Failure vs. Perfectionism: Navigating the interview question that exposes your flaws

How to effectively share your failures with employers to highlight your strong work ethic and ace that interview.

You’re here. Game face is on. You’ve done your due diligence and have researched the organization. You’ve practiced responses to expected prompts and questions such as, “Tell me about yourself”, “Why do you want to work here in this role?”, and “Do you have any questions for us?”. Whether virtual or in-person, this interview is going to go well because you are confident and ready to share your best professional self with the hiring committee.

Alysia McGlone, career services fellow

This brief, 20-minute conversation is indeed going well. You’ve given examples to their behavioral questions that prove you to be an asset to the role, department, and organization. Then, they ask you to describe a time when you failed and you’re blindsided thinking, “Oh, wow, I was not expecting this question”. To remain calm and confident, you’re contemplating discussing a time where the failure wasn’t even “that big of a deal”. But that’s not what the hiring committee is after by asking this question. It’s important to be honest about a time when your actions did not yield expected results for a given task. The committee really wants to know here how you responded to failure (e.g. resilience, responsibility, integrity).

Your gift shines through even in, or perhaps especially in, response to adversity. Employers will respect you for respecting them with an honest answer. So, the decision of whether or not to present yourself as perfect, never having failed, becomes less appealing to you and you decide to “do the hard thing”. Reflecting on a moment at work, a class project, or even during a volunteering experience, you explain a situation that discloses a time in which you failed. It’s okay to have failed. Every human has failed, even the ones on the hiring committee.

There is hidden beauty about this question or questions similar to it such as, “Describe your greatest weakness”, “Describe a time when you had a conflict with someone”, or “Describe a time when you’ve received negative feedback”. Let me show you how!

Here’s how you do it: You get to walk employers through a situation that wasn’t great and didn’t meet your or others’ expectations. Answer with a smile and with confidence that the lessons learned further amplify you as an asset to this role, department, and organization.

  • Describe the situation. Who was involved, what was your role, and where and why did it occur?
  • Tell the committee what tasks were assigned to you. Provide an overview of the type of goals or challenges presented by the situation.
  • Explain your specific actions taken. What did you do individually or in collaboration with others to complete this assignment?
  • Display integrity. Discuss the results as they happened – no filler, no fluff, no embellishment. Did you meet, exceed, or mismanage your actions needed to resolve the challenges of the situation?
  • Be reflective in your storytelling. What did you learn about yourself throughout the process? What would you do differently if you were in a similar situation in the future?

This framework transforms what may seem like a “personal failure” into a tangible “professional area for improvement” to which you then delineate tangible action steps you’ve taken since the event to increase your knowledge regarding this and similar skills in the future.

At this point, it’s out there. They’ve heard your flaws. But the more important outcome is that the committee has heard your commitment to learning and development. You can rest assured that despite the urge to succumb to the unrealistic pressures of perfectionism, you have indeed presented your best professional self, ready to take on future challenges as an ethical, responsible, and resilient leader.