We’ve all been there. You hire the wrong candidate, resulting in wasted time, money and energy. You’ve learned the true cost of a bad hire the hard way. And you want to make sure your future interview process is as goof-proof as possible.
That’s where problem-solving interviews can change the game.
Though traditional interviews haven’t gone by the wayside, more companies are taking a practical approach when it comes to vetting candidates based on actual workplace scenarios.
Problem-solving interviews use questions that evaluate how candidates deal with difficult situations they may actually face in a given role. With scenario-based and behavioral questions for all of your problem-solving needs, consider this your totally bookmarkable resource to keep coming back to when prepping for candidate interviews.
Examples of problem-solving interview questions:
- Tell me about a project where you had to manage a cross-functional team.
- Describe a situation where you succeeded in motivating team performance.
- What is the most creative idea or project you've generated in your current role?
- In what ways have you encouraged your work team to be more innovative?
- Have you ever improved project workflows based on your analysis?
- Have you ever had a deadline you weren't able to meet? What happened?
- Give an example of a time when you had to explain something complex to a frustrated client.
- Talk about a time when you worked under extremely loose supervision. How did you handle that?
What's the buzz about problem-solving interviews?
Problem-solving interview questions occasionally go by other names.
From behavioral interview questions, scenario-based interview questions, or simply ‘second job interview questions’ — if you’re like most employers, you probably already have an unofficial term for the part of the hiring process where you really lean in and learn how a candidate might act in a given situation.
Whatever you call it, a problem-solving interview is essentially:
A behavioral interview asking questions that provide insight into how a candidate has dealt with challenging workplace issues in the past. The candidate’s answers often reveal their actual level of experience and potential to handle similar situations in the future.
To get a real flavor for what this type of interview will entail, and the types of problems and problem-solving skills we’re considering, we’ve compiled a go-to list of top examples of problem-solving interview questions. Feel free to adjust these questions, the problem-solving abilities and the potential problems these questions address to suit your specific role and employer brand.
15 examples of problem-solving interview questions
Each interviewing situation is unique. Questions for an entry-level position obviously won't get you very far with an executive-level candidate. Similarly the questions you ask for a technical role like software engineer are going to be far different from those you’d ask of a sales candidate.
Before you launch into any problem-solving interview, take time to match your questions to your open role. And remember, the more structured your interview process, the easier it'll be to make the right call.
Here are three of the most common problem-solving interview scenarios, plus our top questions for each.
Question #1: Describe the most difficult team you've had to lead? What made it challenging? How did you go about overcoming the issues?
Why it works: Asking a candidate to rate the difficulty of working with others is a great way to see whether they throw their team under the bus or focus more on the problem/solution aspect of the question. A strong candidate will map out how they overcame the situation and prevented it from becoming a long-term issue within the company.
Question #2: What do you consider your proudest moment or greatest achievement in the workplace? What were the practical steps that got you there?
Why it works: Some leadership skills come naturally — but most require careful planning and the ability to take inspired action. A candidate who doesn’t just regurgitate their resume but gives actual insight into how they achieve the impossible is someone who's willing to think about process and the importance of why they're in a leadership position in the first place.
Question #3: Tell me about a project where you had to manage a cross-functional team to achieve a specific goal or outcome. How did you adapt your leadership style to achieve this objective?
Why it works: The ability to adapt is crucial for strong leaders. No single leadership style matches every work situation. Exceptional leaders know how to tune into their teams and adapt accordingly.
Question #4: Describe a situation where you succeeded in motivating your team to improve their performance. What actions were the most effective?
Why it works: Performance management is a tough nut to crack. You're looking for an executive candidate who has the right mix of diplomacy and energy to get the best work out of every employee.
Question #5: Describe a leadership role you've undertaken outside of work. Why did you choose to commit to this role? How did you benefit from it?
Why it works: Great leaders don’t leave their leadership hats in the office. Knowing your candidate takes on leadership roles in their community — be it volunteering, coaching or running a professional group — helps you get a better understanding of their leadership characteristics both within and outside of the office.
Question #1: What is the most creative idea or project you've generated in your current role? How was it received?
Why it works: Creativity can mean something completely different based on the role and organization — but a true creative will have a unique approach to problem-solving even if they aren’t interviewing for the role of Art Director. A candidate’s ability to take criticism will also shine through in this question.
Question #2: In what ways have you encouraged your team to be more creative and innovative?
Why it works: A truly creative person will help others think outside the box. How your candidate answers this question will give you insight into their teamwork skills and help clue you into how they apply their creativity at the strategic level.
Question #3: Every creative needs an outlet. What creative work do you like to do in your own time?
Why it works: Do those creative juices flow into other areas of life? If your creative candidate lights up when you ask about their hobbies and work outside the office, you know that same energy will flood into the workplace too.
Question #4: What tech tools do you use daily?
Why it works: Creatives tend to love tech and knowing how they keep their tech skills sharp gives you a glimpse into what strategies they'll bring to the table to help keep your company on the cutting edge.
Question #5: What do you think of our creative materials?
Why it works: If your candidate is truly invested in your brand, they probably did their homework. The right person will be eager to offer insight into your marketing, branding or other creative projects. Someone who shows up with their A-game and isn’t afraid to deliver their very own 'like it, love it, leave it' feedback is a keeper.
Question #1: Have you ever improved a project workflow based on your analysis? If so, how did you do this?
Why it works: If there's one thing every great techie should have, it's laser-precise attention to detail. You want a candidate who takes a proactive approach to optimizing workflows and doesn’t hang back hoping for someone else to step in and make things more efficient.
Question #2: Have you ever had a deadline you weren't able to meet? What happened? How did you handle it?
Why it works: In a fast-paced tech environment, deadlines can get pushed back due to things beyond your candidate’s control. If they own up to this and demonstrate that they know how to stay cool under pressure, it’s a good sign they can handle the heat.
Question #3: When you’re working with a large number of clients, it’s tricky to deliver excellent service to them all. How do you go about prioritizing your clients’ needs?
Why it works: Time management skills are crucial in technical roles. A candidate who's not only able to deliver the coding and programming goods but can also manage a tight schedule and full plate of internal and external client requests is a true unicorn.
Question #4: Give an example of a time when you had to explain something fairly complex to a frustrated client. How did you handle this delicate situation?
Why it works: Technical workers usually have their own jargon, but it’s important for your candidate to be able to convey their work to the everyday client or team member. If they can’t explain what they do in simple terms, this could be a red flag for any role with a client-facing or cross-departmental component.
Question #5: Talk about a time you worked under extremely loose supervision. How did you handle that?
Why it works: Many tech employees work remotely or with flex schedules. It’s important for your candidate to be a self-starter. Look for specific insights about the tactics and methods they use to manage their own schedule, meet deadlines and deliver on project expectations.
Questions #6: What resources do you follow to stay current with changes in technology?
Why it works: Technical roles require candidates to stay current. It’s important to ask the candidate how they keep up with an. Because when you’re hiring for roles like SEO, IT coordinator or software engineer, they need to think outside the box (and into the future).
Red flags to look out for in your problem-solving interviews
While problem-solving interview questions’ answers can help best-fit candidates truly shine, they can also cast a harsh light on people who aren’t fit for the job.
Here are some red flags you should look out for, from possibly ok-ish to definitely not the right fit.
Vague (or nonexistent) answers 🚩
If the interviewee can’t remember a time they thought outside of the box or were challenged in the workplace or handled a stressful situation, it might mean they steer clear of tough situations and difficult decisions. So if they offer up a super vague answer with little to no specifics, try to ask follow-up questions to get some insight into their mentality.
Over-the-top uneasiness 🚩🚩
Problem-solving questions are designed to make candidates think critically about their work style, and being put on the spot like that is bound to be a little uncomfortable. But if candidates are so stressed they can’t give you a straight answer, it’s probably a sign that they don’t deal with pressure well.
Scripted responses 🚩🚩🚩
Candidates who give superficial responses are more likely to choose the easy way out instead of thinking critically about the best way to handle a scenario. Run-of-the-mill answers also show a lack of creativity. Go for candidates who analyze the situation and really dig into the issue at hand to come up with a more thorough answer.
Problem-oriented mindset 🚩🚩🚩🚩
The name says it all: problem-solving interview questions are about solving the problem, not dwelling on the difficulties. So if a candidate answering a problem-solving question seems too hung up on the issue at hand rather than how they rose above and dealt with it, they might not be the culture add you’re looking for.
Tips to ask the right problem-solving interview questions
Use hypothetical scenarios with real-world applications
Don’t waste your time on unrealistic scenarios and improbable outcomes. Ask hard-hitting questions with real-life solutions.
Illuminate the candidate’s thought process
Ask questions that give insight into a candidate’s thought process. Pay special attention to how candidates approach a scenario, working through the problem step-by-step and arriving at a clear (and effective) solution. Oh, and keep an eye out for innovative perspectives!
Gauge team spirit
The best solutions are often collaborative ones. Ask questions about a situation that required a team effort, and pay special attention to how they characterize their colleagues and the collective decision-making process. You want candidates who are comfortable asking for help and have a knack for teamwork.
Know what you can (and can’t) ask
Some interview questions are awkward, others are straight-up illegal.
We know you're not out to violate anyone's rights, but even the most well-meaning hiring managers can end up asking lousy interview questions. How lousy, you ask?
These ones top our list of major no-nos:
“Tell me about your biggest weakness.”
Oh, you mean like the time I accidentally disconnected the server and left thousands of customers without service for hours? Get real. No one's going to reveal their Kryptonite during an interview. This question generates the most canned answers imaginable ranging from “I’m a workaholic,” to “I over-deliver and exceed expectations.” 🙄
“If a song described you, what would it be.”
Avoid this and any other overly abstract question asking a candidate to describe themselves in bizarre metaphors. Be direct. Relate the questions to the position and interviewee, not some over the top hypothetical about whether someone sees themself as a shark or a unicorn.
“Tell me about your [sexual orientation, relationship status, ethnicity, race, religion, political affiliation].”
One word: creepy. Oh, and: illegal. (Okay, that's two words but you get the idea...)
Fact is, any question that doesn't jive with the EEOC not only violates the candidate’s rights, it may also have you searching for a new career. Just don't go there.
Avoid the ‘gotchyas’ and keep your interview q’s focused on solving real problems
At the end of the day, no single thread of interview questions will work as a one-size-fits-all.
Human hiring requires human thinking. By analyzing and hand-selecting thoughtful questions, you can ensure a consistent interview flow with all candidates while avoiding generic replies and those dreaded awkward silences.
Just make sure they're interview questions that both you and your candidate can feel good about.
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