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What Every Employer Desperately Wants: A Problem-Solver

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One night when I was bartending in college, I witnessed one of the greatest traits an employee can posses.

A fellow employee and I were rushing to prep for fumigators to spray down the bar (yep, it was that kind of bar), and we had no idea what needed to be done; we’d received zero instruction from the owners and it was 2:30 a.m. I decided turning off the pilot lights on the stove would be a good idea, so I asked my fellow employee if he knew how to do that. His response? “No, but I’m sure I can figure it out.” We both went downstairs and followed the gas line from the stove until we found an on/off lever for the gas. We pulled the lever and off went the burners.

Hardly brain surgery, I know, but there’s a great lesson here. Rather than get frazzled like I did, my co-worker stayed totally calm and simply put on his problem-solving cap. He wasn’t even phased by the fact he didn’t know what to do (I actually don’t think it even occurred to him), he just knew he would look at the problem until he found a solution.

That’s what employers want. Hell, that’s what EVERYONE wants – someone who’s a doer, who finds a way and gets the job done.

In a world full of crappy co-workers and employees, your boss is dying for a can-do attitude. All bosses are – that’s why problem-solving ability regularly ranks as one of the most desirable traits in a prospective employee. Problem solvers are strategic and critical thinkers, people who bring ideas and solutions.

And guess what? Ideas and solutions make money.

Innate or obtainable?

“Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception,” Michael Michalko wrote in Psychology Today. Put another way: we decide how we react to a given situation. Some of us might be more predisposed to the can-do attitude, especially optimists, but how we react is up to us. Some situations may be out of our control, but how we react rarely is.

Like any other highly-valued skill set, a can-do attitude requires practice, practice, practice. When preparing for different government jobs, I knew I’d face a lot of problem-solving or puzzle questions, and my early attempts at these challenges did not go well. Whenever I heard a sample Google or Microsoft interview question, I’d respond with the mental equivalent of seizing up and falling into the fetal position.

I needed work. So I tried as many sample questions as I could and bought puzzle and mental exercise books like How Would You Move Mt. Fuji? Most of these questions deal more with how to react to and work through the problem at hand, so they’re great practice even if you don’t get many of the answers.

I also practiced a ton of analytical reasoning while studying for the LSAT, which really does ingrain a formulaic, methodical approach to a given problem. Some people are born with this skill set, but the rest of us have to work hard at it.

Luckily, it’s teachable – and learnable.

Valuable beyond your career

Being a problem-solver will take you far, regardless of your profession or industry, but it will also pay dividends in your personal life.

When faced with adversity, something as inevitable as death and taxes, those with a can-do attitude are well equipped to handle any situation. Struggling marriages, partnerships or businesses can often be righted by working through the challenges methodically and with perseverance.

In contrast, those who quickly or dismissively deem the problem unsolvable (often known as quitters) are just as quickly defeated.

Next time you’re asked about a problem you don’t know the answer to, be honest about it but volunteer to find a solution. It’s a way of taking ownership  and showing initiative, two things any boss loves. Adopting challenges with a can-do attitude is also arming you for interview time, when you’ll almost certainly be asked about a time you “worked through a difficult problem.”

“Whether you think that you can or can’t, you’re usually right,” Henry Ford famously said. That certainly applies to having a can-do attitude. It’s optional; it’s a choice.

What kind of attitude do you choose?

Tim Murphy is founder of ApplyMate.com, a free application tracking tool.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

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  • Smithabella

    How you solve a problem is your attitude but how you react on a particular problem is your basic nature. I agree that for can do attitude you need a lot of practice but once you get mastered in it you will be successful in every aspect of life whether it is personal or professional.work at home

    • Anonymous

      Agreed – it really does become a way of life. Do we find a way or make excuses? I’m certainly not perfect but working on it as much as possible. Sounds like you’re well on your way :).

      Thanks for reading!

      Tim

  • Scottfmessinger

    I agree that problem solving is a great skill. I do a lot of that in my job.
    Managers just need to be careful that they are providing their employees the resources to solve problems efficiently. They need to provide training, structure and clear goals, so the employees can properly focus on the correct problems to solve. When EVERYTHING becomes a problem to solve, then something is wrong. Too often I see employees struggling, and management tells them to just ‘take ownership’, rather than providing the training and guidance that they should.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Scott,

      Great point. Especially like the line, “When EVERYTHING becomes a problem to solve, then something is wrong.” That’s definitely true. One’s ability to solve problems does depend on the resources at their disposal, but to a certain extent we are all capable of finding a way with what we have. What we come up with might not be perfect, but part of the can-do attitude is knowing there’s a solution somewhere and doing everything possible to find it.

      Though I will definitely concede that all too often poor management hinders the ability of their staff to solve problems. It’s a shame to see and hear about. Best thing to do in those scenarios is keep trying to find a way to solve the problem – you’ll either be noticed and rewarded or you’ll be padding your resume with all sorts of personal achievements, ready for when it’s time to move on.

      Thanks a lot for the smart comment.

      Tim

  • Anonymous

    Unless management isn’t interested in hearing solutions, just hearing themselves talk.

  • http://communitycollegevoice.blogspot.com/ Christina Wood

    Great article! I just posted a blog about this a couple of days ago. Another thing to consider is also being able to persevere in problem solving when your original idea is shot down. I think that really tests your character and work ethic as well. How well can you bounce back from criticism and make the needed adjustments to make the idea work?

    • Anonymous

      Hi Christina –
      There’s an old saying I love, “Anyone can steer the ship when the seas are calm.” I feel like that applies to the point you made above. If everyone loves every idea you come up with, being a problem solver is easy! It’s when you have to fight for an idea or, like you said, when you have several ideas rejected that being a “problem solver” becomes tough. But that’s when it matters – if it were easy, everyone would do it. So I totally agree that how one responds to criticism while solving problems counts for a lot.

      Thanks for the thoughtful input.

      Tim

  • http://twitter.com/jodinesplace Jodine

    What do you do when management think your just a factory worker without a brain with no good ideas?

    • Anonymous

      Hi Jodine,

      It sounds tough, but the only way to change management from thinking you’re just a factory worker is to give them a reason to change. And then another, and another. If you don’t make their opinion change, it never will. Start finding problems and suggesting solutions where appropriate. It will sharpen your own critical thinking, and it will elevate how your boss thinks of you. Overwhelm them with reasons why you’re NOT just some factory worker with no brain.

      Perhaps it’s unfair (perhaps not), but we are not ‘intelligent until proven otherwise.’ It’s kind of the other way around, so you need to be proactive in demonstrating your worth.

      Good luck!

      Tim

  • Cabiicpa

    This is great advice. A great example on one of the most important keys to success!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Cabiicpa. Glad you enjoyed!

  • Anonymous

    Inspirational article , it really made me realise how easy i give up sometimes on problems , but having bookmarked this i intend to make myself a problem-solver , its my new year resolution . Thanks

    • Tim

      Hey PremiumJetset.

      Really glad you liked the post – thanks a lot for reading and good luck with your resolution!

      Tim

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  • http://www.teethwhiteningsuperstore.com/shop/Teeth-Whitening-Kits/1/ Teeth Whitening Kits

    Unfortunately, there are not many “do-ers” out there, in fact, from my own experience, I think its impossible to train somebody up to be a “do-er”. You either have it or you don’t in my opinion!

  • http://www.inengineering.co.uk/ Engineering Jobs

    Brilliant post,

    I wholly agree, a person that can solve a problem and have the aptitude to find a solution with little or no information is almost worth his or her weight in Gold

  • http://matthewcantwell.com/ Matthew Cantwell

    A doer or a sitter? A pro-actor or a re-actor? Seriously high tech, knowlege based positions that require years of school or training and hands on experience prior to even entering the job market are the ONLY positions where a re-actor is prized. OTHERWISE – on the spot thinking and pre-problem solving are cornerstone for anyone who values their personal performance and success

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TMOOECX534EI4LU5L7EDRX7DG4 Jay Lartey

    thanks for that great read. http://www.pure-jobs.com

  • http://www.epipeline.com/ Federal Contracts

    Unfortunately,
    there are not many “do-ers” out there, in fact, from my own experience,
    I think its impossible to train somebody up to be a “do-er”. You either
    have it or you don’t in my opinion!

    Federal IT rfp

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