Interview Q&A: What’s Your Greatest Failure, And What Did You Learn From It?

Gabriela Hernandez
by Gabriela Hernandez   CPRW, Career Advice Expert 
Last Updated: May 22, 2023

Being asked: “What’s your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?” can leave you speechless during an interview if you haven’t prepared—not a great reaction to have on your job interview. We want to help you confidently craft an appropriate answer to this question, which is why we’ve written this guide where we’ll discuss the following:

  • why do employers pose this question
  • effective strategies for answering it
  • examples of insightful responses
  • common pitfalls to avoid when answering this question

By understanding the purpose behind this question and mastering the art of crafting a thoughtful and constructive answer, you can turn your past failures into opportunities for growth and demonstrate your value as a potential employee.

Why employers ask this question

Assessing self-awareness and growth mindset

Employers ask about your greatest failure to gauge your level of self-awareness and your ability to reflect on past experiences. They want to see if you possess a growth mindset, which is the belief that failures are learning opportunities and can lead to personal and professional development. By understanding your failures and the lessons you’ve derived, employers can assess your capacity for introspection and growth.

Evaluating resilience and problem-solving skills

The question about your greatest failure allows employers to assess your resilience and how you handle setbacks. By answering this question correctly, you show you can accept failure as part of the learning process and implement the necessary changes to correct it.

Testing honesty and integrity

Another reason employers ask this question is to see if you can openly admit your failures and take accountability for them. By sharing your past failures in a job interview, you demonstrate integrity. After all, no one’s perfect. Instead of pretending you’ve never failed, employers find it refreshing when candidates can honestly express their experience and what they gained from it.

Identifying learning and growth potential

Employers ask about your most significant failure to gain insight into your learning and growth potential within their organization. Asking about failures is not just a tactic to get you to admit your weaknesses. Instead, look at it as a chance to showcase your strengths by constantly seeking to learn and facing obstacles as a chance to get better at your role.

Understanding why employers ask this interview question will help put you in the right mindset. Hopefully, any reservations about tackling this question are cleared and you’re excited to learn how to craft the perfect answer.

How to answer this question

Crafting a thoughtful and impactful response to the question about your greatest failure requires careful preparation and consideration. These steps will help you structure the best possible answer. Let’s dive in!

  • Choose an appropriate example

    Select a failure relevant to the job or industry you are applying for. Ideally, it should demonstrate a challenge you faced, the actions you took, and the lessons you learned.

  • Be honest and authentic

    Avoid fabricating or exaggerating failures. Instead, be genuine and transparent about the situation. Employers value honesty and are more interested in your ability to learn from failure.

  • Focus on the learning experience

    When discussing your failure, emphasize the lessons you learned and the growth that resulted from it. Highlight the skills, insights, or strategies you gained and explain how you applied them in subsequent situations.

  • Showcase problem-solving and adaptability

    Share your steps to overcome the failure and how you adapted your approach. Discuss any creative solutions, alternative strategies, or new perspectives you employed to address the challenge.

  • Connect to personal development
    Express how the failure impacted you on a personal level and how it shaped your mindset and behavior moving forward. Demonstrate your ability to reflect, learn, and grow from setbacks.
  • Highlight positive outcomes

    Discuss any positive outcomes or achievements that stemmed from the failure. For example, mention how the experience led to improved processes, increased efficiency, or strengthened relationships.

  • Keep it professional

    While being authentic is necessary, maintain a professional tone when discussing your failure. Avoid blaming others or dwelling excessively on negative aspects. Instead, focus on your individual growth and lessons learned.

  • Practice and prepare

    Rehearse your response to this question before the interview. Practice articulating your failure story, emphasizing the key points, and staying concise. Doing so will help you feel more confident and natural when delivering your answer.

Examples of answers to the question

To provide you with a comprehensive understanding of how to answer the question about your greatest failure, let’s explore specific examples for different job roles:

Customer Service Representative

“I once encountered a situation where I couldn’t meet a customer’s urgent request due to an internal miscommunication. It resulted in a significant delay in resolving their issue. However, I learned the importance of proactive communication and clarifying expectations. Since then, I’ve implemented a system of regular check-ins with customers, ensuring clear and transparent communication at every step. This experience taught me the value of attentiveness and accountability in delivering exceptional customer service.”

Assistant Manager

“In a previous role as an assistant manager, I faced a challenge overseeing a complex project. Due to inadequate planning, we encountered delays and missed deadlines. Despite the delay, I took the time to analyze the situation and identify the root causes to restructure our project management strategy. By implementing a more efficient workflow, setting realistic timelines, and promoting open communication among team members, we completed subsequent projects on time and with improved outcomes. This failure taught me the importance of meticulous planning, adaptability, and fostering a collaborative work environment.”

Office Manager

“As an office manager, one of my greatest failures was mishandling an employee conflict. I initially approached the situation with a confrontational mindset, which escalated tensions instead of resolving the issue. This experience taught me the importance of active listening, empathy, and conflict-resolution skills. Since then, I have proactively focused on fostering open communication, ensuring employees have a safe space to voice concerns and to mediate conflicts calmly and impartially. This failure helped me cultivate a more harmonious and productive work environment.”

Software Engineer

“A few months back, I was balancing various complex projects with tight deadlines. In trying to meet my goals, I underestimated the time it took me to complete an important deliverable that inevitably delayed other stakeholders’ work. This failure taught me the importance of accurate estimation and meticulous planning. Since then, I have honed my project management skills, breaking tasks into smaller milestones and considering potential challenges in advance. By implementing a more systematic approach, I have consistently delivered projects on time while ensuring quality and mitigating risks.”

Hostess

“As a hostess, I mishandled a customer complaint regarding a reservation error. I initially became defensive, which escalated the situation and left the customer dissatisfied. After reflecting on the interaction, I understood that I needed to exhibit more empathy and actively listen to the customer to resolve our conflict effectively. I have since adopted a customer-centric approach, genuinely listening to their concerns, apologizing for mistakes, and providing appropriate solutions. By turning such instances into opportunities to exceed customer expectations, I have fostered positive experiences and maintained strong customer relationships.”

Remember, these examples should inspire and guide your response. Tailor your answer to reflect your experiences and the specific challenges and lessons relevant to your job role. You can present yourself as a valuable candidate during the interview by showcasing your ability to learn, adapt, and grow.

Mistakes to avoid when answering this question

Now that we’ve thoroughly discussed how to answer this interview question about your greatest failure, you should also know what not to do. As you practice coming up with your answer, avoid the following mistakes.

Dwelling on personal or irrelevant failures: Focus on professional failures rather than personal ones. Avoid discussing failures unrelated to the job or industry you are applying for. Keep your response relevant and centered around work-related challenges and experiences.

Blaming others or being defensive: Take responsibility for your failure instead of blaming others or external factors. Avoid being defensive or deflecting blame onto colleagues or circumstances. Employers want to see accountability and a proactive mindset in addressing failures.

Oversharing or being too negative: While being honest is essential, avoid oversharing or providing excessive details that might make your response too negative. Maintain a balance between acknowledging the failure and emphasizing the positive lessons learned and growth achieved.

Lack of reflection or growth: Simply narrating a failure without reflecting on its impact or demonstrating personal and professional growth may weaken your response. Employers want to see your ability to learn from failures and apply those lessons to future situations.

Insufficient preparation: Failing to prepare adequately for this question can lead to a disorganized or vague response. Practice crafting a concise, well-structured answer highlighting crucial points while avoiding unnecessary rambling or tangents.

Lack of specificity: Be specific and provide concrete examples when discussing your failure. Vague or general responses may come across as insincere or lacking substance. Share specific challenges, actions taken, and the measurable impact of your failure.

Neglecting to connect to the job: Make sure to tie your failure story to the job you are applying for. Discuss how the lessons learned from the failure are relevant to the position and how they have influenced your professional growth and approach.

Forgetting the lessons learned: Remember to communicate the lessons you learned from the failure and how you have applied them since then. Highlight any positive outcomes or improvements resulting from the failure demonstrating growth and resilience.

By avoiding these common mistakes, you can ensure that your response to the question about your most significant failure remains focused, insightful, and impactful. Use this opportunity to showcase your ability to learn, adapt, and turn failures into valuable experiences.

Although discussing your greatest failure in a job interview can seem daunting, you now possess the knowledge and strategies to take advantage of this question and showcase your positive qualities.

As you interview for jobs, don’t forget the importance of tailoring your resume for each job application. Remember to change up the achievements and skills so they’re relevant for the role every time you update your resume.

Ensure your resume captures recruiters’ attention with the most in-demand skills and pre-written content our Resume Builder offers you! In just a couple of easy steps, our Builder will create a personalized resume quickly.

About the Author

CPRW, Career Advice Expert

Gabriela Hernandez CPRW, Career Advice Expert

Gabriela Hernandez is one of LiveCareer's resident writers. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a degree in Journalism. Throughout her career, she has tackled copywriting, blog articles, journalistic writing, academic writing, resume writing, and even prose and verse.

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