Why You Need to Ask Candidates About Their Failures

September 1, 2015

At some point, everyone will experience tough times, and even failure. If we don’t, it means we’re not trying hard enough. In one of his more famous quotes, Mark Zuckerberg’s says:

“Moving fast enables us to build more things and learn faster. However, as most companies grow, they slow down too much because they’re more afraid of making mistakes than they are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly. We have a saying: “Move fast and break things.” The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.”

Experiencing failure is inevitable. But, some people handle those times a lot better than others. And, those are the people you want to hire.

The ability to bounce back from tough times or failure (and handle stress and anxiety) is called resilience. If you can immediately try again after a big mistake, you’ve got resilience.

Unfortunately, recent data we have at Leadership IQ tells us that only 27% of employees have really high levels of resilience. And more than a third of employees have almost no resilience.

So, if your company wants to hire resilient people who can effectively bounce back from the tough times, you need to make this a priority in your interviews.

How to tell if a candidate will be a resilient employee

One of the easiest ways to assess whether a candidate can handle hard times or failure is simply to ask them about times when they experienced the two. Here’s an example of this kind of interview question:

Could you tell me about a time you were given an assignment and you lacked the necessary skills or knowledge?

This question is designed to reveal several issues. First, it sets a trap that many candidates fall right into by giving them the chance to say ‘golly, I always know everything!’ Paraphrasing Mark Zuckerberg’s quote, if you’re never pushing the envelope, you’re not trying hard enough. And, you likely won’t fail.

This question also reveals how the candidate handles those tough times where they didn’t know how to do something.

I first wrote this interview question for a high-tech firm that needs people that are proactive, self-starters and self-directed learners. This means that when someone gives you an assignment for which you lack the skills or knowledge, you need to go get those skills and knowledge and not gripe because it wasn’t handed to you on a silver platter.

Let’s look at an actual bad answer one candidate gave…

"I was tasked with doing XYZ, which was entirely new to me. I asked several times for assistance, but I was not given the appropriate help so I escalated my concerns to my boss's boss. He quickly brought in help. Sadly, that person did not assist me in the manner in which I was told they would. In the end, I was left feeling uneducated and under trained, which spelled failure for both me and the customers. It was a big problem at my last job."

The good news is that the candidate immediately admits that this situation has happened. The bad news, however, is that the candidate uses lots of passive language like “I was not given the appropriate help” and “that person did not assist me” and “I was left feeling uneducated.” Those aren’t phrases that indicate a propensity for proactivity, self-starting and self-directed learning.

Now let’s look at a much better answer a real candidate gave...

"The first thing I did was get a clear explanation of what the end product was to look like. Then I worked on developing a plan for what needed to be done, when it had to be done, etc. Next I utilized the Internet and I sought out people who were experts as resources to help me better understand what I needed to know and where to go to learn it. I really get excited when I have to learn something new, so I just dive in and get started. Lastly, I touched based with my manager frequently to make sure we were both on the same page for the assignment as I continued to learn."

Notice how this candidate uses much more active language? They say things like “I worked on developing a plan” and “I sought out people” and “I touched based with my manager frequently.”

When you ask a candidate about tough times, their answer typically reveals immediately whether they’re resilient. When you ask people about their successes, you will often hear lots of feel-good stories, regardless of whether the candidate has the mental toughness to handle hard times and failures. But when you ask job interview questions about failures, you will generally hear a marked difference between candidates you do, and don’t, want to hire.


Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a NY Times bestselling author, and a sought-after speaker on leadership. Check out Mark’s latest Leadership Styles Quiz to see what kind of leader you are.

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*Image by Greg Lilly

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