Hiring managers know ahead of time that this is a tricky question to answer, because they know they’re asking you to talk about something that is difficult and that doesn’t really make anyone look good. That is the point, though. When they ask about your biggest failure, they’re really asking you to demonstrate that you have learned from it and moved past it, that you’re the kind of person who knows how to pick up and keep going, and that you can process those mistakes in a way that lets you relate what you learned to others.
Points to Emphasize
When you’re thinking about how to present past mistakes, keep these ideas in mind.
- Keep it concise. Extra details might lead to follow-up questions that distract from the points you want to make.
- Highlight the learning moment and make it the center of the answer.
- Relate the experience to a long-term growth in some aspect of your professional approach, to show how the lessons from that mistake were applied.
- Do everything possible to move the discussion away from failure and toward the discussion about what happened next.
Mistakes You Should Avoid
There are a lot of ways that this question can slip away from you, so make sure that you consider all the possible aspects of your answer.
- Don’t play the blame game. They did not ask for the biggest failure you participated in, they asked for the biggest failure that belongs to you. The interviewer expects you to take ownership.
- Avoid playing it safe. In some respects, your biggest failure is also a sign of your ambitions. If it’s too small, you look like someone who always avoids risks.
- Explaining away consequences or side-effects of your actions is also a warning sign to interviewers. Prepare to be frank, and offer a cost/benefit analysis of your choices instead of waving away concerns.
- Never share a failure that you could not learn from or did not have the responsibility or control to affect. Catastrophes happen to everyone, but sharing them side-steps the real question.
A compact but still reasonable answer to this question might look something like the following example.
If I had to pick out something, I would say that it was my first time out as team leader. I missed a couple of key communications that changed our deadlines, and I learned that when I’m leading a group, I really need to focus on the big-picture items and delegate out the smaller tasks. To this day, I keep that in mind when I’m asked to step in and manage a project.