Career Path

The Hidden Habits of Great Problem Solvers

Here’s why some people are better at not getting stuck.

If you’ve looked at a job description recently, you may have noticed that one of the hot buzzwords right now is “problem solving.” There’s good reason for that—in these uncertain but fast-moving times, companies are looking for people who can help them explore new territory and remove obstacles along the way. Indeed, in a study conducted by the American Management Association, 70% of executives said critical thinking and problem solving are the most important skills need to help their organizations grow.

Good problem solvers set out with a set of questions they’re looking to answer, often asking how something came about instead of why.

Not to mention that countless business books have been written on the steps to solving a problem, beginning with advice on identifying the issue, then moving on to generating and evaluating potential solutions, and ending with monitoring the results of your chosen solution. But while these steps are a great tactical blueprint to problem solving, career pros say it is also an art—and that doing it well requires skills that aren’t so obvious. Here are some hidden habits of great problem solvers that will help you move beyond a generic solution.

They leave their egos out of it.

The best problem solvers aren’t looking to be right, career experts say; they’re looking to get to the right answer. “They’re all about having a growth mind-set, focusing on the learning more than anything else,” says Sean Carney, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. While they may have a hunch about how to solve a problem, they’re not wedded to it—they hear others out and adapt as they take in new information. And if a total zinger throws things off course, good problem solvers don’t get upset—they look at it as another problem to be solved, not a total disaster or reflection of their own reputation.

They’re persistent, but they don’t go overboard.

Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Experts say persistence counts for a lot when it comes to problem solving, but they caution that those who dive too deep into the information-gathering part of the equation may become overwhelmed and unable to see a solution. Good problem solvers set out with a set of questions they’re looking to answer—often asking how something came about instead of why—and when they’re confident they’ve explored and answered those questions, they know that it’s time to move forward. After all, no one will ever have all the information; the key is to try and make the best decision with the information you have at hand.

They seek outside inspiration.

Many of us get frustrated or bored in the process of trying to solve a complicated problem. That’s why experts say it’s so important to step away from the problem and do something different. It could be something big, like going on a trip or pursuing a creative project. Or it could be as simple as going for a walk, reading, or chatting with friends. Valerie Hayes, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance, once advised a client to take a different route to work every day. “It helped her gain new perspective that she was able to bring back to her job,” Hayes says. It’s also important to mind your sleeping habits: according to one study, people presented with a difficult obstacle in a video game were more likely to solve it if they took a nap first.

They bring others along.

While some people will naturally want to solve a problem on their own, good problem solvers know that they can’t do it alone. They spend time coaching and training others, knowing well that the more perspective they can gain on a given problem, the better their outcome will be. But they also know that as they climb the ranks in their career, being able to train others to solve problems becomes more important than simply solving problems themselves. According to research by Korn Ferry, “leaders who cannot shift out of individual problem-solving mode and into the job of coaching and mentoring others to analyze problems will struggle beyond mid-level leadership roles.”

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