You got your call for the interview and you started preparing for it with so much diligence. You recalled all ‘positive’ or ‘good big’ things those you have done in your career life and worked on structuring flawless sounding answers those you can use as your weapons to throw at the interviewer to impress him or her. No one in an interview wants to think or talk about the negatives like your weaknesses or failures or other darker part. It took a lot of courage for you to get over your failures and so, you don’t want them to bring back to your memory lane in such a crucial time of your life-your job interview’.
Okay! You may not be interested in bringing up that question, but what if the interviewer himself/herself wants to ask you about the negatives or downs you had in your career. Answering the question about your weaknesses can still be somehow on an easy note but talking about your ‘biggest failure in life’ during an interview can be uncomfortable and tricky. But, getting an idea over how to answer this question can help you to impress the interviewer by showing your resiliency and learning ability.
What Interviewer is trying to judge?
No interviewer wants to intimidate you during your interview, at least not by this question. The interviewer doesn’t ask you this question to make you feel nervous or to find out faults in you to reject you. They are not searching for a ‘perfect candidate’ because everyone has faults and their own failure stories. There is a mantra that you need to keep in mind while facing this question in the interview:
“Its fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
— Bill Gates
So, if they are not looking for an excuse to reject you, what are they looking for? That is:
1. What you consider to be your failure: They want to know from your viewpoint that what is that you categorize into a failure. And of all, you had what has been your biggest failure in your eyes.
2. How did you cope with that: Although not asked in the question but they would like you to tell them how did you cope with the biggest failure of your life? How long did you take to do that?
3. What did you learn?: More than coping with the failure the interviewer also wants to know-how about what you learned from your failure. This learning can be some technical or some other skill that you may still how to deal with further failures in life.
4. What will you do in the future: The interviewer also wants to know what will you do if the same problematic situation comes in front of you once again? Are you ready to face challenges that your career holds for you?
Apart from the above-mentioned points, you may also be assessed on the parameters that are you someone who can acknowledge his/her failures? Are you someone who takes risks in his/her life? If yes, then to what extent? How honest are you? Are you self-aware of yourself?
While answering such a question your aim should be to share some story where you tried to achieve something but ultimately came short of accomplishing it. And this story should also have a good-moral ending where you learned something.
So, the two components for the answer to this question can be:
1. What is your biggest failure in life?
2. What did you learn from it?
How would you know about which fail to mention in the answer? Well perform this simple activity:
(A.) Make your list of failures: Think about all those times when you thought yourself to be a failure or when things didn’t go the way you wanted them to be or the way you worked out for them. Even if you were not penalized for such failure, etc. or you recovered fast from failures do take note of all the situations you think them as a debacle.
(B.) Choose relevant scenarios: Now, out of the list, select out those failures that have some relation to your career. That is, don’t go on mentioning about some personal or family failure. You cannot go on mentioning about your divorce etc. there. Select out the situations that were not a complete disaster but failures in a professional aspect.
(C.) Note down your learning from it: Not just that you also need to highlight the learning part of the failure. What did you learn from your mistakes or failure is more important than just correctly identifying them. Relate those learning with the job you are giving your interview for. Mention how your learning can be of use to the company.
Tips on what to include and what to avoid
What to INCLUDE:
Mentioning about failure can prove to be too risky in the interview if you don’t know what exactly to include in your answer. This negative question can be turned into a positive opportunity by the following simple tips mentioned below:
1. Relevant failure: Do mention only about the relevant i.e. professional failures of your life. Otherwise mentioning a personal failure will only weaken your candidature rather than strengthening it. Some failure related to your previous job or some other responsibility that you used to hold or ever held in life can be mentioned.
2. Share story: Share the answer in the form of a story with the interviewer. You need to include the time when it happened, what exactly happened, how you moves on, and what you learned. Make it in a believable story so that your interviewer is left in no doubt about you or your biggest failure.
3. Take ownership: This is your failure story; don’t just mention that there was a project on which your team was working and then it failed. Mention which part didn’t work out and if something was your mistake then admit it, take ownership of your acts. If you do so, the interviewer will sense the honesty in you.
4. Lesson learned: This is the main part of this sort of answer. Make a major chunk of your answer to this part. This will help you to not go too negative about your failure. You focus on your learning more and so, the interviewer will also focus on lessons learned more than your failure.
5. Implementing the lesson learned: Your answer must also, if possible, include a success story where you implemented the skill or the lesson that you learned from your failure. Ending the answer on this positive note will let you score some extra points from the interviewer. And you’ll stand on a separate footing from the rest of the candidates.
Things to AVOID:
Since the question is negative, most of the candidates tend to say many things which they shouldn’t be saying so. More than dos you need to focus on don’ts here, which are:
- Not choosing a real failure: Sometimes the candidate, to impress upon the interviewer, mentions such a failure that is not failure exactly. That may be some overstated fact. E.g. We were able to improve the revenue by only 20%, I wanted it to be more. So, that was a failure.
- Don’t go so deep: While being honest at answering this question, you don’t have to reveal all your deepest secrets and failures. Don’t mention anything personal issues or any character flaw. E.g. I am unable to quit smoking after trying so hard, this is a failure for me.
- Being extra-positive: Answering this question in a way like “I don’t think I had any such huge failures” will give a negative impact rather than helping in any way. It simply depicts that you have not introspected or you lack self-awareness rather than showing that you are an “all-time winner”.
- Taking oneself down: To accept the failure or to take the blame of mistake that happened doesn’t mean that you will talk low of yourself. You can scold yourself for it later, but not in the interview. Don’t go too emotional or too generous during the interview. Don’t sound like you lack confidence in taking any kind of risk now.
Preparing your answer:
Since this question is also one of the questions of the category “behavioral question”, STAR approach will be useful here too. STAR format should be used to structure your ‘failure’ answer. Each aspect of STAR here is:
S: Situation: What was the situation that you describe as a failure.
T: Task: Mention the task that you did in that particular situation or that you were expected to do.
A: Approach: What approach you took to cope up with the failure or to move on or to address the consequences.
R: Response: What was your response to that failure? Did you learn something out of it or your confidence got a big setback after this?
This all needs to be incorporated in the form of a story to make a well-constructed answer that is both balanced (positively and negatively) and honest.
Once I offered to design an animation to accompany a podcast that our company used to publish. This idea of getting the animation done got stuck up in my mind. I elaborated on my seniors and got thumbs up for it. I spent my entire week on the phone and running from post to pillar to get the help of the tech support team for the animation-tool company and to the company’s disappointment, I could not get the project done. I thought of trying out something new to help the company which failed. But I would say it was a great learning experience and now I deliberate on all the risk factors before starting a big project.
My greatest failure was that once I did not welcome suggestions from my juniors and so the event which was supposed to be the biggest event for the whole academic session of the college ended up into a disaster. It was the time of the college fest. We confronted a problem and I was deliberating with my team on an important matter. My juniors suggested something regarding the same which the other members of my team thought to be legitimate but I was reluctant. But, later after the things turned out to be worse I realized that the suggestion was acceptable and that would have been implemented much earlier. Learning from this mistake, now, I don’t fume away anybody’s advice just because he/she is junior or whatever. If the suggestu8ion is acceptable and implementable then I think of implementing it as soon as possible.
When I was working as a salesman during my previous job, I did a big mistake because of name-confusion. One day a customer called me and asked for a certain aspect of the company’s product. I gave an answer to the customer but soon I realized that the information was wrong or we can say the customer was misinformed by me because I had two clients with the same first name. It felt so embarrassing and terrible after realizing what wrong I had done. But, I took no time in accepting my fault and told this to my manager. I wrote an apology letter to the customer as well. Now I am aware that I not just have to rely on my memory but also should confirm with the system.
My biggest failure was failing on a recent project which was supposed to take our company to new heights. I was made head of this project and given a team of 10 members. I worked out nearly all the factors or management aspects for this project and was positive regarding its smooth conduct however, I didn’t calculate the financial aspect with due care. And that led us all to face the failure in that crucial project of our company. I completely understand the repercussions of my small mistake on the future of my organization. And since then I have been extra-cautious while I work on any project. I am cautious about all its aspects from financial to personnel.
There have been many challenges that I have faced in my life. I have taken up the responsibility for the failure in all such situations where I lacked dedication. In one of these mistakes, I feel I did not stand up to the expectations. During the initial years of my career, when I used to be a part of a team, it had other co-workers who were more experienced than me. We got the responsibility of improving the sales by 20% at the end of the quarter. Every team member worked with total determination to achieve the target. At the end of the quarter, we were able to improve the sales by only 5 %, which was disappointing provided that all the members worked extremely hard. We got praise for that 5% improvement but I was not completely satisfied. But, I was happy, after working with such experienced people and gaining corporate experience I felt motivated to work harder the next time. Next year, when we were given a similar target, I worked hard and was more focused this time. This time I and my team made it. We achieved the target.
Among all the failures that I have faced in my professional life, one of them that has taught me the most valuable lesson was when I was in college. It was when I was head of my college-quiz team. We qualified for semi-finals of inter-college quiz competition and so, we started practicing harder. Apart from practice we also planned out on other strategies as well. On the day of competition, one of my team members and I argued and because of which we could not focus on the bigger goal i.e. winning the competition. We lost the competition with a worse score than I could ever think of. But, the whole situation taught me important traits i.e. professionalism and team-work. I was not supposed to carry my personal feelings into my professional sphere because doing that creates chaos. I am thankful that I learned this trait early in my career life so that I can be ready for future challenges.
When I was in the marketing department of a company previously, I was given the duty to enter clients’ data into the database system of the company. I had done similar kinds of data entry work earlier when I was with the HR department of the same company. I had enough time to finish up the task well before the time. So, I decided to split the work according to my convenience. When just 1 day to the deadline was left, I accidentally database shut down the system without saving my work. I realized my fault soon after all this happened and re-started the work from beginning in haste to finish it in time. I was fortunate to help from one of my colleagues who happen to be good with computers. Most of the lost data was recovered and somehow, I managed to complete the task in time. This was not a failure if we take this whole as some mission because it was accomplished but for me this mistake was serious. Since then I have been very careful and observant not only on saving the work before shutting down my system but on other things as well about which I feel confident. I won’t let my confidence be over-confidence ever.
You do a lot of mistakes in your career life and sometimes it’s a mistake which creates embarrassment not just for you but for the whole team that had trust in you. I too did such a mistake once. Our team of students was given a task to present ideas to improve revenue generation in a company through slides presentation. Each one of my teammates was to apply a particular set of ‘formatting text’. By the end of the day, I had completely forgotten this important detail since I would have thought it to be too little to remember. I prepared my part of the presentation with great excitement but I did not pay any attention to the formatting part. And I was too sure about my presentation that I didn’t even bother to talk to my mates before giving the final shot. On the day of the presentation when I finally opened the presentation, my mates were shocked. They then realized how big mistake had I committed. The jury was waiting for the presentation and I was not ready. My team was highly humiliated because of me. Later, my teammates didn’t show any kind of anger to me, but still, I apologized again and again. But it proved to be surely a day of enlightenment for me as I learned to pay heed to even the minute details.
When I was an employee in the HR department of the previous company, one of my supervisors gave me the task of interviewing and hiring the new persons for our customer service team. I hired those people who were eager, zealous, and had some experience. Though I was concerned after going through their social media handles, I still chose to give them a chance. But, soon I realized I had done a mistake. Those entry-level people were dramatic with poor-attitude. This thing disturbed the whole HR team’s project. Things went so wrong that I had to fire them. But, that experience taught me how important is every person’s role in building the morale of all the employees at work and that I should trust my intuition more.
I am diligent not only about setting goals but also meeting them on time. While I was working with my previous company, my department failed to meet the expected quota of production of a certain line of products last year at the end of some quarter and I took responsibility for that failure because I think that instead of motivating and cheering my fellow employees for accomplishments, I pushed my team too hard to meet the production quota. In retrospect- I feel that be it any employee, they need to be motivated and nurtures in a professional capacity to allow him/her to be as productive as possible.