When appearing for an interview, everyone has some worldly advice about what you should say and what you shouldn’t. However, there happens to be one question which not many prepare you for, simply because it isn’t very comforting to do so. Imagine sitting all confident and positive across the interview board, waiting to share your greatest professional achievements, and you are asked, “What do you consider your biggest failure?”
If you haven’t thought this answer through, chances are you will be caught off-guard. Either you will try to brush off the question, or will answer in a manner which will reflect poorly on you. Hence, being prepared is of paramount importance. But how do you begin to frame an answer? Help is at hand:
Pick a relevant instance
Do not pretend that you have had a stellar performance record your entire career - everyone makes mistakes, and it is okay to admit them, especially when you are being asked upfront. Pick an instance or example that really does quantify as a failure, and not a sugar-coated attempt to steer the conversation off the topic. Ideally, it should involve you failing at performing a given task – and should involve other variables. Picking a correct instance is important, for it shouldn’t reflect poorly on your character but must point towards a lack of skill or knowledge at your end. For example, saying that you were always late and as a result missed important meeting is not something you should begin with. Pick instances where the result was quantifiable.
Always provide a background as to why the situation arose. Do not keep the explanation too long, by going into the details, but do set the context. Very importantly, explain why you consider it a failure on your part. Do not take the easy way out and shrug off responsibility of the failure by blaming your co-workers, the situation or the boss, but briefly explain what lead to you failing at the task you were assigned, and more importantly, what your role in that was. This will point to your ability to objectively look at situations, and furthermore, if you are willing to own up to the mistakes you have made. Lastly, providing a relevant context to the interviewer might open up other topics for discussion – of your previous organisation, workplace, job responsibilities etc.
End with what you learnt
This is the most critical part of the response and should be stressed upon. The focus of your answer should be what you learnt from the experience and how it helped you grow in your career and as an individual. The idea is to convey that failures have taken place, but they have made you better, wiser, learned and experienced. If you can affirm this learning by discussing another instance where you did not repeat the same mistake, it will reflect highly on you. Lastly, summing up the experience, in a line or two, will tell the interviewer your perspective, on how you look at things, and whether you have taken the failure in a positive or negative manner – thereby revealing how you truly feel about it.
Dodging questions about failures and shortcomings is one of the worst mistakes you can make during an interview. The interviewer asks these specific set of questions with the purpose of discovering what you learnt from your failures, how you look at success and failure in general and also if you are self-aware enough to identify and acknowledge you failures, and the reasons behind them. Depending on the instance you choose to substantiate, you can always end the response on a positive note, by sharing what you learnt. But the bottom-line is that you need to prepare this one answer thoroughly, for talking about successes and what one are good at comes naturally to us, but when asked to list failures, the very nature of the conversation makes it heavy and difficult. Even preparing for this question will not make you infallible, for it is never easy to talk about something we failed – humans just aren’t wired that way. However, being clear, to-the-point, and open about it might make you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, but will send the right message across.
Have you ever been asked such a question? How did you respond? Let us know!