Employees in virtually every job will encounter failure from time to time, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that interviewers will ask about your ability to cope with failure on the job.
While your response won’t necessarily tell interviewers exactly how you’d handle a problem at work, it will reveal how you think about adversity and your ability to overcome it. It will also show whether you can deal with conflict. No one likes to talk about their shortcomings with a stranger, and your attitude will show whether you’re able to navigate these challenges.
What the Interviewer Wants to Know
Interviewers want to learn how you maintain your composure, attitude, energy, and focus when you aren't successful. They will also want to determine if you have the confidence to admit your failings, learn from your mistakes, and successfully move on.
This type of question is a way for the interviewer to uncover your weaknesses to determine whether you have the right stuff to get the job done.
It’s much easier to discuss your successes than your failures, but there are ways to answer this interview question without it looking like you can’t handle the job. In fact, being able to cope with failing and moving on can be an indicator of your success at work.
How to Answer the Question “How Do You Handle Failure?”
The best approach for handling this kind of question is to identify some scenarios when you came up short on the job in advance of your interview. Choose situations where you took responsibility for your failure, learned from it, and took steps to avoid recurrences of similar failures.
Typically, it’s safer to cite failures that weren’t very recent, and don't impact your ability to do the job. Be ready to describe your strategy for self-improvement in detail, and reference subsequent successes you achieved after taking those steps.
Examples of the Best Answers
Review examples of the best answers for questions about failing at work, along with information on why the response works well.
I have always lived by the maxim that nobody is perfect, so I am relatively comfortable taking responsibility for my shortcomings. My approach is to figure out what I could change to avoid similar circumstances in the future.
Why It Works: This answer shows that you’re willing to admit to your failures and take responsibility for fixing them. If you choose an answer similar to this one, be prepared to follow up with a specific example of a time in which you assessed a failure, and achieved success afterward.
I look to my professional colleagues in similar jobs and co-workers at my organization for suggestions on how to improve. I am aggressive about taking workshops, training seminars, and online tutorials to upgrade my skills.
Why It Works: Focusing on the positive is always a good rule of thumb in interviews. This response reflects your willingness to accept that you might need improvement in a given area, as well as demonstrating that you’re proactive about developing your skills.
When I was managing the Park Side Restaurant, we experienced a year without revenue growth after several years of substantial increases. As I analyzed the situation, I realized that some of my competitors were grabbing a segment of my customers by using online advertising and promotions and implementing a social media strategy.
I recognized the need to move aggressively into the future and mastered some digital marketing skills. I attended several workshops at the annual conference, took a class in digital marketing, and hired a tech-savvy intern to help introduce a new marketing strategy.
We restructured our website, instituted a loyalty program, partnered with Groupon, and initiated a Facebook campaign. After implementing these changes, our revenues increased by 15% in the next quarter.
Why It Works: This story illustrates that you can recognize problems and develop a plan to overcome them. It also contains specifics—e.g., a 15% revenue increase—that will impress the interviewer.
Tips for Giving the Best Answer
Share an Example of a Failure You Addressed Successfully. Be ready to tell a story about a time when you failed and then addressed that failure (to great success, obviously). Most interviewers will follow up if you provide a general statement of how you deal with these situations, so it’s best to be prepared.
Quantify Your Achievements. “Increased sales by 15%” is better than “increased sales.” “Saved $10k during the first quarter” is better than “saved thousands.” Be as specific as possible and use dollars, percentages, etc. to show your achievements.
What Not to Say
Don’t Focus on the Negative. What you don’t say in your answer can be as important as what you do say. Avoid references to any failures that expose inadequacies that limit your ability to carry out core components of the job.
The only exception to this rule would be if you could tell a very compelling story about how you eliminated those weaknesses. But again, be careful.
You don’t want to leave the employer with the impression that you don’t have the qualifications to succeed on the job.
Don’t Offer a Phony Failure. Everyone has experienced a reversal at some point during their career. Don’t let embarrassment keep you from sharing a genuine story of a time you recognized that you could do better (as long as you turned things around afterward).
Now’s not the time to present the hiring manager with a success dressed up as a failure. An answer like, “I failed to avoid increasing sales by at least 10% each quarter!” will be met with eye rolls, not applause.
Possible Follow-Up Questions
- Why should we hire you? – Best Answers
- What is your greatest weakness? – Best Answers
- How do you handle stress? – Best Answers
- What are the most difficult decisions to make? – Best Answers
- How do you define success? – Best Answers
- What are your goals for the future? – Best Answers
SHARE AN EXAMPLE: Come to the interview prepared to share a story about a time when you turned a failure into a success.
STAY POSITIVE: Make sure your anecdote has a positive ending that reflects well on you.
QUANTIFY YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS: Provide numbers that show you can do what you claim.