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Top 3 Problem-Solving Interview Questions + How to Answer Them

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Problems are inevitable in the work environment. So it’s imperative for hiring managers to ask problem solving interview questions to find the ideal candidate. Employees will face complex issues that require them to understand the cause of the problem and find solutions for unexpected situations.

Problem-solving interview questions vary depending on the position, department, and company you’re applying for but are relatively focused on the interviewees’ experiences in solving problems logically.

Companies only hire candidates who are analytical and critical thinkers. And it’s every interviewer’s goal to analyze each candidate’s abilities to address issues that are taking the wrong turn.

So to know how to nail a job interview, you need to research the best technique to answer problem-solving interview questions.

hiring manager interviewing job applicant

The interviewers’ goal when assessing your problem-solving skills

Job interviews are the best time for hiring managers to measure the interviewee’s problem-solving skills in handling sudden challenging scenarios. Problem-solving questions are under the umbrella category of behavioral interview questions. These questions are common during an interview.

The interviewer’s primary goal is to look for the right candidate who can provide the company value even while working in a stressful environment.

Costs of making a bad hiring decision

Hiring is one of the most critical roles of a manager. And it can be stressful for them because a bad hire affects the entire company’s productivity negatively. According to CareerBuilder Survey, 74% of employers hired the wrong person for a position.

As reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, the cost of a bad hire is at least 30% of the employee’s first-year earnings.

For example, if a worker earns $70,000, it costs the company roughly $21,000. However, this amount may seem relatively minor to a big corporation, but it has a ripple effect. On the other hand, it’s a tremendous monetary loss if you’re applying to a small business.

But how much does it cost to hire an employee in the first place?

$4,129 is the average cost per hire, according to SHRM. This cost includes recruitment; hiring a wrong hire adds up because they now have to find a replacement, resulting in lost revenue. In addition, it costs the company paid job listings, time, and effort in writing, screening, interviewing, and training candidates.

Avoid making a wrong hiring decision

Hiring the wrong person doesn’t only affect the company financially, but it also influences team culture and client relationships. The National Business Research Institute report shows that 37% of companies claim that bad hires affected employee morale and over 18% stated that it impacted their client relationships.

When everybody in the team who shares the same values collaborates to accomplish the same goals, the company becomes successful. However, when a lousy hire joins the team, it will disrupt the workflow because they’re not working as efficiently. As a result, they don’t add value to the team, which adds pressure and stress to the other members. 

At the same time, if a new employee excels, it encourages clients to engage in business with them. But if they’re not a good fit, they can ruin client relationships, affecting its reputation.

Specific details of your behavior

Your resume and cover letter are just the tip of the iceberg. Interviewers will assess your hard skills and educational qualifications using these documents. Although it may show your credibility, it’s your conduct, mindset, and personality are aspects about you that’ll increase your chances of getting hired.

In relation to that, hiring managers will assess you through a rigorous selection process to gauge your problem-solving skills, attitude, and behavior if you fit the position. In addition, they want to see how you find a problem—whether it’s a technical, inter, or intrapersonal issue—and how you can solve it.

Then, once they decide to hire you, they’ll conduct a reference check from your previous employers to validate your information.

Your past behavior as a predictor of your future job performance

Hiring managers undergo a series of training to conduct interviews effectively. They try their best to determine whether the candidate’s ability is up to par with their standards. So they often ask specific, open-ended past behavior questions to show what actions their new hire did in the past.

Asking past behavior questions gives the interviewer specific valuable details about the applicant, which allows the interviewer to ask follow-up problem-solving questions. 

For example, they’ll ask you to think about a time when you had to address some problems at work. Your answers should include Situation, Task, Action, and Result or S.T.A.R. The goal is to uncover the interviewee’s experiences from their previous job to predict their performance if they work for the company. Although this method is not fool-proof, it’s still helpful in weeding out inefficient applicants.

Always answer problem-solving interview questions honestly. Hiring managers will contact your previous employers about your work ethic while working for them.

Time does bring about change. Once you realize that there are some traits that you want to alter, it’s never too late. So what you can do now is take the necessary steps to develop your career for a brighter future.

Top 3 problem-solving interview questions

Problem-solving interview questions relate to identifying obstacles, challenges, and opportunities, then implementing practical solutions collectively. Hiring managers evaluate your initiative in stepping up to the plate without being told, resourcefulness in finding a clever, quick fix, and determination to move forward even when things get rough.

Sometimes problem-solving questions include:

  • Hypothetical situations that happen on the job
  • A step-by-step approach to finding the most effective solutions
  • Comparing and innovating alternative solutions to provide the company with a new perspective
  • Citing example situations that assesses your ability to collaborate with a team

Generally speaking, most of the questions are job specific, but they are usually applicable to nearly every position. These examples below will give you a good starting point when practicing for interviews.

1. Describe a time when you made a mistake. What did you do to fix it?

Describing your mistake is one of the most commonly asked questions during a job interview. And it seems to put you in the spotlight. And, to the same degree, it’s nerve-wracking because nobody wants to talk about past mistakes. So reassess yourself and prepare to handle this type of problem solving interview question.

What the interviewer wants to know: Your interviewer wants to know that you can grow and learn. They want to see if you own up to your flaws which shows your employer that you have integrity in understanding your mishaps and failures from your past career. Additionally, they want to know how you see and handle challenges constructively and determine if you have any shortcomings that might bring down the company.

The goal: You should give a strong answer that emphasizes problem-solving skills, results orientation abilities, and sincerity in acknowledging that you made mistakes. Then, choose an example that briefly explains the negative issue and then highlights the positive outcome. Finally, reassure the hiring manager that you took steps to improve yourself and it won’t happen again.

Example answer:

I’m the type of person who wants to know if I made a mistake. So I can reevaluate myself based on my actions. For example, when I first landed my job in the marketing and sales department, I was responsible for creating engaging social media content with my team. While I thought it would be best to work on the project independently, it caused many conflicts within the department. I thought I could ease my team’s workload, and I wanted to prove that I was excellent so my team would like me.

I learned that I am a part of the team for a reason, to help each other as a collective unit. We can pull better ideas and concepts working together rather than doing everything by myself. I realize that I don’t have to prove myself for their acceptance. All I had to do was be my authentic self.

This mistake taught me that my inconsistencies had a ripple effect on the whole company, no matter how small. So I took the necessary steps to ensure that I communicated with the team effectively and asked for help when I felt any pressure and stress.

By the end of the year, we increased our engagement which stimulated our sales.”

Tip: While explaining a negative event, keep your tone light and positive. Avoid dwelling on your mistakes, and don’t be too apologetic. Instead, bring your interviewer’s attention to how you solved the problem and what you’ve learned.

2. Tell me the best way to prevent a potential risk?

Job seeking can cause stress. However, you can overcome job search anxiety by researching the common types of problem-solving interview questions beforehand. And one of the topics might be your knowledge of preventing risks at work. Or the question is formed as “Tell me about a time you had to overcome an obstacle?”

The BAR method is similar to the STAR technique. It can help you answer almost every complex problem-solving interview question.

What does BAR mean?

B- Background of the situation. For example, “What department were you in, and what happened that caused issues in the team?”

A- Specific actions you decided to take. And what you learned from them.

R- Results of the situation. For example, “What was the outcome of your actions?”

What the interviewer wants to know: Regarding this type of problem solving question, the interviewer wants to know specific details like the technological process you used to solve or prevent potential risks. They want to check if you can think on your feet and take some initiative to run the company smoothly.

The goal: Use an example from an incident that prevented risk, highlighting your ability to initiate decisions if you rarely encounter any issues.

Example answer: 

I managed customer bookings and queries as a hotel booking representative in my previous role. The summer holiday was fast approaching, and I realized that we were already fully booked, but a guest insisted on booking our hotel. So I checked if all of our guests paid for their accommodations and contacted those who hadn’t.

Luckily, a guest decided to cancel their reservations due to a schedule conflict. If I hadn’t sent our customer an email, we wouldn’t have accommodated our new client.”

Tip: Avoid giving vague and general solutions when encountering this problem-solving interview question. You’re sure to impress your interviewer if you cite specific events in your career that outline you taking action without direction from somebody else.

3. Tell me a time when you had to solve a difficult problem?

Many interviewees would give an example of what they would do instead of what they should’ve done. Instead, give them actual circumstances. Lying about a situation is one of the biggest job interview mistakes you can make. Keep in mind that hiring managers will conduct a reference check to follow up on your answers.

What the interviewer wants to know: The interviewer wants to examine what you consider a complex problem at work and your competency in dealing with and addressing work-related concerns. In addition, they want to see if you’re the type of employee who acknowledges their wrongs or who blames others.

The goal: To increase your hiring chances, talk about all the angles of the situation that lead you to a successful mediation. Cite an example that demonstrates your determination, positivity, and resiliency to address issues without constantly asking your boss what you should do.

Example answer:

I ran a deli company on a remote tourist island where it’s challenging to secure logistics for perishable goods. There was a time when our stocks were handed over to a local logistics company, but it so happened that they weren’t operating that day. Since my boss wasn’t around, I had to think of ways to get the package sent to our shop.

I called multiple delivery companies, but sadly they were all fully booked. So I decided to hire a private vehicle to pick up the stocks from the logistics hub. In the end, I saved the meat and cheeses from spoiling. I soon informed the owners about the issue, and I addressed it accordingly.

Being a manager of a deli company is no easy task, especially if your business is on a remote island. So I have to be innovative when problems arise.”

Tip: Give open, honest answers to your interviewer. Explain to them that you’re confident in tackling complex situations professionally. Show them that you always think about the team first before yourself.

How to answer behavioral questions about problem-solving?

Behavioral questions require you to describe your past behavior, which allows your employer to predict your future performance in similar situations. It should help boost your likelihood of getting the job if you give in-depth, honest examples from your previous career.

It starts with studying your job description and researching the company culture to know what your employer expects. 

It’s better to answer problem-solving interview questions in the form of a story. Imagine that you’re the protagonist who faced the most significant obstacle in your career. Then, explain how you came up with practical solutions that transformed the organization and how these experiences add value to the company.

The STAR method provides a way to answer virtually every behavioral question as it gives your interviewer the exact answers they want to hear.

S/T (Situation/Task)

Start by giving specific pressurized situations, whether it’s time constrained or an external aggravating factor. Then provide a detailed explanation of your tasks in solving the problem. These questions should help you think of an event to give example situations professionally.

  1. What was your role and responsibilities for the company?
  2. What was the problem?
  3. Why was there a problem to begin with?
  4. How are you involved in the situation?

Ensure to give candid answers and relevant details on how you approached the problem positively.

A (Approach)

After describing the situation and task, highlight your approach to solving the problem step-by-step. Be mindful not to talk negatively about your coworkers and the company.

Here are some questions that you should think about:

  1. What steps did you take to resolve the problem?
  2. Why was this the best action to tackle this issue?

Use “I” instead of “we” to draw the interviewer’s attention to your problem-solving skills.

R (Results)

Finally, talk about the positive results from your approach, highlighting your strength and taking credit for your initiative.

Here are some questions to help you:

  1. What happened?
  2. What problems did you solve?
  3. How did you feel about the outcome?
  4. What did you learn from this?
  5. How did this situation affect you as a professional?

Example STAR response to a problem solving interview question:

(Situation/Task):

“When I was working at a retail store as a sales personnel, I saw that one of my colleagues seemed stressed and agitated, so I asked if I could talk to him privately. He told me that our boss wasn’t pleased with his behavior because he was constantly late for work.

Although it wasn’t my business, I just wanted to support him and see if there were possible solutions I could do to help him.”

(Approach):

“I invited him for coffee after work hours to discuss the issue. First, I asked him why he was frequently coming late for work, to which he answered that he had to take a night job to make ends meet. Secondly, I explained how to manage both jobs effectively without compromising his health. I told him that he had to explain his situation to our HR to understand his circumstances.

His demeanor changed, and he appreciated that I took some time to talk to him personally.”

(Result):

”Weeks had gone by, and he started coming to work early. His presence also changed, like he had more light in his life again. Working for the same company, employees have to support each other to reach a common goal. We share the same values, ethics, and morals in our company culture to move forward together.”

What makes this example a strong answer?

The example shows relevant, brief, yet straight-to-the-point examples of the applicant’s problem-solving skills. He indicated that he has leadership, compassion, and empathy. It demonstrates a strong leader who fosters meaningful relationships with the team and addresses the cause of his colleague’s poor performance. 

Here are summarized pointers to help you prepare for problem-solving and behavioral job interviews.

  • Give yourself some time to take a breath and think.
  • Think of a relevant situation that exhibits favorable actions that involve work projects, leadership, teamwork, initiative, planning, and customer service
  • Make a brief yet concise description of each event. Leave out unnecessary information.
  • Convey your experiences like a story that has an introduction, rising action, and resolution.
  • Ensure that the results are in your favor
  • Give a short yet detailed of one event. Don’t combine several events in one example.
  • Be prepared for follow-up questions.

Keep in mind that your past behavior doesn’t define your growth and maturity. But it allows your hiring managers to foreshadow possibilities of your future performance, whether it’s positive or negative, with the company. Make sure to follow the STAR guidelines. Be specific and avoid rambling. Don’t be too eager to give the results right away.

Red flags for interviewers assessing your problem-solving skills

Applicants highly anticipate their job interviews. Interviewers assess your attitude, answers, comments, and even silence which can sway their decision to hire you. Therefore, it’s essential to know the managers’ red flags when answering problem-solving questions.

Canned responses to problem-solving questions

Practicing for a job interview is a common practice for most people. It helps them organize their thoughts so they can deliver the correct answers. However, some candidates’ responses are too consistent with what they think their interviewers want to hear. While their intentions are pure, it makes their answers sound scripted.

Canned responses are short and generic or sometimes memorized answers to job interview questions. It leaves the interviewers second-guessing if the candidate’s ability could add value and success.

Here is an example of a canned response to a problem-solving interview question.

Example of a canned answer:

“I will stay in this company for as long as they need me.”

Though it shows your dedication to staying with the company for a long time, it doesn’t give any details of your goal. Instead, it shows that you’re more valuable than what the company can contribute to your career, like experience, knowledge, values, and work ethics.

Try this:

“I’m eager about my role as the company’s full-time photographer. I’ve been looking for a company with a supportive culture that helps its employees’ growth and mindset, and your company certainly fits that description.

In addition, I think this role is an excellent match for my skills and experience. I expect to be here for as long as the company sees value in my work and so long as I keep learning and developing myself professionally.”

Not answering the question or not providing enough detail

Giving inadequate or excessive answers to problem-solving questions is the result of being nervous during job interviews. And what’s worse, candidates may not even provide any answers at all.

Ill-prepared candidates are one of the hiring manager’s red flags. It shows that they’re not admitting their mistakes. Or they don’t have the proper problem-solving skills. So it’s better to come prepared to ease job interview stress. And learning about the common problem-solving questions is a good start.

Example of vague answer:

“I was managing a product shoot. But the production team and the models didn’t get along. But I handled everything.”

In the example, he only gave a vague explanation. It lacks depth and value because interviewers want to know his problem-solving process. Why the team didn’t get along, and how did the applicant handle the situation from the get-go. And finally, they want to see the results of your approach.

Try this:

“When I was working as a project manager for a jewelry brand, part of my task was to organize a product shoot. So I hired a third-party production team and a set of models. However, due to the short deadline, I didn’t have the chance to introduce the models to the production team. Unfortunately, they didn’t see eye to eye. The production team had a different way of curating the layout, while the models were too uncomfortable working with them.

So I took the time to hear their opinions separately. The production team wanted to wait for the natural sunlight because the setting was too dark. On the other hand, the models had already been ready for 4 hours.

I advised the team to use artificial lighting since we only had a few hours left to finish the shoot. Both groups agreed, and my client was more than satisfied with the output. Despite the situation, I decided to take the team out for dinner for a successful shoot.

The production team sent me a message saying they’ve consistently collaborated with the models for other projects.”

Again, researching and practicing problem-solving interview questions at home does magic. It allows you to formulate credible and relevant scenarios to answer problem-solving interview questions. 

For an additional tip, you should know what to bring to a job interview even if you’ve sent out the required documents already. Bring copies of your resume, application letter, course certificates, and background references. Lastly, wait five business days to follow up on your application with your employer after your interview.

And remember to be your authentic self during your interview. Be kind to every staff member of the company because actions speak louder than words.

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