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“Tell me about a time you failed in your career.”

For many, that’s a dreaded request in job interviews. We know talking about a time we worked too hard is verboten; interviewers see through that ruse. So our mind immediately starts ransacking the past for some small mishap we can share that might still present us in a good light, while wishing we had prepared in advance.

Presentations coach Joel Schwartzberg says your focus on failure – even if just a tiny one – is leading you astray. Instead, you need to focus on the learning.

“What the recruiter ultimately wants – and they may even state this explicitly – is not so much your story of failure but what you learned from it and how you turned that insight into a productive approach. So, pick a story with those reflections in mind. These are often failures of realizing, appreciating or preparing versus failures of doing, ruining or harming, which emphasize the consequences of the failure,” he writes in Harvard Business Review.

Look for moments of revelation, realization, course correction and improvement in your career. Then back up to before those points of insight to find a way of presenting a story of failure, because things were not going as well as you might have wished.

As you describe the situation, move quickly from failure to fix. “Don’t let the failure and its impact linger and possibly damage your reputation – emphasize the correction and let it take the spotlight,” he stresses. But linger on the realization or learning, because that’s the message you are driving home.

He also advises you to pick a miscalculation, not a mistake. Miscalculations occur routinely at work – something doesn’t go as planned. He argues those are not seen as personal or connected to flaws, and lend themselves to the learning narrative you want to share. “Ultimately, the most productive learning comes not from a mistake but from a miscalculation,” he writes.

His other tips include:

  • Don’t draw extra attention to the failure: Use the word “failure” once, no more, to demonstrate you are answering directly. Then find other words like “result” or “consequence.” that are more neutral.
  • Look for a we, not a me: If you can, find a group failure in which there was consensus in decision-making. That allows you to say “we didn’t realize” instead of “I didn’t realize.”
  • Aim toward low consequence, not high consequence: If the consequence was minor but the learning significant, that can be helpful. “The consequence could even be a potential failure, but make sure it was a possible peril, not a hypothetical one,” he writes.
  • Don’t defend a failure: He notes some applicants try to limit the damage by defending, rationalizing or minimizing the failure. Instead, he advises: “Deliver a compelling story that reflects your dedication to improvement, and that failure will become a footnote, not a focus.”

Content marketer Harshita Khullar adds three things to avoid:

  • Don’t play the blame game: You shouldn’t be looking to excuse your actions or behaviour by offering another person’s mistakes as justification. Show you are well aware of the weak point or moment and focus on how you mitigated it.
  • Don’t provide too many examples: Give a single instance and explain the story and positive outcome. Don’t get into other times when this flaw created a problem.
  • Don’t say you never failed: “Never say that in your entire life, you never failed and always succeeded with your plans and actions,” she writes on Shinelearning.

Instead, say you have learned from certain episodes of your life and thus turn the dreaded question into a selling point.

Quick hits

  • Stress is not always negative so consultant Suzi McAlpine urges you to think of common stressors in your workplace, write down whether they’re positive or negative for you, and ask yourself how you can increase the opportunity to experience those positive stressors.
  • When somebody offers you feedback, avoid the trap of assuming negative intent. Taryn McKenzie, executive vice-president of the TalentSmart consultancy, says chances are the person across from you is not the enemy, and you share similar goals and aspirations.
  • Take a similarly positive tack when someone you serve with in your organization – effectively, an internal customer – is overbearing or condescending. Assume that they don’t understand what you do, advises customer service specialist Shaun Belding, and gently and subtly educate them, framing delays and other concerns as being in their best interest.
  • One more positive message – on things that you fear doing. “You’ll feel better once you get started,” notes Atomic Habits author James Clear.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.