Problem-Solving Interview Questions and Answers
What Are Problem-Solving Interview Questions?
When you have an interview coming up, it’s worth thinking about the types of questions to expect.
Interviews can have varied formats and focus on different things. Some will be relaxed with the aim of getting to know you as a candidate; others will be highly focused on skills and knowledge.
One particular type of interview you will want to spend time preparing for is one based on problem-solving questions, as there are techniques you can practice beforehand.
These questions are designed to see how well you can collect the right data, analyze it logically and come to an effective resolution.
Problem-solving questions will also focus on how well you can manage multiple points of view and how you deal with conflict.
Companies use these kinds of questions to ferret out which candidates are able to think nimbly in a wide range of scenarios.
Sometimes these questions are formatted as situational judgment tests which help employers predict how you might behave in the future.
Problem-solving questions also aim to test your critical thinking and decision-making skills. Spend time thinking about the type of role you are applying for.
You can then work out which types of problems you are most likely to face – and prepare for questions that demonstrate your skills around those issues.
Why Do Employers Ask These Questions?
At any interview, you will be asked a variety of questions.
Some are designed to see how keen you are – they will test your company knowledge and the depth of the research you have done. Other questions, like problem-solving ones, are designed to test specific competencies, like mental agility and lateral thinking.
Problem-solving questions are important for employers because they can’t always predict the projects you will be working on, so they need to know you have a wide skill set.
In an ever-changing world, having a workforce that’s able to solve unexpected problems is a real benefit, so try and demonstrate this ability in your answers.
These types of problem-solving interview questions are especially popular in the technical industries.
They are also used by companies like management consultancies, which often work on a huge variety of projects.
Because they don’t deal with the same problems over and over, they need to test how good you are in being creative with new or unusual situations.
Sample Questions and Answers
It’s a good idea to practice problem-solving questions so that you improve in confidence and are able to answer them fluently.
Remember your communication skills are being assessed in any interview, so how you explain your decision-making process is also important.
Here are some sample questions and answers for problem-solving situations that are designed to help you prepare for upcoming interviews.
You can practice answering these examples with a friend or someone you trust to give you helpful feedback on your performance.
“Have You Ever Been in a Dispute With a Colleague? What Did You Do to Resolve It?”
The interviewer wants to know if you are able to show respect and empathy, while also sorting out the actual problem.
This question also helps the interviewer understand how well you learn from stressful situations. In this example, they would want to see how you might take action to minimize future disruptions with colleagues.
In my last job, I had a colleague who was consistently late for project meetings I was leading. At first, I tried a couple of gentle reminders of good practice/time-keeping when sending the agenda out for these weekly meetings.
After I found this was not working, I decided to speak to this colleague directly and asked him to join me for coffee at a nearby cafe. I was able to broach the issue in a more casual environment and this took the pressure off, as we weren’t surrounded by colleagues. We had time to get to know each other a bit too.
I checked in to see if there was any particular reason for his repeated lateness and it turned out that he had a regular meeting just before mine at a different worksite. A quick fix was to move my meeting to a different day, which resolved the issue simply. Now I always check that new meetings I’m planning are held at convenient times for all attendees.
"How Do You React to Unexpected Challenges? Do You Have a Preferred System?"
This question looks at whether you are a planner or if you tend to jump straight into solutions. Depending on the job you are after, your interviewer may want to hear different types of answers.
If you’re applying for a role that requires analysis and deep thinking, you probably want to lean towards a reply that shows you have a methodical system for dealing with unexpected challenges.
If, on the other hand, you are interested in working in a fast-paced environment and the job description uses words like ‘nimble’ and ‘agile’, you would do better to describe your personal system for dealing with challenges as decisive and swift.
The best answers probably lie somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, and most of us do genuinely find that we could respond either way. A good response is one that shows balance.
I’m aware that every challenge will have its nuances. Rather than have a generic system, I like to custom my approach to match what has gone wrong.
For example, if an immediate solution is obvious and straightforward, I’ll implement it without over-thinking things. This happened recently when our IT system went down – I quickly directed the interns to use phone lines in order to call our clients who were expecting deliveries that same day.
I’m also able to assess and take my time to fix unexpected problems that require a little more finesse – there was a situation recently when one of our clients canceled a large order. I called meetings with the team and the client separately, to work out what had gone wrong before offering a considered solution, which I’m glad to say worked really well as the client came back on board.
"Tell Me About a Situation Where Things Went Wrong on the Day of a Big Deadline or Event?"
This question aims to explore how well you work under stress or time pressures. A good answer will show conceptual skills in problem-solving – thinking creatively and flexibly under pressure.
Not only do you have to show that you can utilize other people and work with them, but you also need to show a task focus, so that the deadline or function goes off without a hitch.
Again there is an opportunity here to show you can learn from mistakes, so think of an example that identifies a way in which you were able to avoid the situation recurring.
I work well to tight deadlines and often find that I am able to keep calm when others are losing their heads. As I often work in high-pressure scenarios, I’m regularly called upon to mediate between colleagues when there is a disagreement over how to handle sensitive matters. One example which comes to mind is when we had to hire several high-profile models for an ad campaign we were running.
Two of them nearly came to blows when they disagreed over their styling. I had to step in, calm them down and work out a compromise where they agreed to stay on set and finish their assignments within the time frame of our schedule. It was certainly a hair-raising day but I was able to get the ad we wanted and without any further drama happening. Since that occasion, I’ve made sure to keep all agents on standby so that issues like this don’t arise again.
"What Would You Do if You Strongly Disagreed With a Colleague About How to Handle a Delicate Matter?"
This question not only explores your ability to demonstrate empathy, but it may also touch on issues of ethical responsibilities and the necessity to be discreet when necessary.
Employers want to know you are self-aware and able to reflect on important issues, rather than being overly bullish when it’s not appropriate.
Showing that you can employ a delicate touch is really important in certain roles like HR, so your interviewer will want to know how good your soft skills are.
You can also use a question like this as an opportunity to demonstrate your powers of persuasion or other transferable skills, so make sure you pick a strong example when you answer.
There was a recent situation where one of our team’s assistants was being monopolized by one particular person. We knew we had to address the issue as there was a backlog of work that just wasn’t getting done. My office partner wanted to handle the matter in a very up-front way, but I didn’t think that was the best approach. I persuaded her to take a more discreet route and stopped her from making a scene.
I knew that the person who was causing the issue had certain problems at home – which were likely to be impacting his work and focus. Without giving away his private situation, I suggested that we speak to the monopolized assistant first, to see if he had any thoughts or preferences about how the matter was handled.
This helped defuse the situation, as it turned out the assistant was happy to put in overtime to clear some of the backlog. It meant we didn’t have to confront our colleague right away. In fact, this bought us enough time so that some of his home and childcare issues were actually resolved. A month down the line, there was no longer an issue of the assistant being monopolized.
"How Are You Proactive About Avoiding Problems?"
Your ability to understand human nature, to plan ahead and focus on having multiple backup solutions in place is being assessed.
When answering this question, you can also demonstrate your ability to think creatively and laterally.
Remember, almost every employer wants to hire someone who shows initiative and makes their lives easier.
I recently had to organize multiple networking events for our biggest departments. I knew that we would have an issue with incentivizing some of our busier sales staff to attend – as previous events had been rather tame. I collated some feedback from last year and applied the lessons learned. For example, I tried to ‘gamify’ the event and made sure there were enough aspects of the party that would appeal to a range of attendees.
Not only did I hire top-notch caterers (and promote this fact), but I also organized entertainment to work the crowd and create a buzz to make sure that people stayed around – not just popped their heads in, as they’ve done in the past. One extra incentive, which hadn’t been used at our events before, was a raffle/goody bag concept which tied in with the next away day and even helped boost attendance there too.
Top Tips for Answering Problem-Solving Interview Questions
There are many useful tips for preparing for an interview. While you can’t always predict exactly what you will be asked, you can practice your technique, answering commonly used questions in logical and analytical ways.
One of the most important things you need to do is give examples when answering each question – showing how you have demonstrated the problem-solving skill they are asking for.
To help with this, make sure you have created a mental bank or list of relevant work experience situations you can easily refer to.
It can help to think about the structure of what you’re going to say before you launch into answering an interviewer’s question – this also makes you look more considered.
One useful way to do this is by using the STAR technique where you break what you say into four sections:
- The overall Situation
- The Task at hand
- The Action taken
- The Results obtained
This helps you to avoid rambling and finishing off your answer in a weak way, which can happen when you don’t plan out what you want to say.
Sometimes you will have to do a group task and then face questions on your processes afterward. Try and describe these in a step-by-step way and show self-awareness by linking your actions to competencies you believe are strong in you as a candidate.
When you are answering problem-solving questions in a group, make sure you stand out and say your part, but also show strong teamwork by praising or including quieter members. You should definitely avoid interrupting or criticizing team members at all costs.
One final tip is to avoid giving vague, generic answers. You can pose follow-up questions to clarify an interview question if you’re not sure exactly what they are asking.
It’s better to do this and then give a targeted answer, rather than waffle and hope you hit the right bases because you weren’t quite sure what the interviewers were looking for.
Being able to solve problems is a key work skill and one that every employer wants to see. While it’s important to practice your ability to answer these questions, do make sure you go into the interview with fresh energy so that your answers don’t sound too rehearsed.
Problem-solving interview questions are designed to push you and give you an opportunity to showcase your skills. If you plan for a range of questions and have a set of strong examples to draw upon, you will feel confident no matter what you are asked.
It can really impress interviewers if you answer problem-solving questions with positivity and enthusiasm. A willingness to engage with the issues they come up with shows that you are ready for the workplace and are able to creatively adapt to unexpected scenarios as they invariably occur.