How do you talk about failure in a job interview?
One of the most frequent questions asked during a job interview is about your past failures.
They may not be as blunt as I’m being, they may phrase it like this: “What have you learned from your mistakes, or what are your weaknesses?”
Let’s face it, they are asking about your failures.
Why do they ask this question?
César Castillo Bertellim is a Sr. Technical Talent Acquisition Manager for The Royak Group, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, and he gave me this insight:
“This particular question is in essence a Behavioral Interview Question. Hiring managers and recruiters usually ask this question to find out about past job performance and in my opinion, this is a very good way to predict future job performance and helps the selection of the best candidate.”
According to Livecareer.com, “The real reason why interviewers ask about your biggest failure is that it reveals a lot about you–your ability to take risks, face challenges, acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them. The most important thing to remember when answering this question is that it really isn’t about what you did wrong. It’s about how you handled a difficult situation and what you learned from it.”
How should you answer the question?
Tanya Covert is Talent Acquisition Business Partner at HCA Mountain Division: She said this: “Be open, honest and concise. Share the failure, the situation and circumstances but even more importantly be prepared to communicate what you learned from that experience and how it made you a better employee or helped you refine a skill that is on your personal career growth agenda. We all make mistakes. Telling us as recruiters or hiring managers that you can’t think of something or having something that is a small error with NO real learning involved doesn’t show me that you have the ability to make a mistake, own it and most importantly grow from it. I admire and will put forth a candidate that really shines when responding to this question so be prepared for it by doing some real soul searching prior to the interview.”
Supporting that advice, César said this: “…do not shy away from it and come up with an example of a failure. After giving a good example of a failure, the candidate always should close with a couple of positive bullet points as follow:
1) This is what I have learned from failure….
2) I take smart risk, sometimes could end up in failure
3) Differentiate between failure and weakness
4) I know how to fail smart and I learn from mistakes”
What I learned from both Tanya and César is that to be authentic and answer the question effectively you should think about this question before the interview and think clearly about what you have learned from your failures.
Maybe you should create a failure resume?
In 2015, on the Today Show, I heard about a person who sent in a resume of their failures when applying for a job. His name is Jeff Scardino and he called this resume of failures a Relevant Résumé. Jeff decided to send out Relevant Résumé as a test. The experiment was to see what resume format would elicit the more responses. Using two different names, he sent a regular résumé and the Relevant Résumé to ten companies. He got one response and zero meeting requests from the regular résumé and eight responses and five meeting requests from its relevant counterpart.
As a result of this story, thousands of genuine job-hunters have now downloaded his Relevant Résumé template from his website. Of course what Jeff Scardino did was stand out from a sea of resumes.
Before you craft well thought-out list of your failures for a new resume, be aware that while you might stand out initially, this gimmick only has legs for a moment. You still have to be selected and deliver a powerful interview. A failure resume may not be the best idea for you, but what you could do is think about a particular failure that you want to talk about during an interview session.
The timing of this story about a Relevant Résumé was serendipitous. Scardino’s Failure Résumé became a motivating factor to for me to continue writing about my failures. It was around this time in my life that I started the research for what would eventually become a book titled The Value of Failure. Spending a year evaluating all of my major career failures sounds depressing and at first it kind of was, but then it became liberating.
What I learned in writing this book is a new framework for accepting and learning from your failures. It might be one thing to list all of your failures in a resume, but the honest question here is have you learned from any of your failures? If not, then I recommend that your take a hard look at your life like I did.
In my research for The Value of Failure I came up with a high level framework for learning from failure called A.C.E.
Accountability for your failures:
According to Linda Galindo, a consultant specializing in individual and leadership accountability and author of the 85% Solution:
“If your mind-set is that you’re at least 85% responsible for your success—and that just 15% depends on the way the wind blows—you’ll likely be successful. If you blame your problems and failures—big or small, personal or professional—on other people, circumstances beyond your control, or just plain bad luck, you may be doomed to fail.”
The lack of accountability occurs because we deny that a failure occurred. The effect of denial was a central theme in Tim Harford book Adapt. In talking about the effects of denial he said: “It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit we’ve made a mistake” If you can’t own a failure then you can’t make it right. The feeling of denial often occurs because of our erroneous definition of failure. No breakthrough in your life will occur if you remain in denial about your reality. Worse than denial is to double down and try to overcome the failure with more action and more effort all pointed in the wrong direction? Harford gave this example of how poker players who’ve just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and “erase” the mistake.
The last effect of denial happens when we mislabel a failure or try to paint it a different shade in the effort to convince ourselves that the mistake doesn’t matter or that it wasn’t a failure in the first place. When we revise our own history we are setting ourselves up to repeat our failures.
If you can recognize these psychological effects then you can begin to be accountable and then make correct reactions to failure.
Curiosity as to why you failed:
According to Roger S. Gil a mental health clinician that specializes in marriage and family therapy: “The key to recognize and address denial is to pay attention to recurring negative themes. Recurring negative themes (e.g. a series of harmful relationships, negative side effects related to an addictive behavior, etc.) are good red flags for denial. Chances are that we are either creating an environment that is conducive to the negative outcome we don’t want or fooling ourselves into thinking that we have control over a situation that we really are helpless to affect. If you see a recurring theme, know that you’re probably denying a truth.”
Psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer has conducted research in the area of behavior sciences and proposes that curiosity is a key factor in changing your behavior.
His research suggests that “instead of fighting our brains, or trying to force ourselves to pay attention, we instead tapped into this natural, reward-based learning process? What if instead we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience? As we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones.
Mindfulness is just about being really interested in getting close and personal with what’s actually happening in our bodies and minds from moment to moment. This willingness to turn toward our experience rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible. And this willingness to turn toward our experience is supported by curiosity, which is naturally rewarding.”
Curiosity with intent to understand why you failed can open up new insights and place you in prime positon to change your behavior and thus change outcomes.
Evaluate and Learn from your failures:
An example from Investopedia.com shows both clear evaluation of the failure and then how to create a system to avoid future failure: “My biggest failure was when I lost a half a million dollar deal because I wasn’t prepared enough to impress them, compared to my competitors. After I heard the news, I called the company back and managed to win some of the business back by sweetening the deal. I didn’t get all of the $500,000, but I now have a checklist of everything I would need to have prepared the next time.
What you have done in your career or life should be testament to what you have learned from you failures. You should be able to articulate what you have learned and how you judgment has changed because of those experiences.
Feedback on your performance or on projects from others is a great evaluation system. When you get feedback “It’s important to be dispassionate at times about the feedback you receive or perceive.” –Harford. Failures can stir up deep emotions. At times you need to look beyond the words of feedback and see it in context.
The key driver in getting feedback and removing emotion is to remember, that regardless of how bad things are or how bad you perceive them to be, you are wining because you know the truth and the cost and benefits of moving forward are worth paying.
As Tim Hartford said. “Being able to recognize a failure just means that you’ll be able to re-cast it into something more likely to succeed.”
How to prepare for the failure question:
Keep in mind, to have a successful job interview must frame your answers and questions in a way that plays to your accomplishments and strengths. The question about failures is another way to frame the interview in your favor if you are prepared.
According to Career Nook by Ronnie Ann, “To answer the question effectively, you want to go through your work history and come up with an example of something that went wrong or a mistake you made or a project that failed where you found a way to turn things around – or at least learned a lesson that you can show you later applied successfully.
Just remember that the idea is to have something that isn’t TOO bad that shows your resilience, determination, problem solving skills and a sense of someone they can trust to handle things even if things go wrong!”
Lily Zhang who serves as a Career Development Specialist at MIT writing for The Muse said this:
- Pick a Real Failure
- Define Failure in Your Own Words
- Tell Your Story
- Share What You Learned
“Again, this is a time to be real. Talk about real failure, not the B+ you got in Introduction to Psychology. Maybe it was a group project that wasn’t meeting deadlines or a miscommunication with your supervisor during a previous internship—the failure doesn’t need to be huge. It just needs to involve a mistake that you can reflect on thoughtfully. Interviewers are less interested in making you cry and more interested in seeing how you handle setbacks. Do you bounce back? Ask for feedback? Learn from your mistakes? Talk about the failure and, most importantly, discuss the lessons you learned from the experience.”- Alison Doyle, The Balance.
Finally keep in mind what not to say:
Doyle continues, “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.”
Remember no one wants to hire a person who cannot learn from their mistakes. Failure is agnostic and has no meaning unless you apply meaning to it. If you failed and then learned from the failure, you are on the right path, in fact, a path that the successful all follow.
Please let me know if this blog helped you prepare for a job interview.
Author of the new book: Hacking Failure and The Value of Failure
“This book will change everything you thought you knew about failure.”
Learn more about Shane and his blog: Learning From Your Failures