“Tell me of a time you’ve failed” … What? No!

I think it was Henry Ford who said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” However, no-one likes failure, and for most it’s a word that can raise your anxiety level, particularly when asked about it in an interview. Do we really want to think about and address failure in the interview room? Surely interviews are the place to be positive and talk about everything that you’ve achieved?

This may well be true, however failure is an inevitable part of working life, and your interviewer knows that. Of course they will want to know about your successes and achievements, and how you did it. That said the interviewer will also want to know about your approach to failure and how you deal with it; can you take a step back and see where you went wrong, or do you sweep it under the carpet and act like it never happened?

Failures are forgivable, inevitable in fact, for if you have never made a mistake, you have probably never made a decision. Businesses will look for individuals who can reflect and learn. But if you cannot identify how and where you went wrong and learn for next time, then that will put you on the back foot. Therefore, whilst you certainly won’t be the one to bring it up, you will need to be prepared to answer that dreaded interview question, “Tell me about a time you failed” in a positive and convincing way.

Think ahead and know what example you’ll talk about

This is a little bit of a balancing act. You don’t want to pick a thinly veiled success story that isn’t really a failure at all, such as “I exceeded my monthly sales target by 120 per cent, but I really wanted it to be by 130 per cent, so I was disappointed.” Believe me, the interviewer will see straight through that. Equally, avoid talking about a huge mistake which cost a huge amount of time, money or even jobs.

So think of a real example of where you made a genuine oversight or error of judgement that caused a ripple in the ocean, rather than a tsunami. Maybe missing a deadline, failing to close a deal or not hitting a KPI one month – just make sure that the example you select is not one of the key requirements of the job you’re interviewing for. Once you have in mind what example to use, practice telling your story (well ahead of the interview) and do remember these points:

Explain how it happened

Make sure you clearly indicate that you know exactly where you went wrong. Recall the situation as it happened and pinpoint the obstacles which prevented you from achieving the desired outcome. This will demonstrate that you know the root cause of the problem, and can prevent it from happening again. That said, don’t let your reasons sound like excuses or you blaming someone else, which nicely brings us to the next two points.

Don’t hide behind excuses

Please do not attribute your mistake to things beyond your control – the weather, a shortage of staff or a flat tyre. We all know that in business, there will be uncontrollable elements that can hinder your goals. However, what is important is how you identify what is in your immediate control, and how you take ownership and responsibility for the times that you fail to take that control. If you do anything else, you can come across as defensive and unaccountable during the interview.

Don’t shift the blame to others

Similarly, don’t blame other people as you talk about the situation. This is probably one of the worst things you could do. Someone who looks for the nearest person to blame, rather than reflecting on how they are personally responsible, will without fail be a threat to the team dynamic, morale and productivity. Talk about what you could have done to prevent the failure from happening, and show the humble self-awareness that all managers respect.

Be careful not to be too hard on yourself

You can be humble and self-aware, but you can’t go completely overboard and being self-deprecating. As you tell the story, don’t insult yourself or make any sweeping generalisations about who you are as an employee. Rather, stick to the facts and tell the story objectively. This will show that you can take these situations on the chin, rather than choosing to dwell on them for ages.

Show that you have learned from the situation

Don’t come out with the cliché “I’ve learnt more from my failures than I have from my successes”. But of course make sure to outline which lessons you have taken from your story, and demonstrate how you have since applied them to similar situations to achieve a more positive outcome.

As stated earlier, mistakes and disappointments are inevitable in your career, so there’s no need to avoid talking about them during an interview when prompted. Just make sure you choose your story wisely, and prepare to tell it in a way that portrays you as an accountable, self-aware candidate who will strive to learn from your mistakes in order to improve future performance.

Good luck!