Job Interview

Tell Me About a Time You Failed: How to Answer This Interview Question

disappointed businessman

“Tell me about a time when you failed or made a mistake, and how you handled it.” There are definitely interview questions that are more popular than this. Still, this situational interview question comes fairly often, especially for a managerial position. Why? Because organizations want to see emotionally mature people on board, capable of being accountable for their actions. 

But how do you speak about failure in positive terms? Is there a way to describe some mishap without looking incompetent, or revealing that you caused a major mess? Yes and yes. In this post, we’ll show you how to make yourself look good while talking about a failure. 

How to Answer “Tell me About a Time You Failed”

To answer this tricky interview question do this:

  1. Honestly describe a not-so-great situation you’ve been in. 
  2. Comment on why things went wrong and show accountability.
  3. Focus on explaining how you’ve resolved the failure.
  4. End with a powerful takeaway. 

Don’t Fake It or Sugarcoat Your Failure 

Honesty is the best way to handle situational interview questions like this. Your response will be more genuine if you choose a real failure to describe. Thus, avoid the following:

  • Making up a failure entirely.
  • Trying to pass a very minor setback as a major failure.
  • Describing a scenario where nothing about the failure is your fault, and you are simply the hero of the story.

At the same time, you don’t want to reveal a major failure that cost your employer, time, money, or reputation. There’s also no need to describe a series of mistakes. Instead, focus on one event that turned out well, but ran into a glitch because of some error that you made.

Show Accountability

Here’s another good reason to choose an actual failure. It makes it much easier for you to demonstrate that you understand the depth of the issue and your part of it. If your mistake impacted others, acknowledge that. Nobody expects perfection. What they do expect is accountability and empathy for others. 

confident job applicant during the interview

So focus your reply on explaining why the issue happened in the first place: 

Because I didn’t communicate with the wholesaler effectively, the company lost out on a very lucrative opportunity. I assumed that my existing relationship with the wholesaler guaranteed that we would be chosen as the exclusive distributor for a high-end product. I failed to pursue things as aggressively as I should have.

Cut to The Chase

Don’t spend too much time setting the scene. The point of this isn’t to go on and on about the failure itself. Instead, get to the resolution quickly. That’s the part where you can demonstrate your skills, smarts, and professionalism. Say enough to ensure that the interviewer can visualize the situation you are describing, but don’t turn it into a speech.

Keep in mind that you are describing a failure. You don’t have to have resolved the situation entirely. You might describe how you mitigated the damage instead. Many interviewees opt to focus on what they learned from the situation, and how they apply that lesson today.

This is also your opportunity to highlight how you handle negative situations. Use this question to highlight how well you communicate with others, your commitment to personal accountability, and your resilience.

End With a Powerful Takeaway

When you are finished describing the situation, wrap things up nicely. Plan your answer to the question ahead of time. Then, come up with a powerful statement that really highlights what you learned, and how that’s made you a better professional.

To Conclude: Tell Me About a Time You Failed Sample Answer 

Now, let’s pull it all together with a great example.

I led a software development team in building a CRM solution for a nationwide retailer. When it came time to beta test the software, we released it to the sales team at one regional office. That team absolutely loved the software. We got glowing reviews and assumed it was ready for company-wide release. I was truly expecting a ‘win’. Unfortunately, the feedback we received from the sales and marketing staff across the country was overwhelmingly negative. They hated it. 

A lot of people were inconvenienced as we had to roll back the changes we’d made. Fortunately, I was able to collect a lot of good data from the help desk calls and complaints we received. My team learned quite a bit about varying user expectations and needs. Ultimately we were able to produce something that was quite well-received. I learned that it’s very important to select a very diverse audience of testers for any major software change. I’ll never select such a small sampling of beta testers again.

With the right framing, even your failures can be used to highlight your most desirable characteristics. Just remember to be forthcoming and accountable. Finally, provide a resolution that paints you in a favorable light!


  • Elena Prokopets

    Elena runs content operations at Freesumes since 2017. She works closely with copywriters, designers, and invited career experts to ensure that all content meets our highest editorial standards. Up to date, she wrote over 200 career-related pieces around resume writing, career advice... more

Leave a Response