Interview Question: "What Were Your Biggest Successes and Failures?"

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What has been your biggest success story at work? How about something that didn't go so well? What are you proudest of – and not so proud of? During a job interview, your potential employer will want to know what you have accomplished, and what you have not, in your current or last position.

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

Questions about your successes allows an employer to learn more about your work ethic, and your previous accomplishments. Your responses to questions about failures show the hiring manager how you work through challenging workplace situations.

Read below for tips for answering interview questions about both your successes and failures, as well as sample answers for each type of question.

How to Answer "What Were Your Biggest Successes and Failures?”

You’ll need to answer questions about your biggest successes differently than you do those about your biggest failures.

Questions about Success: When answering a question about your accomplishments, you don’t want to come across as arrogant, but you do want to share your success stories. There's no need to be too humble. Take the time to explain your most important achievements at work, and show how they can be an asset to the organization you're interviewing with. Here's how to prepare a few relevant examples to share with hiring managers.

Make a connection. The best way to respond is to give an example of something you accomplished that is directly related to the job that you are interviewing for. Review the job posting. Make a list of job qualifications and skills that match what you’ve included in your resume. Then, think of examples of accomplishments that demonstrate that you have these skills and qualifications.

This kind of answer will show that you have what it takes to achieve similar successes in the job you’re applying for.

Focus on adding value. When choosing an example of an achievement, pick something you accomplished that helped the company you worked for, and even added value to the company. For example, perhaps you reduced the budget for a project or made a task more efficient. Focus on the company, rather than on yourself. It will show the employer that you will be an asset to their organization.

Share examples with the hiring manager. When you're asked about your accomplishments, give a specific example of what you did in your last position. That example should correlate closely with the job requirements listed in the posting. Be sure to provide context about the example – for instance, what the task was, and what specific accomplishment you achieved.

Questions about Failures: When answering a question about past failures at work, you want to be honest, but you also don’t want to demonstrate that you are incapable of handling the job.

Be honest. If you haven't failed at anything, say so. However, almost all of us have struggled with something at work at one time or another. You want to make sure your answer is honest, but also does not cost you the job.

Pick a minor example. If you can think of an example of when you failed, be sure that it's a minor one. Do not pick an example of a time you failed at something that led to a disaster for the company. Also, do not choose an example that is directly related to the job you’re applying for. For instance, if you are applying for a job in customer service, do not describe a time that you had a really negative encounter with a client.

Turn it into a positive. After describing the specific failure, explain how you learned from it and/or solved the problem. If you can share an example that turned out well in the end, despite some glitches along the way, use that. This way you won't leave the interviewer with the impression that you have failed. Instead, you’ll show how you can turn a difficult situation around.

For example, if you were working on a project that was behind deadline, explain to the interviewer how you adjusted the workload and the timeline to get back on track and ahead of schedule.

You can also discuss what you did to ensure the mistake wouldn't happen again in the future. For example, if you failed to lead a team project successfully, perhaps mention how you then worked closely with a mentor to develop your management skills and had a successful team project the next time. It will demonstrate that you have learned from your mistakes, and have developed new skills.

Examples of the Best Answers

As you develop your own answers to these two questions, think of yourself as a storyteller and take the time to come up with full descriptions of times you either succeeded or failed at work. Be sure to cover the “5 W’s and 1 H” of journalism: who, when, why, what, where, and how. Here are a few examples of how to do this.

“What Was Your Biggest Success at Work?”

One of my greatest successes at my current job has been leading the installation and implementation of a new software program in the office. As office manager, I quickly learned the software program before it was installed, and then led a seminar to instruct all employees how to use it. Within five days, everyone felt comfortable and confident using it. My employers said this was the smoothest technological transition we have ever had at work. I know I can bring this technical knowledge and leadership ability to your office as well.

Why It Works: This answer is effective because the candidate describes, in full detail, a complex project that she successfully completed. She then concludes by returning the focus of the conversation back upon the hiring company as she “sells” the two skills she’s exemplified, technical knowledge and leadership ability, to the interviewer.

Last year, I made revisions to my school’s sixth-grade curriculum, particularly to the literacy curriculum. At the end of the year, we saw a 20% improvement in students’ literacy test scores. My ability to achieve success among students is part of why I love curriculum development.

Why It Works: This answer works well because it quantifies the candidate’s achievement with a percentage – employers are always interested in tangible statistics that illustrate improvements achieved after an initiative.

“What Was Your Biggest Failure at Work?”

When I first began my job over five years ago, I struggled to meet a deadline for a multi-part project. After that, I developed a new strategy for managing my time. After implementing this new strategy, I have been on time or ahead of time for every project, both individual and team projects. I think this ability to keep a group on task will make me a strong team leader in your office.

Why It Works:  Here, the candidate takes a relatively common failure – the ability to meet deadlines – and explains how he changed his time management processes so that he never had problems with deadlines again. It’s a great example of a lesson learned.

A cash register once broke when I had a long line of customers ahead of me. I thought I was going to have a big problem on my hands. Instead, I kept my cool and reorganized the line of customers so they went to different employees, while I quickly fixed the register. My ability to think on my feet and not become overwhelmed by stress has helped me win multiple Employee of the Month awards.

Why It Works: This answer describes how the candidate was able to turn an initial failure into a success. It’s effective because it turns shifts the attention to the strengths she can bring to the employer.

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

Practice your responses. There is no better way to build confidence before an interview than in practicing responses to the most common interview questions. If possible, have a friend or family member role-play the part of your interviewer so that you can experience answering questions aloud and maintaining eye contact. 

Think of specific examples. Come to the interview with a few stories to share in mind. This will help you feel prepared for the interview.

Emphasize your positive attributes. No matter whether you are describing your professional successes or your failures, pivot your answer to your positive skills and abilities and make sure to tie them to the qualifications listed in the job description.

What Not to Say When Answering, “What Was Your Biggest Failure at Work?” 

Don’t blame others. Try to keep it positive, and don't blame others for what went wrong. Deflecting blame on someone else isn't going to make the best impression. Employers don’t want to hear that someone else is to blame for your problems.

Don’t make excuses for what went wrong. Instead, share your solutions for preventing a fail the next time around. It will show that you’re proactive, flexible, and willing to move forward even when things aren’t going as planned.

Don’t provide too much information. If, for whatever reason, you were disciplined in your previous job, demoted, or fired, you don’t need to mention this to the interviewer unless they specifically asked why you were terminated. Should they ask, though, here’s how to answer interview questions about being fired.

Possible Follow-Up Questions

  • Why are you the best person for this job? - Best Answers
  • How are you different from your competition? - Best Answers
  • Is there anything else we should know about you? - Best Answers

Key Takeaways

TELL A STORY: Describe an occasion of success or failure fully, explained what challenge was involved, how you responded, and the outcome of your actions.

DETAIL LESSONS LEARNED: Explain how and what a challenging situation or project taught you and how it has contributed to improving your work skills.

SHOWCASE YOUR SKILLSET: Use your response to reiterate the unique skills and experience that would make you a desirable candidate for the job.