When an interviewer asks about a past failure, it’s a bit like drawing a “go to jail” card in a game of Monopoly. While it’s simple to get past, it puts a real damper on mood and momentum. Discussing failure is tricky. You’re there to impress the hiring manager, but you’re being asked to discuss something less than impressive. Here are some strategies to help you ace the question and get back to more comfortable topics.
Choose a Real Situation
Don’t try to talk your way around the question by lying and saying you’ve never failed or simply making something up. Choose a real failure, but choose it strategically. Don’t discuss colossal failures related to the engineering work you are applying for. Dig back to the early days of your career when you likely made many, small missteps. Don’t feel like you have to discuss a time when everything went completely haywire. Use a situation in which something didn’t go quite right due to your action or lack of action.
Define The Failure
Your definition of failure might be something like, “failure is about not meeting expectations, whether my own or someone else’s,” or “to me, failure is about getting caught by surprise. I work hard to stay on top what’s happening with my team and our work.”
Tell the Story
Once you’ve defined your personal idea of failure, briefly tell the story you’ve chosen. Always be succinct; the interviewer is simply trying to establish how you handle setbacks on the job. So focus on the meat of the story, rather than setting the stage.
Discuss the Lessons Learned
After you’ve explained the situation, describe the steps you took to rectify the problem and then discuss the ultimate outcome, making sure to address the lessons you learned from the failure. What changes did you make in your approach to your job in an effort to prevent similar situations in the future?
Questions about failure are stressful. Even if you’ve prepared and practiced for the question, discussing failure is difficult for everyone. The key to acing the answer is to frame the story using your personal definition of failure and then ending the story with the lessons you learned from the experience. If you bookend your story with these two elements, your answer will be strong.