13 Problem-Solving Interview Questions to Assess a Candidate

Solving problems is something we all do on a daily basis, whether it be in our personal life or at work. The issue is that finding the right solutions to those problems is not always easy for everyone. Some people are simply better at it than others.  

But how can you determine a candidate’s problem-solving skills by only looking at their resume or motivational letter? You simply cannot. That’s why you should assess candidates’ problem-solving skills during the interview process.

Why? Because it is a good chance for evaluating how different candidates approach challenging situations. 

Problem-solving skills: A Definition

A problem can be defined as a gap between the current situation and the desired outcome. To fill this gap, problem-solving abilities are needed. Problem-solving in the workplace describes our way of thinking and the behaviour we engage in to obtain the desired outcome we seek, which could be attaining a certain goal or finding a satisfactory answer to our questions.

Different problem-solving strategies can be based on factors such as the amount of information available about the problem, the time spent on planning, or whether multiple solutions have to be tested before deciding on the optimal one. 

Why assess problem-solving when it comes to candidates

You and I both know that there every single business, as well as every single job role consists of people constantly being faced with challenges and a variety of problems. Some smaller, some more drastic. But that is the reality and it’s unavoidable. 

Often being faced with a problem in the workplace can become a problem within itself. Especially if you don’t have the right people in your team. That’s why it is important to assess someone’s level of problem-solving skills before you hire them. In positions that involve frequent decision-making or in which you often get confronted with complex business issues, this is an important skill. 

In the workplace, employees are expected to solve problems daily, ultimately ensuring the smooth functioning of the company. Therefore, the problem-solving ability is one of the most important aspects which needs to be assessed prior to hiring. Problem-solving ability is associated with several sub-skills depending on the nature of the tasks involved in the profession.

For instance, a successful business consultant might want to be equipped with good communication skills, empathy, and analytical thinking, all of which can be considered sub-skills of problem-solving ability. 

91.2% of employers are looking for someone with good problem solving abilities when looking for candidates

People who are very good at problem-solving are more self-reliant, as they need less help. However, they also tend to take their time when solving problems. People who are less good at problem-solving are more likely to try different solutions (trial-and-error approach), but also might ask for help more. Depending on the team, work setting, and type of job, you might prefer one type over another.

Types of problem-solving skills to look for in candidates

Problem-solving skills probably encompass more layers than you might initially think they do, after all, any job role involves a set of challenges that need to be overcome. Other aspects that fall under problem-solving, could also be:

  • Listening skills. To solve a problem or a challenge, one must first have a thorough understanding of it. At least if the plan is to solve the problem for the long-term.
  • Analytical thinking skills. A crucial component to pinpointing and finding a solution to a problem.
  • Creative thinking. Modern problems require modern solutions. What do I mean by that? Creativity can allow to come up with solutions that are exceptional and non-conventional even, yet deliver results.
  • Time and workload management skills. The ability to prioritize which problems require more time and effort, and which do not is of utmost importance in the fast-paced environment we live in now.
  • Collaboration skills. Sometimes there are problems or challenges we cannot seem to solve on our own, in moments like these it is important to know how to collaborate with others to find the best possible solution together.

What interview structure allows to best assess candidates problem-solving skills?

According to research, a structured interview is more reliable, valid, and less discriminatory than an unstructured interview. When you structure your interview process, the assessment of personality becomes a designed process. Every question should be carefully chosen to assess the candidate’s skills and knowledge.

Guide: How to set up a structured interview process

Get your guide here!

13 interview questions to determine problem-solving abilities

Problem-solving skills may not be tangible but it shows up in behaviors and conversations, it is visible and you can hear it:

  • How do your employees handle stressful situations?
  • Do they ask each other questions?
  • Do they share their opinions?
  • How do they react when challenged with a different perspective?
  • Do they focus more on solving problems quickly or thoroughly?
  • How do they make decisions or share knowledge?
  • How do they speak with your customers when they are facing a problem?

Once you have a full understanding of the above-mentioned, here are some questions you can use throughout interviews with candidates to assess their problem-solving skills.

13 interview questions to help you determine the problem solving skills of candidates applying for a job

2 interview questions for assessing listening skills when solving problems

  1. Describe a time when you had to solve a problem but didn’t have all the necessary information about it in hand. What did you do? 

For example, if a candidate says that in such a situation they would be uncomfortable and would prefer someone else to take over coming up with a solution – it’s likely that they possess lower problem-solving skills. In contrast, if a candidate would tell you about their strengths and ability to work independently in such a situation, then that would indicate higher problem-solving abilities.

  1. Let’s say you had to solve an unexpected problem but didn’t have much information about it. What would you do in order to solve it efficiently?

If a candidate mentions that they would try to gather more information relating the potential causes of the problem to be able to grasp it better, that’s probably a better answer than just stating that they’d just decide to give up. 

3 interview questions for assessing analytical thinking skills when solving problems

  1.  Before making a decision, do you outweigh all the alternatives?

Asking this question will help you determine whether this person is more intuitive and fast. Or more analytical and a bit slower.  If a candidate were to answer: “I normally make a list of advantages and disadvantages of each solution before deciding which is the most beneficial one”, then this person is likely to be a bit slower when it comes to solving problems than someone who just picks the first solution they come up with.

  1. Describe a situation where you had to solve a problem. What steps did you take to solve this problem?

The main goal of asking this question during the interview is to be able to determine what steps the person chooses to take when addressing the problem. For example, people who seem to plan less and act more intuitively will likely prefer a more trial-and-error, rather than an analytical approach to solving a problem.

If a candidate answers the following: “When I’m faced with a problem, I typically start by doing research and gathering all the relevant information before proceeding.” Then you can assume that they are more likely to take an analytical approach when solving a problem. Whereas, if someone were to say that they just go with the flow, then this person is more likely to prefer a trial-and-error-based approach.

  1. Tell me about a time you made a mistake. How did you deal with it?

When asking the candidate this question, you are looking for an honest, self-critical answer. The candidate should also be able to explain how making this mistake led them to become better at their job. Their answer to this question will serve as an indication of how they deal with challenging situations. 

For example, if a candidate shows a sense of integrity and understanding of how they could avoid making the same mistake in the future when solving a problem – you’ve found yourself an individual that learns from their mistakes to better themselves.

2 interview questions for assessing creative thinking when solving problems

  1. Tell me about a situation where you were able to overcome a problem by using a creative approach.

Of course, when hiring new people, we want to hire those who take the most innovative and creative approaches to solving problems, as well as implementing these ideas in reality. In this case, you should be looking for an answer in which the candidate is focusing on explaining the creative approach they took, rather than the problem they were trying to solve. After all, you are looking for someone who can solve problems in a creative way rather than someone who can describe the problem.

  1. Describe a situation in which you recognized a potential problem as an opportunity. What did you do? What, if anything, do you wish you had done differently?

This is an example of the so-called behavioural interview questions. These questions focus on revealing how individuals act in certain situations. In this case, if you’re looking for someone with high problem-solving abilities, you are looking for someone who will be able to critically assess and explain their problem-solving process. As well as highlight how problems can often be transformed into opportunities for improvement and growth.

3 interview questions for assessing time and workload management when solving problems

  1. Imagine you’re in a stressful situation at work and you need to come up with a solution quickly. What would you do?

When asking this question to a candidate, you should be on the lookout for an answer that includes all of the following: an example story, placing their focus on how they handled the stressful situation. Basically – focusing more on actions rather than feelings, and highlighting what skills allowed them to deal with the situation successfully. 

The answer you are probably not looking for is “I’ve never been stressed, cannot even imagine what that would feel like within a work environment.” Such an answer just indicates straight up that someone is lying because we all know that there is no such work environment in which stress is non-existent (even if you’d work at puppy daycare).

  1. Are you someone who prefers to solve problems very quickly, or very carefully and slowly?

As human beings, we all have the tendency to want to arrive at a solution as quickly as possible. However, not all solutions will lead to the most optimal outcomes. 

Within the startup environment, things are often subject to rapid change. This also means that it’s more likely that various problems can occur quite suddenly. In this case, you are looking for a candidate who prefers a more trial and error-based approach. Why? Because people who have extremely high problem-solving skills tend to take a longer time for a problem. What is the danger of having only people with sharp problem-solving skills in a team? It can take very long to solve problems that are maybe ad-hoc.

  1. Tell me about a situation where you were faced with multiple problems. How did you choose which problem to prioritize?

This question has everything to do with how the candidate works under pressure. As well as the extent to which they are capable of prioritizing. When faced with multiple problems, the individual should be able to prioritize between tasks that are of high importance and those that are not as urgent. 

When answering this question, the candidate should be able to walk you through their prioritization process and rationally argue their choices. While also placing focus on explaining their planning strategies to ensure that no problem is left unsolved.

3 interview questions for assessing collaboration when solving problems

  1. How do you know when to solve a problem by yourself? And when to ask for help from someone else?

I think the important thing to take into account when asking this question is that asking for help should not be considered a sign of weakness. 

What you should be looking for in the answer to this question is someone’s ability to be able to gauge in which situations they should most definitely ask for help. And in contrast, in which situations it’s not really necessary. This way you will be able to tell whether this person is capable of solving a problem independently or is always asking for help even when it comes to the little things.

  1. What do you do in a situation when you cannot seem to find the right solution to a problem?

A question similar to the previous one, however, in this case it’s all about the phrasing from your side as the interviewer. The answer of the candidate to this question will allow you to grasp whether they feel comfortable asking for help when encountering a road block in terms of solving a problem or rather choose to hand it over to someone else entirely.

  1. How would you react when your manager tells you to think more before taking action? 

Lastly, save the best for last – a question that will show to you how the candidate deals with feedback provided about the process of solving a problem and the solution itself. P.S. Sometimes thinking slow is the best way to go! 😉

Key differences between people with systematic vs. intuitive problem-solving style

Person with more systematic problem-solving style

  • They have a higher tendency to first identify the situation and analytically disentangle problems into several components, then logically evaluate the available alternatives and try to find a rule to solve problems.
  • At the end of the process, they may also evaluate the consequence of the whole process to possibly adjust their strategy in the future. However, they might face difficulty when tackling ill-structured or defined problems, whereby they cannot generate a promising plan to act.
  • They may also struggle under time constraints when intuitive decisions need to be made.

Person that prefers more intuitive problem-solving style

  • They prefer relying on their “gut feeling” when solving problems. While they may rely on their intuition to assess facts, they also often take their feelings and non-verbal cues from their surrounding into consideration.
  • They are open to quickly switching to alternative solutions when things do not work out. Using this strategy, they are good at dealing with uncertainty, ill-defined problems or novel problems with no real information.
  • However, this kind of thinking pattern might work sometimes but can be less effective with more complex problems and end up being more time-consuming overall than a more systematic approach. 

Cons of assessing problem-solving in interviews

Inaccurate and unreliable results

I dare you to take a second and do a simple google search for “how to answer problem-solving interview questions” or any query similar to that.

I guarantee you will see hundreds of articles pop up regarding the best ways of answering these questions. 

Just look at the number of results available out there for just these two queries…

That’s exactly where the danger lies – candidates can prepare their answers to these questions, thus leading to unreliable assessment from your side on whether they have the problem-solving skills you are looking for.

No standardized way of presenting results

Using solely interview questions to assess problem-solving skills allows for no standardized way of presenting results as each candidate you interview will give a different answer to your question and it will become gradually more difficult to compare candidates with each other.

Ultimately, resulting in – hiring decisions made based on gut feeling & influenced by your implicit bias.

Extremely time-consuming

If the job posting receives 100 CVs. Now, you not only need to scan 100 CVs, but you also need to decide which candidates out of these 100 will be invited for an interview. And even though that doesn’t sound so bad, it actually is.

Because how can you decide which candidates are the best suited for a role by just taking a short glimpse at their CV? You simply cannot.

So then you’ll probably end up interviewing more people than you should. Just imagine all the time spent interviewing, talking, asking questions, taking notes of the candidate’s answers, and then later on comparing them.

Wrong first impressions, lasting consequences

According to The New York Times, 44% of all job openings online still require a certain educational level/degree. Why is it so? Because education for most of us is perceived as a solid proxy for intelligence. If someone completed higher education – they must possess analytical intelligence, creativity, ability to collaborate and so on. However, science says something else:

This means that someone’s cognitive ability (also called your General Mental Ability, the indicator for human intelligence) is 6.5x as predictive for future job performance than education. So, the habit to link intelligence to education might not be as solid as we’d think.

How does this relate back to assessing problem-solving skills in interviews? Well, even before deciding whom you will be inviting for an interview, you most likely take a look at their CV. This is exactly the very first moment your implicit bias star playing tricks on how you perceive the candidate. Here is what happens:

  • You look at the CV of Candidate A – they have completed both their BA and MA degrees, and also have a PhD. Wow! They probably are very intelligent, otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten this far!
  • Candidate B completed a BA degree and did a few unpaid internships after completing their studies.

If you really value problem-solving ability and intelligence, and these are crucial skills to perform well at the job you are hiring for – it is (highly) likely that, based on this first gut feeling, you will invite Candidate A to an interview.

However, the thing is – fit for a job and future job performance is so much more than just one or two skills. It is in fact a combination of multiple factors that contribute to the success someone will have in a certain job. There is no one size fits all.

The bottom line..

Knowing what to look for in candidates even before the interview process is a crucial step to setting your hiring process up for success. And that starts with gathering data-backed, objective and science-based insights about your teams and your candidates…

Interviews are often perceived as the ultimate gateway to finding the perfect candidate, however, in reality, it’s littered with many pitfalls:

  • Interviewer bias
  • Interviews are often inconsistent
  • Interview answers are easily manipulable
  • Extremely time-consuming & costly
  • Interviews can be incredibly stressful for candidates
  • Interviews may not showcase an applicant’s true capabilities

Read more about the 6 Major pitfalls when assessing candidates solely based on interviews

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