Tell Me When You Overcame a Problem

by | Mar 9, 2020 | Interviewing

(Frequently Asked Questions in an Interview)

There are very few jobs where a person does not face any obstacles, problems, or issues during the course of the day. The real successful people are those who have the ability to accurately analyze the situation, seek the right solution and implement correctly what is needed. These, of course, are the people that employers prefer.

Employers like those who can identify issues and, even better, solve the problem. It is only natural then that Interviewers attempt to probe deeper regarding your skill level in this area.


Why Is It Asked?

• Check on Motivation – Typically those who jump hurdles and overcome obstacles are motivated individuals. These people do not just automatically accept that there is nothing they can do about a situation. An Interviewer will probably conclude that this person will be, in general, a productive worker.

• Determine Commitment – A person who attempts to solve problems on behalf of the company is usually pretty committed to the organization. They feel a sense of need, not only for themselves to be successful, but also towards the company.

• Gauge Self-Esteem – Those who lack self-esteem typically wither when challenged. Individuals, who can overcome obstacles and solve problems, generally have strong confidence in themselves. This is particularly important in positions such as sales, where confidence is of utmost importance.

• Assess Imagination and Analytics – The Interviewer may want to understand how you went about solving the challenge in front of you. What processes and steps did you take and why? Did you think outside the box and do something that wasn’t the norm? Did you research the situation and “crunch the numbers” necessary to make things work? The type of job you are seeking may determine what direction you take on this question. For example, Marketing is an area where you will want to stress your imagination, while Finance is usually all about the analytics.

• Can you Follow Procedures – On the flip side to the last bullet point, there are some positions where problems are solved by following detailed Standard Operating Procedures. This is usually found in positions/areas such as Customer Service and Facility Maintenance. Typically, these procedures are done for consistency or safety purposes. 


How Should It Be Answered?

• With Pride and Enthusiasm – Get excited when answering this question. Weave into your description how good you felt when you achieved success. This is the time to raise your voice, make eye contact, and shift towards the front of your chair.

• With An Example – Your answer will be much more impactful if you use an actual example in your description. Even better if your example ties into satisfying a customer or saving the company money. Inform the Interviewer what the problem was, how you decided the course of action, and finally close the circle by describing the positive impact in the end.

• With Confidence – While you do not want to come across as arrogant, this is also not the time to be overly modest. If solving the obstacle was a team effort, then say so, but focus on your role and what you did to overcome the hurdle.

• Concisely – It is really easy for this question to consume a large portion of your interview. The key is to anticipate this question and prepare how you will succinctly describe the situation. Too often the Job Seeker will get caught up providing way too much background information, eating up valuable interview time.


What Not To Do:

• Chalk It Up To Luck – Don’t diminish your achievement by acting like anyone could have done it, or that you just kind of fell into the solution.

• Oversell Yourself – Most of the time a savvy Interviewer will know when you are trying to put one over on them. Don’t describe your role in solving a problem beyond what is probable. For example, if you are seeking an entry-level type position don’t try to claim you made a problem-solving decision that only a Senior Executive could make.

• Be Arrogant – This is not the time to go endlessly on about yourself. It is also not the time for you to take sole credit for something that was clearly a team effort.

• Neglect The Impact – The Interviewer will want to know what the result of the solution was. It is important to know the final conclusion and how it impacted the business.

• Name Yourself As The Initial Cause of the Problem – Do not use as your example a situation where your error was the cause of the issue. While it is nice to hear how someone can learn from and solve their own mistakes, this type of example places the emphasis on a negative, which you do not want to do.

• Act Like It is Not Your Issue – This is not the time to describe yourself as someone who just wants to clock in, do your job, and go home at the end of the day. The “putting your time in” mentality is not appropriate at any time in the interview, but especially not with this question. 


This question can be tricky because of the need to answer, in a concise manner, something that can be quite complicated.  The key is to anticipate the question, prepare your response, and practice the delivery so you will be on your way to acing this inquiry.

As always, best of luck in your job search.

The following has been prepared for the general information of WNYJobs readers. It is not meant to provide advice with respect to any specific legal or policy matter and should not be acted upon without verification by the reader.

Joe Stein
WNY Human Resources Professional

Feel free to contact Joe Stein regarding questions or comments at:
Joe Stein

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