“Can you tell me about a past failure and how you handled it?”
Immediately your heart starts pounding. With sweaty, shaky palms you wipe your brow, hoping to buy some time. The hiring manager stares at you, anticipation in her eyes.
“Can’t think of one.” You say with a smile. There you go! Let them think you’ve never failed in your working life. Let them be impressed by your supposedly perfect record and hire you on the spot.
Except most hiring managers won’t buy it. On the off chance that you’ve never experienced failure in your career, you’ll still be lumped in with the 99.9% of us who occasionally make mistakes. Instead of hiding behind false pretenses, it’s time to open up and be honest.
Having a vulnerable conversation about your previous failures can be challenging, particularly within the stress-ridden confines of a job interview. However, it doesn’t have to be. Change your perspective; focus on the lessons learned and how you handled the situation. The purpose of this question, from an interviewer’s perspective, is to see how you deal with challenging situations. They’re not trying to catch you in a former blunder and refuse to hire you because of it. Instead, they want to hear how you learn from your failures.
To best answer to this question, think of a few examples of mistakes you’ve made in the workplace over the years. Chances are you’ve had minor errors, like misspelling a few words in an email, and major errors, like miscalculating the cost on a project and exceeding the budget by almost half. The best failures to bring up in an interview are the ones that fall in the middle, nothing so minor and nit-picky that you seem like you’re hiding something, but nothing so excessive that it may damage your chances in a future company.
Additionally, if you can think of mistakes you’ve made in the process of implementing a creative idea or facilitating innovation, these are prime examples to bring up. The most revered failures are the ones that eventually lead to something great or, at least, took place in the process of innovation. The reason everyone discusses Walt Disney being fired from a newspaper for having “no original ideas”, Steve Jobs for being ousted from his own company at age 30, and Oprah Winfrey being demoted from her job as a news anchor because she “wasn’t fit for television”, has nothing to do with their failures and everything to do with their eventual successes. If you have a story like this within your work history, tell it! Your interview is sure to go well.
When discussing your failure, it’s important to remain vulnerable, particularly when setting up what the mistake was. The initial explanation is an important time to avoid blaming others around you for your mistakes. Take ownership, then explain what your failure taught you. Did you learn to check in with clients throughout a project to make sure none of the specs needed changing? Did you decide to never leave work early on a day one of your major projects needed a complete overhaul? Whatever the lesson was, bring it up!
Remember, without failure, true potential and success cannot be realized. Your odds of making mistakes over time continue to increase, particularly if you are taking risks in the workplace. These risks, even when they result in failure, reflect well on you as a candidate. If you’re creative and innovative, if you’re dedicated to trying new strategies and implementing new technologies, you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Hiring managers know this and won’t fault you for it.
Owning up to these mistakes during your interviews will help define you as a candidate, in a good way! Don’t hesitate to answer with honesty as long as you focus on the reasons behind the mistake you made and the lessons you learned from it.
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