How to Use Problem-Solving Interview Questions to Hire A-Players

Posted on August 23, 2022

Problem-Solving Interview Questions Header Image

To make the best hiring decision possible—and avoid having to do it all again in a few months—you need to know how to ask the interview questions that deliver A-players.

Problem-solving interview questions allow employers to determine a candidate’s role compatibility, including how they’ll adapt to your work environment and whether they have a future at your company.

In this article, you’ll learn what questions to ask and how to interpret responses. With this process, you’ll make fewer hiring mistakes, saving time, money, stress, and even your brand’s reputation.

Table of contents

What are problem-solving interview questions?

Problem-solving interview questions test a candidate’s ability to overcome problems at work. They test their capacity to listen, strategize, and develop creative solutions.

There are two common types of problem-solving questions in job interviews: they are usually situational or hypothetical.

A situational problem-solving question might look like asking about when they overcame a real problem at work—for example, you might ask them to explain when they dealt with a challenging colleague or client.

Hypothetical questions help hiring managers assess how someone would behave in complex situations related to the role they are interviewing for.

There isn’t a single right or wrong answer to problem-based job interview questions. The main goal is to elicit a response that helps you understand a candidate’s thought process.

Why problem-solving questions should be the foundation of your interview

Generic interview questions such as “what are your strengths” or “what are your career goals” only help you understand how well your candidate can research and script an answer.

Questions like these are so commonplace that anyone who has given the interview a little forethought can craft a decent answer. Plus, many candidates will tell you what they think you want to hear, which won’t help you uncover their real strengths or weaknesses.

Problem-solving questions demand a different way of thinking that’s more challenging to prepare for.

Candidates will struggle to make up realistic past situations on the spot. And asking for hypothetical examples gives you an insight into their thought process and what they consider a complex or stressful situation.

Determining whether your candidate is a problem solver in a job interview also helps you learn whether your candidate has a growth mindset.

Why you should hire people with a growth mindset

Candidates, new hires, and existing employees with a growth mindset are resilient and understand that persistent effort can improve performance. They see obstacles as learning opportunities instead of walls they’re inherently unable to climb.

Screenshot of Growth Mindset versus Fixed Mindset

Employees with a growth mindset will look for new ways to deal with challenges and build effective solutions, benefiting your business long-term.

A growth mindset is especially crucial in businesses where processes are in flux, such as in startups. Employees with a growth mindset are more likely to apply their critical thinking skills to solve problems, instead of getting bogged down by troubleshooting issues.

Furthermore, if your employees are goal-oriented and you give them the tools to achieve those goals (i.e. training), they’re more likely to feel fulfilled at work and less likely to quit.

This is especially true for Millennials, with a Gallup report finding that 59% of Millenials believe a job that accelerates their professional development is very important.

Screenshot of Gallup Report that Millennials Want Jobs that accelerates their professional development

Finding a long-lasting, resilient, problem-solving employee with a growth mindset might feel like you’re searching for a unicorn, but luckily it’s not as difficult as you might think.

We’ll cover the right questions to ask to source top talent in just a moment. First, let’s look deeper at why it’s worth the effort to source the right person for the role.

Why it’s important to find the right candidate

Making the right hire is integral to productivity, team morale, and company culture. If you hire the right person, they are more likely to align with company values, stay motivated and grow with the company.

Hiring the right person saves you future recruitment costs and the disruption a high turnover can cause, including the time and effort you put into onboarding and training a new hire.

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, the average cost per hire across all industries and business sizes for a non-executive position is nearly $4,700. It can be as much as three or four times the position’s salary.

The cost of making the wrong hire is so significant that some companies embrace a strategy of paying new hires to leave if it turns out they’re not a fit.

Chris Ronzio, CEO of Trainual, says it’s more effective for the business to give someone $5,000 to quit in their first two weeks if they don’t feel like they fit at the company:

“When you’re interviewing, you really only get a glimpse of the business you’re going to work for and the role. By offering new hires $5,000, we give them the opportunity to opt-out after two weeks if they have any sense of doubt.”

It’s far easier to replace someone at this stage than a few months later when they have more responsibilities. At the two-week mark, you still have plenty of other qualified applicants in the pipeline.

On the other hand, a bad hire sticking around because they can’t afford to leave can disrupt entire teams and ruin their ability to work together. In a worst-case scenario, that domino effect could even cause you to lose clients or damage your brand’s reputation.

Save your business the broad cost of repeat hiring and ask the right questions in the interview process.

How to structure an interview to get the most out of it

Before deciding which questions to ask in your interview, you need to determine the top three to five qualities you’re looking for in your candidate.

Make a list so you can analyze their interview answers more effectively. The essential skills you’re looking for could include:

  • Decision-making capability
  • Specific critical thinking skills (e.g., their ability to evaluate information)
  • Strategic problem-solving skills
  • Ability to work under pressure and meet tight deadlines
  • Ability to work independently

Clearly defining the qualities you need most will help you structure your interview and be consistent in the questions you ask each candidate.

It’s OK if you don’t stick to the script. A rough structure determined by the right questions will help you make each interview fair and reduce first impression bias.

What type of question should you ask first?

You can start with a short introduction and go more in-depth about the role and the projects your hire will work on. Keep this short and sweet before getting into the more behavior-oriented questions.

Ask the candidate what it is about your company that attracts them. This will help you determine if they align with your values and are genuinely invested in your mission.

Behavioral interview questions for problem-solving should make up most of your interview time. That way, you’ll get as much valuable information as possible without wasting your time (especially if candidates are a poor fit). You can cut the interview short if you decide they aren’t good enough.

Closed-ended versus open-ended questions

Make sure you ask open-ended questions in the interview instead of questions that elicit a simple one-sentence or one-word response. Avoid closed-ended questions, such as, “Have you worked on projects like this before?”

Open-ended questions give the candidate the freedom to go deep into the details, which allows you to gain insight into how they will fulfill the role.

Open-ended questions usually start with “What” or “Why” and require a thoughtful response—for example, “What was a recent mistake you made and what did it teach you?”

To keep track of these questions and evaluate how candidates are doing, you can place them in an interview scoring matrix. At Polymer, we’ve designed a downloadable template so you can make a start:

Screenshot of Interview Scoring Matrix Template

Download and use this template to guide your next hiring round.

10 examples of problem-solving interview questions and answers

To gain the most insight in the least time, ask some of or all of the below problem-solving questions in your future interviews.

1. Tell us about a time you noticed a problem and fixed it before it became urgent?

This question helps you determine whether the person can use their initiative to fix something. It shows they’re alert to things potentially going wrong and have creative ideas for speedy solutions.

What to look for in a good answer

Great candidates will explain the why behind their decision, tell you how they involved the relevant people, and how they noticed the problem.

Red flag answers

If the person can’t think of an example, they may not be detail-oriented enough to notice a potential problem on the horizon.

2. Have you ever had to deal with a difficult client, and how did you resolve the situation?

The answer to this question will help you understand the candidate’s ability to make quick decisions under pressure. Most client-facing professionals have dealt with a challenging individual at some point in their career, so they should be able to provide an example.

It shows the person’s ability to dissolve tension and find a solution that benefits the client and the company.

What to look for in a good answer

Someone with a strong capability to resolve conflicts will be able to talk about their listening skills in the situation. They will tell you how they accepted responsibility in the situation and were able to sympathize with the client’s grievances.

Even though this was a tricky situation for them, they will be able to detail how they stayed positive. They can give detailed examples of their actions.

Exceptional candidates will use the STAR method to formulate their answers:

  • Situation. Candidates describe the situation.
  • Task. Candidates explain the task and the goal.
  • Action. Candidates tell you what action they took to achieve the goal.
  • Result. Candidates conclude with the outcome.

In other words, they will be able to offer you a clear picture of the situation, their role in the task, how they tackled it, and how this led to a positive outcome.

Red flag answers

If the interviewee says they’ve never had to deal with a difficult client or situation before. They may tell you they delegated the problem to someone else, which shows poor teamwork abilities.

3. Can you think of a recent failure and tell us what you learned?

Asking about failure helps you determine whether the candidate has a growth mindset.

What to look for in a good answer

The best answers will contain an element of self-reflection. The person will already have something in mind, which indicates they are self-aware and constantly looking for ways to learn and grow.

They will explain why they think they made a mistake and what they learned. They can fully own their mistakes and not blame others.

Red flag answers

Watch out for difficulty taking responsibility for their own actions. This might look like making excuses or using “we” instead of “I” to spread the blame. Also, be on the lookout for any clues that indicate the candidate hasn’t learned from the experience.

4. Have you ever worked with someone you had conflict with; how did you deal with it?

This common behavioral question helps you understand how effective the person is at collaboration and their ability to resolve conflict. The answer will show whether the candidate can work with those with conflicting opinions.

What to look for in a good answer

A strong candidate can self-reflect and tell you why they may have had trouble with a past coworker. They will be able to share how they managed to work with someone despite differences in opinion and can outline how they worked to find a compromise with the person.

Red flag answers

It isn't a good sign if the person passes blame and talks about all the things someone else did wrong. It shows a lack of self-awareness and an inability to solve conflict and understand someone else’s point of view.

5. Can you give us an example of a time you had to make a difficult decision?

You will get an insight into the person’s decision-making process and how they applied it in their last job.

What to look for in a good answer

They should be confident about their answer and be able to explain why they made the decision.

Red flag answers

If they can’t think of a difficult decision or explain why they chose one option over another. Also, be on the lookout for decisions that shouldn’t have been difficult to make.

6. When is the right time to ask for help from a manager when you’re in a problematic situation?

You want to hire someone who can think independently. If they ask their manager every time a challenge arises, it will kill productivity and waste management time.

This question will help you understand what a candidate deems a big problem worth discussing with a manager.

What to look for in a good answer

A good candidate will explain their communication style and how they’d discuss the issue with their manager. They will tell you how to frame the problem to make it manageable and present potential, practical solutions.

Exceptional candidates can identify their role in the problem and understand how to communicate this best.

Red flag answers

If the person says they’d tell their manager about every problem. From an unfriendly customer email to a minor disagreement with a team member.

7. What would you do if you identified a significant risk with a project you’re working on?

The answer to this shows a candidate’s strategic thinking abilities and how they’d plan a solution to a potential problem.

What to look for in a good answer

A great answer to this question involves analyzing the data. The person will tell you how they will assess the likelihood of the problem arising and the strategies they would implement to mitigate it.

They will be able to demonstrate an ability to combine their knowledge of potential risk along with the vigilance to manage it.

Red flag answers

Not providing specific detail of how they would approach the situation. Saying they would immediately hand over the problem. If they delegate the problem to someone else, it shows a lack of willingness to develop solutions.

8. A supplier tells you they won’t be able to deliver on time for a big deadline; what do you do?

It helps you understand someone’s time management abilities and how they can solve a problem under intense pressure. They will have to devise creative solutions to solve this hypothetical situation.

What to look for in a good answer

They can develop several potential solutions and are willing to research, whether finding a new supplier or using their negotiation skills to pressure the existing supplier.

Red flag answers

Saying they’d ask to push the deadline back or ask another team member what to do are red flags. These answers show unwillingness to tackle the situation independently and think of creative solutions.

9. You are given two big tasks from two leadership team members to complete on the same day; which do you tackle first?

It will show you how the person deals with a difficult situation and an unexpected challenge. You’ll learn how they respond under pressure and tackle prioritization.

What to look for in a good answer

A great answer will show their ability to collaborate with other team members to deal with the situation.

The candidate should be able to come up with a results-oriented solution and not procrastinate over how they’d deal with the issue. Answers to this question demonstrate they recognize when they get overwhelmed and can ask for help when needed.

Red flag answers

If they say they wouldn’t know what to do or how to handle the situation, it’s a problem. Candidates should see this as an opportunity to show off their communication and prioritization skills.

10. Describe (company name) as a person.

Asking a curveball question is a great way to catch the interviewee off guard. People will prepare answers for the most common interview questions.

A question that seems random and out of the ordinary helps give you an insight into a different side of the candidate’s personality. You’ll understand their thought process and see how they react in an unpredictable situation.

What to look for in a good answer

The interviewee should be able to explain the reason behind their answer. They should be able to stay calm and collected. Their response should demonstrate a deeper understanding of the company’s goals and values.

Red flag answers

If the person gives a random answer, they may have panicked. But it could also mean that they don’t adapt well to unexpected situations. It could also indicate that they haven’t researched the company well before applying.

Start asking more problem-solving questions

Using these questions, you’ll be able to analyze a candidate's problem-solving capabilities, strategic thinking, creativity, and mindset. You’ll be able to assess their soft skills and understand their competency for the role.

Take your time to put together an interview structure that helps your candidates show you their strengths. That way, you’ll be able to build a well-functioning, high-performing team.

Find your A-players using Polymer and start asking problem-solving questions from the application stage. Register for a free trial here.

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