arise.  Given that change is imminent , how well-prepared or experienced someone is in overcoming adversity has become a vital part of the interview process. In addition, how accountable one is when reflecting back on past failures is a driving force for roles with future leadership opportunities.

So how do you prepare to answer questions about failure and what should you be ready to share?

There is consensus that in learning to walk, you fall a lot. The same can be said about learning how to be successful. Here are two ideas you need to embrace fast:

1: We all fail:  Knowing this should allow you to look back on all that you’ve learned and recognize where failure occurred and what you learned from it.  Kelli Hinshaw, VP of Strategy, recently reminded the readers of thriveglobal.com that the inability to share about failure communicates that you are not willing to admit it, or you blame others for the failure.  Either of these communicate a lack of accountability.

2: Own your part:  Some failures occur by acts outside of our control, but many do not.  So be ready to share any failures where you had a part. In researching why accountability matters, by being accountable for your part of the issue, you are communicating where areas for growth and learning occurred, and it communicates you have a mindset that results can happen because of, not in spite of, your participation in the solution.

Cy Wakeman of Reality Based Leadership, offers that an accountability mindset is a key characteristic that hiring managers seek.  

Preparing to share this can be done with a few simple steps.

Based upon Industrial/Organizational Psychology research and the Society of HR Management (SHRM), behavior-based interview questions are designed to assess future performance based upon past performance. So, a typical behavior-based interview question may begin with: Tell me a time when you experienced failure?   Keep in mind, we now know that this question is often used to assess accountability and how open you are to improvement, so embrace this as a key part of every interview moving forward.

Here are some tips on to prepare for an interview around the failure question:

  1. Be prepared with an actual experience that allows the hiring manager to hear all the details about what happened, how the failure occurred, the results, what you’ve learned from that, and what you do now because of that experience.  
  2. Accountability and self-reflection are clear leadership qualities that hiring managers clearly want to build upon as organizations change and grow.  Please be forthright in your part of the failure so that your ability to self-reflect and own your accountability is clearly communicated too.
  3. When you can wrap it around to how you work or prepare differently now, that will also lead the hiring manager to clearly see you in the new role in a positive light – even though it stems from a story about failure.  

Keep in mind, when you are willing to be vulnerable and share how you responded to disappointments or adversity, you can present your best self without negative results, so do not be shy about reviewing the failures you’ve experienced.  Recognize your growth from each. To practice this, get some personal coaching to prepare with confidence and courage, or practice with a friend to get an objective opinion on how you come across with your experience.

To connect for InterviewingUP coaching and land the job offer with style, reach out to Carole Stizza with Relevant Insight coaching.


Download our eBook: Interviewing UP

Interviews fall short if you don’t learn how to be relevant, both in understanding your own success and how it aligns with the job you want (and what the company wants from you). Interviewing UP shows you how to stop reaching for canned answers and start rising to the occasion with relevant information.

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