Interview Question: “Tell me about a time you’ve failed and how did you overcome it?”
You might get slight variations of this question, for example, “Tell me about a time you’ve faced a challenge and how you overcame it”. Lets not get this one confused with “Tell me about your greatest weakness”. They both kind of have the same general vibe of “help me disqualify you” but they’re going to be answered different. Mainly because of those 5 key words....
~ Tell me about a time ~
These five words are your giant neon sign flashing “I’m a behavioral interview question”. If you missed my video about how to answer behavioral interview questions, check out my STAR interview response video, because that’s the exact method we’re going to use to answer this interview question.
Before we start constructing our answer, we need to know what the real question they’re trying to answer is. In most interviews, there's the question they ask, and then the question they're really trying to figure out. For every interview question, we want to be sure we're answering this deeper question in our response. Which in this case is all about how you created a plan to solve a problem and were brilliantly successful! This is really your time to brag about a time you crushed it and show that they’d be lucky to have you on the team.
So am I saying you should just ignore the first half of the question about the failing? Not completely, we’re still kind of bound by the question literally asking us about our failure, but we need to mitigate the damage done. So, When we’re setting up our response, we need to throw up some general guidelines as to how we’re going to address that failure part of the question.
Guideline #1: Make sure the story doesn't highlight your incompetence
Spin this part as a challenge that wasn’t your fault, rather than a failure due to your incompetence. You might not always be able to do this one, but if they give you the opening by asking how you “faced a challenge" rather then how you failed... use that opportunity
Guideline #2: Avoid a failure similar to the job position you're applying to
If they are really asking for a time you failed... the failure should be in some area different than the job you’re currently going for. Even if you succeeded in the end, there is ZERO reason to hint to your boss that you’re incompetent in any way that might impact your future job performance.
Guideline #3: Personal failures are a good alternative response
If you can get away with it, utilizing a personal failure rather than a professional one is actually a good alternative because it can be relatable, and not reflect poorly on your professionalism or technical skills. An added benefit of using a personal example is that With a personal answer, you can show them that not only do you have the skills to plan out and follow through with a solution, but can show strength of character and offer a glimpse into you as a person, rather than just an applicant.
Remember, only half of getting a job is showing that you’re competent. Once you’ve shown that, the rest is convincing the hiring manager that they want to work with you more than the other applicants, so we need to take every opening we can to stand out as that person throughout the interview.
Great so now that we’ve got our guidelines on our failure, we can begin to set up the response. To begin with let’s see a quick recap on what the STAR technique is,
The S.T.A.R technique stands for Situation Task Action Result, and is how we’re going to be breaking down our behavioral interview question responses. In this case our Situation will be our failure scenario, our task is our plan to overcome that failure, and our Actions and Results is us explaining how we successfully implemented our plan and saved the day.
An example of a S.T.A.R response to the interview question “Tell me about a time you’ve failed and how did you overcome it?”
Situation: A few years ago I had just gotten my first position as the manager of a technical consulting team. I received my first project and had a meeting with the client to get an idea of what they were looking for. After those initial meetings, we worked hard throughout the entire next month to complete the project based on our client's initial ask, however when we presented our progress to them, they didn't like it at all.
Task: after this meeting we had to throw away most of our work, and i knew we had made a mistake in our process. moving forward I was determined to have more frequent check-ins with the client and present progress to them as it was completed.
Action: I broke the project up into five deliverable phases and had weekly touchpoints with the client to ensure we were creating exactly what they wanted, and could adapt based on their feedback.
Result: by following this plan, we were able to receive constant feedback from the client and deliver smaller incremental products in each phase. eventually resulting in a final product that the client was extremely pleased with.
From this example you can see that I really kind of breezed over the “how did I fail” part. In the real world it matters less about who caused the problem, and more about how the problem was fixed. In this scenario, It was my creativity and skill that overcame the issue, and that’s really what this interview question is all about. Showing that whatever problem might come your way, YOU will be able to solve it.