Putting Workplace Failures in Better Perspective

Putting Workplace Failures in Better Perspective

You are a final candidate for a job you really want. This is your third interview. You know you have done well in the previous interviews and are feeling comfortable and confident. Then the interviewer asks, “Tell me about your most recent personal failure.”

You had been prepared to answer any question about failure with an example of a team project that missed a deadline a year or so ago, but that isn’t what she’s asking. Your mind whirls, trying to find a personal failure you are willing to disclose or aren’t embarrassed about. Why is admitting failure so difficult for us?

We know what the experts tell us about failure:

-Everyone makes mistakes.
-If you haven’t failed lately, you’re not trying anything new.
-Failure is not fatal.
-Don’t let the fear of failure stop you.

That advice sounds reasonable, so why can’t we take it to heart?

Part of the answer may be that we live in a competitive society where success is rewarded, almost revered.  Whether it’s in the classroom, in a sporting event, on the job, or on a reality TV show, only being the winner or the best seems to count. Yet, we can’t all be the big winner, so how do we change our mindset about failure? How do we become better at managing failure and setbacks? Specifically, how can failure in the workplace be best overcome?

•First of all, don’t waste time trying to cover up a failure. Doing so often just compounds the issue.

•Own the failure. Don’t try to blame someone else. Even if it was a team effort, accept some responsibility, and don’t sell out your teammates.  (“Jim didn’t know what he was doing,” or, “I knew we were going down the wrong path, but I couldn’t convince the others.”)

•Avoid whining, and keep your defensiveness in check. (“We were too constrained by organizational rules,” or, “We weren’t given enough resources to succeed.”)

•Do a detailed postmortem on every failure—large and small. What happened and why? What could, or should, have been done differently? Even more important, what should you personally have done differently?

•Take time to think about what you have learned from a failed effort that will help you be more successful with future projects and activities. What did you learn about yourself?

•Don’t internalize the failure or let the failure define you. While it may seem momentous at the moment it occurred (and there may be negative consequences), try to put it in perspective. It’s only one very small part of your overall career.

So, when asked in an interview, present a recent failure in the context of personal growth and lessons learned. By doing so without apology, that failure may lead to future success, including that new job you want.


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