Talking about failures and mistakes during an interview can be uncomfortable and tricky. No one likes talking about a time when they screwed up, especially during an interview. There is a smart way to answer the question “What is your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?” But first, it helps to know why the interviewer is asking you a question about your greatest failure. They want to know several things. First, what do you view as a failure; second, how have you handled a bad situation; and third, what did you learn from the experience. Your self-awareness and ability to learn from your mistakes are important to your future employer.
You should anticipate an interview question like this and have an answer ready so that you don’t ramble off the first (and potentially worst) example that pops into your head. The way you answer this question will show the interviewer how you react to and handle mistakes. It can also show off your level of confidence, your ability to learn from mistakes, and your desire to better yourself.
Emphasize These Points
There are a few things you should keep in mind when answering the question “What is your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?” First off, everyone has moments of failure. You don’t have to pick an example where you failed miserably, nor should you boast that you’ve never made a work-related mistake. Reflect back on a situation involving a professional failure, and evaluate how you could have taken responsibility for the failure, as well as what you learned from it, and how you’ve taken steps to avoid similar failures in the future.
It’s best to choose a situation from early in your career, or one that isn’t a key part of the job you’re interviewing for. Using an older example gives you an opportunity to also share examples later in your career where you haven’t made similar mistakes.
Be sure you take ownership of what you could control or what you did wrong, rather than blame other people.
Call attention to what you learned from the situation and what you did to prevent future missteps, and what you did to improve your own skills.
Focus on the actions you’ve taken or the things you’ve done to ensure that the same mistake doesn’t happen again.
Keep your answer as positive as possible. You can do this by providing more detail and devoting more time to talking about how you fixed the mistake, and less time talking about everything that went wrong.
Define failure. Rather than start your answer with “My greatest failure happened when I . . .” begin by defining failure, or what failure means to you. For example: “To me, failure happens when the process breaks down due to unclear timelines.” Or, “Failure is when you make careless mistakes.”
Mistakes to Avoid
Failure and mistakes happen in real life, but they shouldn’t happen during an interview. Avoid saying things that could leave the wrong impression and hurt your chances of being asked back for another interview. Here are some things to avoid when answering to “What is your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?”
Be truthful but don’t overdo it. You don’t want to go into great detail over what went wrong and how damaging the situation was. Keep your answer focused on the facts but only the facts that are important to share.
Do not get defensive. This is a natural first response to this question. However, keep your cool and know that no one is perfect. We’ve all made mistakes and this is your chance to prove you are smarter because of your past.
Don’t pick a generic scenario—it won’t be believable. In other words, don’t say something like “I’ve fixed every mistake I make.” Or, “I’ve learned from past mistakes, and know how to move forward without making any.”
Try not to sound like you lack confidence. When you answer questions about your failures, it is easy to go back to that time when you were not feeling good about yourself or your work. Remember that the interviewer is trying to test your confidence, and figure out how you’ve learned from difficult situations.
Technically, you only need one answer to the question “What is your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?” You can use the same answer during almost every interview. So identify your story and what you learned, and craft something that sounds something like this.
“Early in my career, I learned a valuable lesson when I under-communicated with a client. Ultimately, this led to a loss of revenue for the department. When I realized what I had done wrong, I immediately took responsibility. I went to the client and explained the missing details and why I had overlooked communicating these details. The client respected my honesty and even though it took a little while, we finally got the client to work with us again. I learned the value of communicating, even the tough or negative information, and why it’s important to establishing trust and holding on to clients. I only had to make this mistake once to learn from it, though it was a tough way to learn.”
Emphasize what you have done to grow, and keep your answer positive. It’s as easy to that.