A job interview is a great moment for interviewers to evaluate how candidates approach challenging work situations. They do this by asking problem-solving questions. These types of questions are commonly asked during interviews since problem-solving skills are essential in most jobs. In any workplace, there are challenges, and when hiring new personnel, hiring managers look for candidates who are equipped to deal with this.
Problem-solving questions are so-called behavioral interview questions. Behavioral interview questions are strategic type of questions that require you to provide an answer that includes an example situation that you experienced in your career. These questions focus on specific work situations that you experienced and how you responded.
A basic example of a behavior question about problem-solving is ‘tell me about a time you solved a problem at work.’ As you can see, the interviewer is looking for you to explain a situation and how you approach it, and how you solved it. Furthermore, the interviewer is interested in what you learned from that experience. Answering behavioral questions requires some work because you need to provide the interviewer with a strong answer to convince them that you’re the right person for the job.
The rationale behind asking problem-solving questions is to discover how you approach complex and challenging situations and if you can provide an effective solution. Interview questions about your past behavior might sound challenging, but they are actually a great opportunity for you to show that you’re a fit for the position. With the right preparation, you can use your answers to problem-solving questions to your advantage.
In this article, we discuss why interviewers use problem-solving interview questions and how you should answer them. Also, read more about frequently asked job interview questions here and check our job interview preparation checklist.
What Are Problem-solving Interview Questions?
Basically, problem-solving skills relate to your ability to identify problems, issues, obstacles, challenges, and opportunities and then come up with and implement effective and efficient solutions. However, this is a broad definition of problem-solving abilities. Depending on the position and field you’re applying for a position in the interviewer can focus on different aspects of problem-solving.
Examples of problem-solving competencies are:
Taking initiative means that you step up to the plate when needed and that you take action without being asked to do so. People who take the initiative demonstrate that they can think for themselves and take action whenever necessary. Furthermore, you actively look for opportunities to make a difference in the workplace.
Creative thinking means that you’re able to look at something in a new way to find a solution. People who are creative have the ability to come up with new ways to carry out their tasks, solve problems, and meet challenges. Creative people are original thinkers and are able to bring unorthodox perspectives to their work.
Resourcefulness is the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome challenges in your work. Furthermore, people who are resourceful are original in their ways of thinking to overcome challenges.
Analytical thinking skills
These skills refer to the ability to gather data, break down a complex problem, weigh pros and cons, and make logical decisions. People who possess analytical thinking skills help the company overcome challenges and are able to spot potential issues before they become actual problems.
Determination can be described as the firmness of purpose or resoluteness. Specifically, people who are determined are persistent and do not give up easily or when they have a setback. Determination gives these people the motivation to push through and keep moving forward.
People who are result-oriented have their full focus on getting to the desired outcome.
Problem-solving behavioral interview questions
As discussed in the introduction, problem-solving questions fall into the behavioral category of interview questions. These questions ask you to provide specific examples of past work experiences. For interviewers, understanding your past professional performance is the best way to gauge your future job performance.
Behavioral questions are focused on the desired skills or competency area, such as in this case, problem-solving. Other common competency areas for which behavioral questions are used are teamwork, communication, time management, creative thinking skills, leadership, adaptability, conflict resolution, etc.
Behavioral job interview questions usually start with the following:
- Give me an example of
- Tell me about a time when you
- What do you do when
- Describe a situation where
Examples of problem-solving behavioral interview questions:
- Give me an example of a time you had to solve a difficult problem at work.
- Tell me about a time when you identified and fixed a problem before it became urgent.
- What was the best idea you came up with at your last position?
- Describe a situation where you find a creative way to overcome an obstacle.
As you can see, the questions mentioned above require you to discuss your past behavior in a professional work environment. The reason for asking behavioral job interview questions instead of just asking traditional ones is that the most accurate predictor of future performance is your past performance in similar situations.
The interviewer wants to discuss previous work situations and wants you to elaborate on them to get to know you better. Solid interview preparation will help you give the answers that the interviewer is looking for. This starts with doing your research and thoroughly reviewing the job description. Doing so can help you understand what type of problem-solving skills are required to successfully perform the job you’re interviewing for.
By preparing example scenarios to questions you expect based on your research, you can give exactly the information that he or she is looking for. In other words, you need to relate your answers to the job requirements and company culture of the organization where you’re applying for a position.
To answer behavioral questions about your problem-solving skills, you need to ensure that you provide the interviewer with specific details about the situation you were in, your task in that situation, the action you took, and the specific results that came out of those actions. In short, this is called the STAR-method of providing an answer. The STAR method is discussed in more detail later on in this article.
Why Interviewers Ask Problem-solving Interview Questions
Problem-solving skills are required in most job positions. This means that a lot of hiring managers will try to assess your problem-solving skills during your interview. The main reason for asking you about situations in which you used your problem-solving skills is to get an understanding of how you work.
The interviewers want to get questions answered, such as:
- Are you results-oriented, and are you proactively involved in your work?
- Do you look for different ways to contribute?
- Are you an individual that others can count on to increase team performance?
- Are you a self-starter, or do you need someone to give you instructions?
Most likely, the interviewers look for a self-starting person with general problem-solving skills that can be used in different situations. A proven track record of solving problems such as those required in the position you’re interviewing for will definitely help convince the interviewer. Therefore, make sure you prepare answers to questions you expect in advance.
For example, someone who works as a customer service representative should be able to deal with a frustrated or angry customer. They need to be able to solve these problems and know how to handle such situations. Other examples of positions where problem-solving skills are essential are, for instance, accounts or project managers. They need to be flexible in their approaches and should be able to handle a change in deadlines. Another example is, for instance, a logistic manager who should be able to fix an inefficient logistics process.
The Interviewers’ Goal When Assessing Your Problem-solving Skills
There are several underlying reasons why interviewers use behavioral questions to assess your problem-solving skills. The main one, of course, is that they want to hire a person who’s able to perform the job.
Instead of hiring the person that they ‘like’ they need something better to figure out which candidate is the right fit for the job. By analyzing your behavior in past situations that are similar to the ones that are required in the role that you’re applying for, they try to do just that. Below we discuss a couple of important elements employers consider when making a hiring decision.
Costs of making a bad hiring decision
Employers want to make sure that they hire the right person for the job. For a company, making a bad hiring decision is not only about losing money, but it can also lead to a decrease in productivity and morale. Hiring a bad candidate could lead to leaving a bad impression on customers/clients, but also with coworkers.
Furthermore, time will be lost if the company needs to search for another candidate after a bad hire. Therefore, employers do everything to avoid such situations. Behavioral questions are regarded as a preventative way to make sure that the right person with the right fit for the company is hired.
Specific details of your behavior
By asking behavioral questions about your problem-solving skills, the interviewers try to uncover specific details of your behavior. They want to find out if you are able to clearly identify a problem and if you are able to come up with an efficient and effective solution when needed.
Of course, they got your resume already and maybe even a motivational letter or letter of recommendation. Still, the interviewer can only assess your hard skills and educational levels based on these documents.
Essential soft skills, such as problem-solving, are easier to assess during job interviews with the help of behavioral interview questions. Therefore, include real-life work scenarios in your answers that demonstrate how you have used the skills required for the position that you’re interviewing for. The interviewer wants to assess if you possess the skills required to perform the day-to-day tasks and deal with challenges that you will encounter in the workplace.
Your (past) behavior as a predictor of your future job performance
Questions about your problem-solving skills and the answers you give are used to determine the chances of your future success in the job that you’re interviewing for.
Specific behavioral problem-solving questions such as ‘tell me about a time you had to solve a problem at work. What steps did you take before deciding on how to solve the problem, and why?‘ give the interviewer more insight into your professional behavior and in turn, your future job performance.
Another way to assess your behavior is by asking hypothetical questions. If you, for instance, do not have certain experience yet, the interviewer could ask you a question along the lines of ‘What would you do if you were caught off-guard by a problem that you had not foreseen? Which steps would you take to address the problem?‘. As you can see, this question is hypothetical in nature. The interviewer wants to hear which steps you would take to address a possible complexity in your work. Based on your answer, the interviewer will assess if your approach is suitable for the position for which you’re interviewing.
It’s therefore important that you prepare for frequently asked interview questions that you can expect during your interview. By preparing the right example answers on how you have solved problems in your previous jobs and how you would solve problems in the job you’re applying for, you can provide a concise answer without missing important details.
Avoid making a wrong hiring decision
Questions that gauge your professional behavior help employers assess your future job performance. In other words, this helps them make a better hiring decision. A perfect resume or cover letter is not enough to impress seasoned interviewers.
By asking behavioral problem-solving questions, the interviewer tries to uncover your previous work patterns. The information in your answers gives them more insight into your approach to critical situations and if this approach matches the ones required for the position you’re applying for.
By preparing the right way, you can make sure that your example answer situations include aspects of the most important job requirements. Of course, the interviewer is looking for candidates that fit the job description, so make sure that your answers relate to the job requirements.
What Interviewers Look for in Successful Candidates
In short, interviewers look for candidates who have the right work approach to succeed within their company and in that particular position. This is also why we can’t emphasize the importance of being able to demonstrate your skills through solid example scenarios enough.
The right preparation will help you get there. Your goal is to demonstrate that you are capable of taking on the day-to-day tasks required for the position and have the potential to grow. For example, if you are able to work in and deal with transitions in fast-paced environments such as financial markets. And can you handle the complex situations that you will encounter? Are you able to deal with such transitions effectively? In this case, you need to show adaptability and problem-solving skills through example scenarios of how you did so in the past.
Problem-solving behavioral questions are used to get insights into how you approach problems at work, if you take the initiative, and if you possess the right creative and critical thinking skills. Basically, the interviewers want to get the following questions answered:
- Do you take the initiative?
- Can you communicate effectively?
- Are you able to adequately respond to problems or issues that occur during your work?
- Can you perform in stressful and unexpected situations?
- Are you able to adjust to changing work environments?
- Can you assist your coworkers or team when needed?
- Are you flexible in your approaches to situations at work?
Red Flags for Interviewers Assessing Your Problem-solving Skills
When answering questions about your problem-solving skills, there are certain things you need to look out for. Below we discuss a couple of warning signs that interviewers consider when you answer their questions. Ensure that you avoid these at all costs to avoid making the wrong impression.
1. Not answering the question or not providing enough detail
If you answer a question with ‘I can’t recall a situation where I encountered such a problem,’ this is considered a red flag. This could mean that you did not prepare well and that you’re not taking the interview seriously. Furthermore, the interviewer could interpret such an answer as you may avoid dealing with challenging situations.
If you cannot provide specific details or examples about what you claim in your resume or cover letter, this can be considered a red flag too. If you, for instance, claim that you have successfully solved problems and used critical thinking skills in your work, you need to make sure you’re able to back this up through clear examples of times you did so. Failing to do so could lead to a quick elimination of your candidacy for the position. If the interviewer has trouble verifying your employment history, this is considered a warning sign.
2. Canned responses to questions
Preparing answers is key to success for any interview. However, this means preparing original, effective, and relevant answers that are related to the position you’re interviewing for.
Generic answers to behavioral problem-solving questions such as ‘tell me about a time you had to solve an issue with a customer‘ are considered warning signs. An example of a generic answer to that particular question is ‘this one time I had to deal with an angry customer who had complaints about the pricing of a product. I calmed her down and made the sale‘. As you can see, this answer does not provide much insight into your problem solving skills, thought process, and how you approach the situation.
If you give a generic answer, you can expect more follow-up questions from the interviewer. However, it’s better to prepare strong answers to impress the interviewer that you actually possess the required skills for the job.
3. Answers that focus on problems, not solutions
The reason for asking specific behavioral-problem solving questions is to assess how you approach and solve problems. It’s, therefore, important that your answers focus on the solution, not the problem. Of course, it’s important that you are able to spot and identify problems, but finding a solution is essential. If your answers focus on problems too much, you can come across as too negative for the job.
Negativity, in any form, in your answers, is considered a red flag. This can be talking negatively about a problem you had to solve but also talking inappropriately about previous employers or co-workers. Negative undertones never impress interviewers the right way. Therefore, focus on how you solve problems and put yourself in the best light possible.
4. Too stressed or uncomfortable during an interview
Interviewers know that almost everybody is slightly uncomfortable when put on the spot during a job interview. However, when you’re too stressed to provide a good answer, this can be viewed as an indicator that you do not handle stressful situations well. Of course, remaining calm under pressure while still being able to solve problems is essential for positions in which problem-solving skills are required.
5. Failing to respond effectively
Failing to respond effectively to interview questions comes across weak. It’s therefore important that you prepare for your interview by thoroughly analyzing the job description and try to understand what kind of problems you will be solving in the position that you applied for. This research will help you choose the right examples from your past that are most likely to impress the interviewer.
Therefore, research the job and organization and make notes of the required skills and experiences you think the company values. This allows you to tailor your answers to your situation.
Also, think about possible follow-up questions the interviewer might ask you. Because you already know what examples you will use in your answers to questions you expect, if you prepare the right way, you can figure out which follow-up questions are likely to be asked. For instance, if you’re preparing for the interview question, ‘tell me about a time you solved a problem at work,’ you can expect the interviewer to follow up with, ‘what steps did you take to solve the situation?’.
6. Not taking responsibility or minimizing the significance of a problem
When a problem is identified but not addressed, this could quickly escalate into a bigger problem. Employees who do not take responsibility or those who leave things for later might not be result-oriented and engaged in their work.
Another way of taking responsibility is to show self-awareness. It’s common for interviewers to ask you about a time that you failed, especially in situations where you needed to solve problems. They are interested in what went wrong in a work situation, if you took responsibility for your actions, and what you learned from that situation. Not taking responsibility for, for instance, a project that may have failed, is considered a warning sign.
Self-awareness and being to reflect on situations is an important characteristic to possess in the workplace. Interviewers want to hire candidates that can admit errors or who made thoughtful mistakes trying to solve problems in the past and tried to fix them. Employers know that candidates are human and make mistakes, just like everybody else. It’s important that your answers show that you take responsibility for situations and describe the actions you took to repair any problems or challenges.
Frequently Asked Problem-solving Interview Questions
Below you can find commonly asked behavioral problem-solving questions. These questions are divided into regular questions and hypothetical questions. Learn everything you need to know about common interview questions that are frequently asked during job interviews.
Problem-solving interview questions:
- Tell me about a time you faced an unexpected challenge at work and how you dealt with it.
- Describe a time a customer approached you with a problem or concern. How did you respond?
- Tell me about a time you had to change your planned course of action at the last moment. How did you re-evaluate your priorities?
- What was the best idea you came in in your last position?
- Tell me about a time you had to solve a difficult problem.
- What’s the most significant improvement that you have made in the last year?
- Tell me about the most innovative new idea that you have implemented in the workplace.
- Have you ever improved the workflow of a project based on your analysis? How did you do this?
- Describe a situation in which you anticipated a potential problem and applied preventive measures.
- Tell me about a time you faced a significant obstacle you had to overcome to succeed in a project.
- When you’re working on several projects, it’s tricky to deliver excellent service to all of them. How do you go about prioritizing the needs of a client?
- Describe a situation in which you had to analyze information and make a recommendation.
- What do you consider your greatest achievement in the workplace? Why?
- Describe a situation in which you needed to motivate others to get something done.
Hypothetical problem-solving interview questions:
- How would you approach a situation in which you had to analyze information to make a recommendation to a client?
- Tell me how you would handle a situation in which you have a deadline you cannot meet.
- How would you handle a conflict with a co-worker?
- A frustrated client calls you to discuss a problem. How do you deal with such a situation?
- How would you handle a situation in which you would need to convince someone to change their decision?
Preparing Answers to Problem-solving Interview Questions
There are several steps that you can take to prepare for problem-solving questions. Here you can find a job interview checklist. To get started, you can consider the following steps.
Step 1: Research
Before your interview, it’s important that you thoroughly research the position and company. Read the job description carefully to find specific skills that a candidate needs to possess to successfully perform the job. Think of skills such as adaptability, communication, and problem-solving. Also, read the company website to get more information about their mission statement and who their main clients are. Furthermore, check their LinkedIn pages and other content/news related to the company.
Your research will help you identify the required skills, qualities, and experience for the position. In turn, you can use this information to make an educated guess about what kind of interview questions you can expect.
Step 2: Write down the required skills, competencies, and experience
Behavioral questions such as those about problem-solving skills are a great opportunity for you to show why you’re the perfect candidate for the job. Based on the skills and competencies that you have identified during your research, you can start preparing answers. Rank the skills on importance in relation to the requirements for the position.
Step 3: Create a list of past work experiences related to the position’s requirements
Everybody knows that it’s hard to come up with strong answers when you’re put on the spot during an interview. Therefore, come up with strong examples to questions you expect ahead of your interview.
Create a list of past work experiences and tailor them to the required skills and competencies for the job—highlight successful situations where you demonstrated behavior related to these required skills and competencies. Focus on delivering a concise and to-the-point answer.
Step 4: Prepare successful and challenging answer examples
Effective problem-solving skills are essential in the workplace. Therefore, your answers must demonstrate that you have successfully identified problems, proposed solutions, evaluated several options, and finally implemented a solution. However, it’s also likely that the interviewer will ask you about a time you have failed to solve a problem. Interviewers ask you about failures to assess whether or not you learn from your mistakes and if you’re self-aware enough to acknowledge times you failed. Also, it helps them identify if you take calculated and smart risks.
Step 5: Use the STAR method to structure your answers
The STAR method allows you to concisely provide the interviewer an answer by logically walking them through the situation. STAR is an acronym that stands for a situation (S), your task (T) in that situation, the actions (A) you took, and what results (R) you got based on your actions. These are the basic steps you take in your walkthrough.
Below we discuss the STAR interview technique in more detail.
STAR Interview Technique For Problem-Solving Interview Questions & Answers
By using the STAR method, you can give an answer that includes exactly what the interviewer is looking for. Below, the STAR acronym is broken down into each step.
Start your answer by explaining the situation that you faced. The start of your answer ‘story’ should answer questions such as:
- What was the situation/problem?
- Who was involved?
- Why did the situation happen at that time?
It’s important to provide context around what problem needed to be solved. Furthermore, make sure to provide relevant details.
Next, explain your specific role in the task ahead. Include important details, such as specific responsibilities. Focus on giving the interviewer an understanding of your task in solving the problem. This part of your answer should answer questions such as:
- Why were you involved in that specific situation?
- What’s the background story?
After you describe your task, it’s time to specifically discuss the actions you took to solve the problem. Give the interviewer a step-by-step description of the actions you took. This part of your answer should answer questions such as:
- What steps did you take to resolve the situation you were in?
- Why did you choose to complete your tasks this way?
Finish your answer by discussing the results you got from your actions. Detail the outcomes of your actions and ensure to highlight your strengths. Also, make sure to take credit for your behavior that led to the result. Focus on positive results and positive learning experiences. This part of your answer ‘story’ should answer questions such as:
- What exactly happened?
- What did you accomplish?
- How did you feel about the results you got?
- What did you learn from the situation?
- How did this particular situation influence who you are as a professional today?
Sample Answers to Problem-solving Questions
Below you will find some example questions. The examples are already written in STAR format so that you can clearly see how you can structure your answers. However, these are ‘general’ examples. Do not forget to structure your own answers in a way that includes enough detail to convince the interviewer that you’re the right person for the job!
Problem-Solving Example 1: ‘Tell me about a time you had to resolve a disagreement with a coworker.’
‘Personally, I believe that communication is essential in such a situation to find a way that works for both of us. Finding a compromise is the main goal to get the work done to the best of our ability.
Task & Action
In my current position as a financial consultant, I encountered such a situation recently. A colleague disagreed with the way I wanted to handle an issue that we encountered along the way. To address this issue, I scheduled a meeting with him to discuss the situation. I asked him about his points of view and how he thought we should go about the project.
Even though we had differences in the way we felt like how the project should be approached, we quickly came to the conclusion that our goal was the same; providing our client with a high-quality final product within the set deadline.
We talked about the project and the specific aspect about which we had a difference. I explained my point of view and that I had already encountered a similar issue in the past. Ultimately, my colleague agreed to tackle the issue using my proposed method. His insights gave me a good suggestion which we incorporated into the project. After that, we successfully worked together and finalized the project in time and according to the quality level that we both were proud of.’
Why this is a strong answer:
- The provided example is concise and relevant to the workplace where problem-solving skills are important
- This answer shows important skills such as being proactive, problem-solving, persuasion, and adaptability.
- The answer shows that you’re a team player as well and that you listen to the input of others for the better of a project’s result.
Note: There’s always a chance that interviewers ask you follow-up questions about how you convinced your colleague. Make sure that you are able to answer those questions as well.
Problem-Solving Example 2: ‘Tell me about a time you had to solve a challenging problem at work.’
‘In my position as a business development manager at ABC Software, I’m responsible for organizing all client events and conferences. ABC Software is a major player in the IT market, and during our events, we invite industry experts to speak on market developments. These events are used to attract new clients but also to maintain our relationship with our existing ones.
Over the last two years, we analyzed our attendee data and found that our event attendance dropped by almost 10%. Furthermore, we discovered that the retention rate of our clients also decreased. When we had to plan the next event, my team and I knew that we had to get our attendance levels back up in order for the events to stay successful. The goal was to get our networking event popular and recurring again.
I had an idea why the attendance levels dropped but to get more information, I interviewed several sales consultants as well. The main feedback was that we should focus more on attracting new clients through social media channels. I communicated this with our marketing team, and we decided to also reach out to our client base and ask them what they would like to see on our future events. This led to interesting new insights on topics and speakers that we could invite, plus we also received input on how to improve networking possibilities during our events. Based on our research and feedback, I created a new plan of action to market our events through our social media channels to increase exposure.
After launching our marketing campaign, we immediately gained online traction, leading to an increase in advance registrations. For that specific event, we saw a total increase in attendance of 20% in comparison to the previous year. An online survey showed that the attendees were happy with how the way the new event was structured, and 80% of respondents said that it would be likely that they would recommend our events within their network.
My approach to increasing attendance at our events did not go unnoticed. I was asked by my department director to make a presentation about how I tackled this problem and present this to the board.’
Why this is a strong answer:
- This example shows that you can identify issues and understand your responsibility to address them.
- The provided example is related but also relevant to the workplace. It’s also concise, which is perfect.
- This answer shows important skills, such as being proactive, teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving skills, and creativity.
- Taking responsibility to find out why the event attendance dropped and subsequently taking action turned out successful gives more weight to the situation.
Problem Solving Example 3: ‘Describe a time a customer approached you with a problem or concern. How did you respond?’
‘In one instance, a customer came to me with an issue. She had recently purchased a product from our store, which broke shortly after she got it home. She was understandably upset and wanted to know what could be done.
In response, I apologized for any inconvenience and asked her to explain what had happened. After hearing her story, I promised to help her as much as possible. Next, I checked the item’s warranty status in our system.
I was able to offer her a replacement or a refund since the product was still under warranty, and I helped her find an identical item in our store and processed the exchange for her. The customer decided she wanted a replacement, so I explained our return policy to her in case this ever happened again in the future.
My customer thanked me for my help and seemed more satisfied at the end of the transaction; I was glad I was able to turn a potentially negative experience into a positive one.’
Why this is a strong answer:
- This example shows that you understand what great customer service is.
- The provided example is concise and to the point; it describes a situation and the actions you took to resolve it.
- This answer shows essential skills, such as being proactive, customer service, and problem-solving skills.