Skip to comments.The Job Interview—Answering Behavioral Questions: Your Biggest Failure
Posted on 07/16/2014 8:48:07 PM PDT by CharlesOConnell
Part of our continuing series on answering the most common (and trickiest) behavioral interview questions.
Tell Me About a Failure
Whats the toughest behavioral interview question of them all? For many, its this one: Tell me about a time you failed.
Ive noticed that more and more recruiters and hiring managers are including this question in their standard behavioral interviews. Some recruiters will even tell you that this is the most important interview question to ask a candidate.
Obviously, you cant afford to FAIL to answer this question well. However, my experience is that most candidates are terrible at answering the question.
Why is it so difficult? Typical behavioral questions are tricky enough but this one asks specifically about a negative experience. Negative experiences are tough to talk about in job interviews because your focus is on trying to present yourself in the best possible light.
You want to be candid, but not TOO candid. How do you talk about failure without sabotaging your chance of landing a job offer?
Read on for advice on how to prepare for and answer these critical questions about failure.
What Are Behavioral Interview Questions?
Companies ask behavioral interview questions to learn more about your past job performance. According to studies tracking years of hiring and firing at companies around the world, behavioral interviewing is the most effective way to predict future job performance and pick the right candidates. Its not perfect, but its the best technique that we currently have.
Behavioral interview questions tend to begin with Tell me about a time or Give me an example of Each question focuses on a desired competency area (a few examples: communication skills, time management, creativity).
Read our Behavioral Interview Questions 101 Guide for more. Why Interviewers Ask About Failure
Its fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. Bill Gates
You might assume that hiring mangers ask this question to torture candidates to dig for any evidence of a flaw, any excuse to reject you. When you look at it this way, its no wonder that many candidates freeze up and have trouble coming up with a good example of a failure.
It may reassure you to know that hiring managers dont expect you to be perfect. They know that everybody fails.
They ask this question to understand:
Are you someone who can learn from failure?
Are you self-aware enough to acknowledge failure and weakness?
Do you take smart risks?
How do you view success, failure, and risk in general?
After all, if youve never failed, then youve probably never succeeded on any significant level either. Prospective employers want to know: Do you know how to fail smart and learn from your mistakes?
The most common phrasing of the question is the simple, Tell me about a time when you failed or Tell me about a failure. There are some other variations on this theme as well:
Whats your greatest professional failure?
Tell me about a mistake that you made.
What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
Tell me about a decision that you regret.
Whats your greatest professional regret?
How NOT to Answer Behavioral Questions About Failure
The most common mistake is to NOT answer the question. I can understand why a candidate might freeze up if asked about a failure. If you havent prepared to address this topic, it can be daunting to try to instantly think of a good example and then describe it in a diplomatic way that shows you are both honest and a smart hire.
Many candidates will um and uh for a while and finally say something like: Well, I cant think of any serious failures. I guess Ive been fortunate to be pretty successful in most of my positions so far
That might seem like a safe way to answer. However, from the interviewers perspective, youre not answering the question at all.
This non-answer will be interpreted in one (or more) of four ways:
1) You think you are perfect and thus have no self-awareness or ability to grow.
2) Youre hiding a history of tragic failures that you dont want us to know about.
3) You dont hold yourself to a very high standard, so you never fail.
4) You always play it safe and never take any risks or make any bold moves.
None of these interpretations are particularly flattering.
The other common way to screw up this question is to blurt out something without thinking it through. Some candidates get flustered and insert foot directly into mouth. They share something that makes them look bad.
How to Answer Behavioral Questions About Failure
I strongly recommend that every job candidate prepare an interview story about a failure. As I mentioned earlier, this question has become extremely common I hear from my corporate clients that they find it very effective in separating the B.S. artists from the solid candidates.
Its also a question that can really bite you if you screw it up. Maybe youll get lucky and your interviewers will stick to shiny, happy questions about your awesome teamwork skills. But isnt it better to be prepared?
As usual when it comes to preparing for behavioral questions, I encourage you to use the STAR format as a framework to prepare your failure story. http://biginterview.com/blog/2011/02/behavioral-interview.html
With the STAR framework, you simply write down a few bullet points for each of the key aspects of your story (Situation/Task, Approach, and Results). This method allows you to hit all of your key points while keeping your answer concise (this is very hard to do without focused preparation).
Note: Big Interview has step-by-step instructions for creating powerful STAR stories and our Answer Builder tool will walk you through the process quickly and easily. Learn more. http://www.biginterview.com/
How to Pick a Good Failure Story
Before you jump into the STAR format, you must choose the right example to talk about. It is very important to select a failure example that will serve you well in job interviews.
Everybody fails in big and small ways. The tricky part is to craft a failure example that highlights your strengths and smarts.
Here are some guidelines for selecting the right example:
1. Choose a real failure. You must answer the question. Dont go with something like: We only improved sales by 35%, but I wanted to do more, so I felt like a failure. I guess Im just a perfectionist. (insert a humblebrag shrug)
2. Dont raise red flags. At the same time, you dont have to confess your deepest and darkest secrets. Dont choose a failure that was the result of a serious personal mistake (totally forgot to attend the meeting) or character flaw (probably shouldnt have called the client Sweet cheeks). A team failure can work well because you share responsibility with others (just make sure you acknowledge your role and dont try to pass the buck completely)
3. Focus on the learning. Pick a story that ends with a compelling example of a lesson learned. Ideally, you should be able to point to applying your hard-won knowledge/skills successfully on a subsequent project. (Read our sample answers below for inspiration). Sample Answer Tell Me About Your Biggest Professional Failure.
The sample answer below uses the STAR format to tell a failure story. Youll notice that this example is more scripted than your own STAR bullet points will be. We took this approach to try to illustrate how the answers might sound in an interview.
When preparing your own STAR stories, theres no need to write full sentences with detailed transitions. You can just write down rough bullet points to create a framework your delivery should be a little bit different each time.
This is the backstory. Provide an overview of the project or situation. Keep it concise and give only enough background for context
Example Situation/Task Bullets
I would say that my biggest professional failure was in my current role as a project manager at ABC Consulting Corp.
Last year, our team failed to land a $2 million new project from one of our existing clients.
The project should have been ours, but we dropped the ball.
Why We Like Them
With a failure story, you want to get right to the point in the S/T section. Give them the basic facts about the situation/task. The emphasis should be on the positive the lessons learned, which youll cover later in the R section.
This candidate takes responsibility for the failure and doesnt try to sugarcoat it or lead with defensiveness.
After you have given a brief background of what the failure was, its time to walk through a bit more detail about what happened and why.
Example Approach Bullets
I think the biggest issue was that the whole team took it for granted that the project would be ours. We had a good relationship with the client and we had just wrapped up a very successful project for them.
A team of us, led by the account manager, went to pitch. It was a solid pitch and we got great feedback.
But in retrospect, we didnt go the extra mile to wow them. We didnt push as hard as we should have. That opened up the opportunity for a competitor to put on a big show and steal the business.
At the same time, we failed to truly understand all of the clients key concerns. They told us that price was the #1 consideration, so we focused on demonstrating cost-effectiveness.
Meanwhile, a new senior VP had come on board and I now realize that his priority was picking his own vendor and he saw us as his predecessors pick. As the person working with the client team day to day, I should have picked up on that and found a way to address it.
Why We Like Them
This is a pretty insightful breakdown of what happened. There is enough detail to allow for a full understanding of the outcome, but the candidate doesnt go off on tangents or overwhelm with information.
The candidate has clearly thought about the causes of the failure and analyzed his own role.
He takes responsibility and identifies how both he and the overall team could have done better.
He doesnt raise red flags about his work ethic or professionalism.
A good STAR interview story always features a happy ending. With a failure story, your R section will be a little different than usual. With a typical STAR answer, the R describes the positive outcome(s) of the actions that you took (increased sales, reduced costs, winning presentation).
With a failure story, the happy ending is a twist ending. By definition, a failure is not a positive outcome. The positive outcome comes later and focuses on learning a lesson and becoming smarter/better/stronger.
Example Results Bullets
Losing the business was a real blow to the company financially and from a morale perspective too.
I actually volunteered to lead the analysis of what happened and see what we could learn.
Our #1 lesson as a team was to never take a client for granted and to never, ever settle for a good-enough pitch. We have to hit all of our presentations out of the park. And I can honestly say that weve done so ever since and it has led to a record year for new business in our group.
Personally, I learned that I need to pay more attention to the dynamics within the client organization and read between the lines more.
As the project manager, sales isnt the main focus of my job. However, as a daily contact with the client organization, there is a lot that I can do to help the company bring in new business.
I decided to take a sales course to develop my skills and have found that I now really enjoy being closely involved in the business development process and I am pretty good at it.
In fact, I made a point of staying in touch with my client contact from the lost project and continued to nurture that relationship.
As a result, when that contact moved to a competitor, she ultimately brought ABC in for an even bigger project than the one we lost.
Why We Like Them
The candidate analyzes what went wrong and what he learned from the experience. He looks at it from the organizational, team, and individual perspectives.
He demonstrates that his lessons were well learned by discussing the success of subsequent sales pitches.
He takes responsibility without seeming negative or defensive
He puts more focus on the R (what was learned) than on the failure.
Dont Forget to Practice
If youre a regular reader, you know how much we emphasize practice. Interview practice may not be exciting, but it is incredibly effective. I have seen the difference that practice had made for thousands of job seekers, especially when it comes to answering difficult behavioral questions (including questions about failures).
The truth is undeniable: candidates who prepare and practice land more job offers. To paraphrase the old saying: Dont fail to prepare, prepare to discuss your failure.
Please share your own experiences with interview questions about failure.
Bonus: Heres a famous scene from Cool Hand Luke where a failure to communicate is described. Not sure if boss-man is following the S.T.A.R. format though.
About the Author
Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase.She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York.She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.
Connect with Pamela On Google + https://plus.google.com/+PamelaSkillings On Twitter https://twitter.com/skillful
Interested in working one-on-one with one of the best coaches in the business? Pamela Skillings is an interview coach, career counselor and bestselling author.
Pamela is one of the few coaches that has been on both sides of the interview process. She knows what it takes to repeatedly get into a top company... because she's done it herself.
Combining her coaching and marketing background, Pamela has developed several different interview coaching programs to help you land your dream job.
Find out about Elite Interview Coaching with Pamela Skillings
Ummm ... my biggest failure? That would be NOT telling the last jerk that asked me all these question - what an idiot he was!
I’m in a job search situation (and starting a small business at the same time) and appreciate this article. I’m going to have to read more from this author.
Failing and learning from it is the only positive thing about failure.
I have been pretty annoyed lately about the way our company operates. Thought regularly about moving to a smaller company that is closer to home.
When I started working for them (40 years ago) there was no drug testing or psychological questions during an interview. I just knew someone that worked there that told me they needed help in the office. Talked to the department head and went to work the next day.
I have decided to finish out my working life there and quit griping about the current politics. Better the devil I know that the one I don’t. Even if the commute is hellish! It’s only about five years...and the way time is speeding by it will seem like tomorrow.
Had a guy crash and burn in an interview on this very question. In his answer he blamed basically everyone else on the project, didn’t take any responsibility. It was obvious he didn’t learn anything and he doesn’t pay well with others.
these don’t seem like trick questions. either give the correct answer from experience, or lie convincingly.
She knows there's no success like failure
And that failure's no success at all.
It seems to go in trends....."behaviorals" are big right now. I've taken the Wonderlic several times (my high score with no wrong answers got me one job), and I've had lots of "gotcha" brain-teasery type questions......"how many golf balls fit into a 747", etc. )
The strangest interview I've had recently was an "Apprentice-style" round table with about 10 candidates - I was the only female.
It was a mix of a few older guys who probably had a ton of experience but were beaten down by being downsized, young, inexperienced guys, a couple of uber-competitive blowhards and me. Questions were directed either to a specific person or to all.
The owner of this company swore that this method got him great hires. I didn't get the job (wouldn't have wanted it after that session), but I would bet he took the biggest blowhard,(the guy was a butt kissing jerk) and it probably didn't work out that well.
More intricate.... extremely so.
So much so, that people not in the author’s field could not begin to follow it... much less remember it.
(Yes, I’m a non managerial techie)
Was the job that you were seeking a tech job or non tech job?
I’m an engineer.... I know if I were faced with the kind of question about “how many golf balls fit into a 747”?
I would respond with :
“In order to accurately answer that, I will need the specs on the interior volume of a 747, and the specs on a standard golf ball. “
I’ve had those kinds of questions for both technical and non-technical positions.
Easy answer: second wife who was a stripper. NEXT!
And the idea behind most of those questions is not that you arrive at a particularly accurate answer, but to see what questions you ask to clarify (Seats or no seats? Filling the cabin only? etc.) or how your thought process works.
Based on your experience with that type of question (# of golf balls fitting in a 747, etc), what worked for you?
And what, in your estimation, would the response to my answer be?
Interviewee: My greatest fault is my honesty.
Interviewer: But that’s not a fault ...
Interviewee: I don’t give a rat’s arse what you think.
Had a guy crash and burn in an interview on this very question. In his answer he blamed basically everyone else on the project, didnt take any responsibility.”
Wow - so you interviewed Obama. That must have been interesting.
I was asked once in an interview what my greatest weakness was. I looked down at my lap and paused. Then I said “well, ummm, uhhh, it’s kind of hard to talk about but I have this birthmark...” and I brought my hand up with my thumb and index finger showing about a 2 inch gap. He started laughing and we both laughed for about 5 minutes and we giggled through the rest of the interview. It was good clean fun but I accepted another job offer the next day.
“I tried to feed all of the homeless people, but decided that I had failed when they only wanted cash, not food from me.”
“I made a fantastic product for my previous company, but we couldn’t get funded because I wouldn’t lie to the investors about the safety risks, so my firm failed.”
One of the “Jeopardy!” contestants this week was once asked in an interview what kind of tree he’d be and why, and he said he picked oak, because then he’d have strong limbs to beat the interviewer for asking that question. He didn’t get the job, but he got me to laugh.
The stuff of nightmares. I feel for any FReepers in the professional world who have to do these song and dance routines for a job. Just point me in the direction of the cafeteria kitchen, I’ll wash dishes or scrub the floors. Just please spare me the hellish interviews, lol.
Actually, I got a little snarky on that one and after asking a few qualifiers, I said....”as many as it would take to get to ‘this one doesn’t fit’ minus one.”
WildHighlander57 - LOL - All standard sized golf-balls fit into a 747. The question does not ask “what is the exact number” but rather how many “would fit into” and not necessarily “at the same time.” I would point that out and then add your answer.
OK, so there are some gopher** holes, which allow some golf balls to escape....
now the question becomes, at what flow rate are the balls escaping, and at what rate are they being fed into the aircraft....
** “caddyshack” reference :D