Career Advice

How to Turn a Failure Into a Learning Opportunity

min read
Mikaela Thompson

It’s the interview question that makes us squirm in our seat, “Describe a time you failed”. So, how do we answer honestly and not look like a disaster?

Unfortunately for some of us, the time we failed is right then and there after being asked this interview question out of the blue. In my case, my stomach lurched, while my mind went completely blank. I tried to trawl, at lightning speed, through my work memories to find a suitable moment…one that wouldn’t brand me as an idiot.

It’s not an easy question to respond to if you haven’t thought about, and prepared, an appropriate answer beforehand…one in which you can present yourself as sincere, open to learning, able to turn around a failure for future improvement, as well as show an awareness of how to avoid making the same mistake again. But which to choose? For instance, if you choose a failure which is clearly trivial and unlikely to have impacted on the company at all, it will be viewed as an insincere attempt to answer the question yet choosing a catastrophic failure after which there was no hope of recovery for the business, won’t serve you well either. Your best bet is somewhere between the two extremes.

Firstly, consider what it is the interviewer wants to know about you with this question. It’s not really about your failure but rather how you dealt with it. They want to know if you can be honest and accountable for your errors without blaming others or making excuses. Also, they want you to demonstrate to them that you can learn from mistakes for self-improvement and overcome challenges. Other positive spin-offs for them are that they can determine if you can relate a succinct, on track account while being positive and humble in tone.

With these in mind, select a scenario that allows you to perform well in the interview and doesn’t raise any red flags E.g., don’t show a character flaw, such as, an altercation with a client or drunkenness at the office party; avoid overly personal or emotional situations, particularly if they don’t relate to the job opening. On the other hand, do choose a topic which is meaningful to you and the position E.g., missing a deadline, not closing a deal, making a bad hiring decision etc.

How do I go about answering/ describing my missteps?

  • keep your answer to 2-3 minutes, no rambling!
  • select an account that shows a one-time mistake, not a repeated problem or pattern of errors.
  • look at your mistake objectively so that failure becomes learning for self-improvement thereby, changing an awkward, uncomfortable question to a positive mindset.
  • consider selecting a team failure. This can work well if you don’t throw anyone under the bus and you take responsibility for your part in the misstep.
  • to keep yourself on track, use a clear structure, such as, STAR: describe the Situation,
  • Task (what was needed to achieve it),
  • Action/approach (what decisions were made),
  • Result (what was the outcome of your mistake, why did the approach fail).

Some people add another step to this structure, so the acronym becomes START, the last T being:

  • Takeaway (what’ve you learnt, what should you do next time to avoid this misstep).
  • give examples of what you’ve learnt from the failed result:

For example:

1) Giving an unrealistic Deadline

Results: Upsetting the client by failing to meet the promised finish date; loss of client’s future projects.

Takeaways: Be conservative with predicting deadlines to turn client disappointment into satisfaction by completing the task early E.g., set the deadline at 4 weeks, knowing you’re more likely to finish the project in 3.

2) Hiring new staff for their potential and ignoring red flags

Results: Company having to fire the unsuitable candidate; company financial loss repeating the hiring process; loss of trust in you as a hiring manager

Takeaways: Take time to hire; ask your team members about each candidate’s merits and red flags, especially if you’re unsure; be sure to tell the interviewer about your subsequent successes in the same role, such as, you hired 6 new staff successfully after this error in judgement.

3) Micromanaging staff

Results: Unhappy, resentful team; loss of team members’ professional confidence; unnecessary stress for yourself from an increased workload; likely failure of team to perform well and/or reach targets.

Takeaways: Trust your team to do their tasks effectively and ask for help when they need it. Look for team success not failure. Let the results of your team effort speak for themselves.

Things to Remember:

  • avoid self-deprecation!
  • keep a positive tone, avoid being apologetic.
  • don’t blame others.
  • don’t claim perfection E.g., I’ve never failed!

More on this topic at:,,

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