Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

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Skills to Pay the Bills



Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

Everyone experiences problems from time to time.  Some of our problems are big and complicated, while 

others may be more easily solved.  There is no shortage of challenges and issues that can arise on the job. 

Whether in an office or on a construction site, experiencing difficulties with the tasks at hand or with co-

workers, the workplace presents ongoing challenges on a daily basis. Whether these problems are large or 

small, they need to be dealt with constructively and fairly.  Having the necessary skills to identify solutions to 

problems is one of the skills that employers look for in employees.

Employers say they need a workforce 

fully equipped with skills beyond the 

basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic 

to grow their businesses.  These skills 

include critical thinking and problem 

solving, according to a 2010 Critical 

Skills Survey by the American 

Management Association and others.

Problem solving and critical thinking refers to the ability to use 

knowledge, facts, and data to effectively solve problems.  This 

doesn’t mean you need to have an immediate answer, it means 

you have to be able to think on your feet, assess problems and 

find solutions. The ability to develop a well thought out solution 

within a reasonable time frame, however, is a skill that 

employers value greatly. 

Employers want employees who can work through problems on their own or as an effective member of a 

team. Ideal employees can think critically and creatively, share thoughts and opinions, use good judgment, 

and make decisions.  As a new employee, you may question why an organization follows certain steps to 

complete a task.  It may seem to you that one of the steps could be eliminated saving time, effort, and 

money.  But you may be hesitant to voice your opinion.  Don’t be; employers are usually appreciative when 

new employees are able to offer insight and fresh perspective into better and more efficient ways of doing 

things.  It is important to remember, however, that as someone new to the organization, you may not always 

have the full picture, and thus there may be factors you are unaware of that dictate that things be done in a 

particular way.  Another important thing to remember is that when you are tasked with solving a problem, you 

don’t always need to answer immediately.  

The activities in this section focus on learning how to solve problems in a variety of ways in the workplace. 

Participants will hear about how to properly tell the difference among criticism, praise, and feedback and 

reacting appropriately.  The section will also review strategies for making ethical decisions, solving problems 

on a team with others, and learning how to take into account others’ perceptions when assessing actions or 

statements in the workplace.

A note to facilitators:  Building self-determination skills, such as goal setting, decision-making, self-

advocacy, and problem solving should be included in career planning for all youth.  Youth with disabilities 

and/or other (perceived) barriers to employment and/or disconnected youth will tend to have a resiliency 

not always experienced by their same aged peers  – and not always easily seen or understood by themselves 

or by adults. You are encouraged to use the activities in this section to help young people explore how the 

obstacles they (or those they know) may face in life can pose an opportunity for developing and 

demonstrating maturity, responsibility, and wisdom.  Providing young people with safe opportunities to 

explore how their personal resiliency can be used to develop enhanced problem solving and conflict 

resolutions skills is a opportunity many adults may shy away from, but one that may ultimately be a gift.

Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 


21. Praise, Criticism, or Feedback


In a work setting, we give and receive many different types of information. The 

purpose of this activity is to help participants determine the differences between criticism, praise, and 

feedback – not only how to offer it, but how to receive it as well.  



20 minutes 





Discuss the difference between praise, criticism, and feedback and ask participants for 

examples of each.  


Praise:  an expression of approval


Criticism:  an expression of disapproval based on perceived mistakes or faults



Feedback:  information about a person’s performance of a task – used primarily as a 

basis for improvement

Divide the group into pairs of two. Read the following statements aloud – one at a time. It 

is suggested that the facilitator use different voice tones to truly help participants 

differentiate the intended meaning of each sentence (which, by the way, can certainly 

vary). After each statement, give each pair 10 seconds to decide whether the statement is 

criticism, praise, or feedback. Someone from each team should hold up the card that 

represents a collective decision. If chart paper and sentence strips were used, participants 

could move around the room to match each statement to what they believe to be the 

correct match.

1.   Mr. Jones told me how much he appreciated your thank you note after the job 

interview. He thought it was a great personal touch.

2.  Your desk is such a mess. Are you sure you are not trying to grow your own paper?

3.  I noticed that you’ve been coming in late the last couple of days.

4.  How many times do I have to tell you how to file these documents?

5.  You look great today.

6.   It would work better for me if I could explain my version of the story out loud before 

you ask questions.


One set of “Praise | Criticism | Feedback” cards for each group.  Alternatively, you 

might choose to hang three pieces of chart paper – each with one of the words on it. 

Slips of paper could be made with the statements below.  

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7.  You’ve improved a lot this week.

8.  I found it difficult to evaluate this resume because it was messy.

9.   I liked it much better when we got to choose the projects instead of being assigned to one.

With the larger group, discuss the different ways people may react or respond differently 

to praise, criticism, and feedback.  It is inevitable that we will all receive criticism at some 

point on the job, and the way in which we respond can impact our own attitude and the 

attitudes of those with whom we work.  Discuss with the group how they, personally, 

respond differently to praise vs. feedback vs. criticism.   


Take the opportunity to rephrase the way in which any of the above statements were 

made.  How might rephrasing get a different response or reaction?   If you had to make a 

rule for how you would like to receive feedback and criticism, what would that rule be? 



Journaling Activity

How does it make you feel when others criticize the work you do?  Are you able to respond 

to feedback differently?  Think about a time when you criticized someone else.  What 

happened?  How did that situation ultimately make you feel?    


Extension Activity

Often times, the inability to give and/or receive criticism and feedback might cause 

conflict in the workplace.  Reach out to the National Institute for Advanced Conflict 

Resolution ( to find local, no-cost training 

opportunities or workshops for participants. You might also try your state or county’s 

mediation center (often connected to juvenile services) to see what programs are offered. 


Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 





Skills to Pay the Bills


22.  Workplace Ethics


We all have our own set of values or standards of behavior that we operate by on a 

daily basis.  However, we may not always feel we can apply these same principles or standards while at 

work.  The purpose of this lesson is to help participants learn some of the steps necessary to make 

ethical decisions on the job.  


30 minutes



Ask participants the following questions – and discuss answers with the group:  How do you 

make decisions?  Is decision-making a skill that was taught to you?  Do you have personal 

rules for decision-making?  If you have rules, do these rules change if you are making 

decisions at home, at school, with friends, or at work?  

Now, let’s discuss ethics.  What are ethics?  [Possible answer to be discussed:  a set of 

(often unspoken – and generally understood) moral principles relating to a specified group, 

field, or form of conduct; a group of moral principles, standards of behavior, or set of 

values regarding proper conduct in the workplace].  

Ethics on the job often deal with a code of conduct or a set of principles for BOTH the 

employer and the employee.  Ask for and offer some examples of workplace ethics from 

both the EMPLOYER and the EMPLOYEE.  For example: 

A list of work ethics for an employer or a company might be:


To provide a safe work environment for staff and employees 


To treat employees with dignity and respect


To provide a fair wage for the services rendered


To handle all business transactions with integrity and honesty


Activity 22 – one copy for each participant (or group).  These materials were adapted  

from Lesson Planet:  Tools For Success: A Study in Employer/Personnel Issues, Ethics, 

and Professional Behavior (Alabama Learning Exchange)

Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 


A list of work ethics for an employee might include:


To show up on time


To tend to company business for the whole time while at work


To treat the company’s resources, equipment, and products with care


To give respect to the company; that means honesty and integrity

Ask the group what types of ethical issues might come up at work?

Choose one of the scenarios in Activity 22 for group discussion (be sure to read the 

introduction first).  Read the scenario aloud (and have copies for those who would like to 

read it as well).   With the group, walk through a basic process for ethical decision-making.  

Four-Step Process for Making Ethical Decisions at Work:

1.  Define the problem (or ethical situation).

2.   List the facts that appear to be most significant to the decision (and consider who is 


3.  List two or three possible solutions (and how these solutions could impact each person).

4.  Decide on a plan of action.

Divide the group into four smaller groups (and have each group choose one of the 

remaining scenarios).  Each group should take no more than 10 minutes to read, discuss, 

and have a plan in place for discussion.  


Do you think these situations really happen on the job – in real life?  Share how the 

decision-making process worked for each group. Were these easy problems to solve? 

Journaling Activity

When it comes to decision-making, there are some people who like to make decisions by 

themselves, while others would like to talk things through with someone else.  Which type 

of person are you? Give an example or two.  What are some of the pros and cons associated 

with each type of decision-maker?

Extension Activity

Have the group create additional “case studies” to share with each other for problem 

solving practice.  Participants might ask an adult they know to offer a “real life” example 

of an ethical dilemma they have faced.  These should be shared with the group.

You might also consider expanding the discussion to include more examples of sexual 

harassment on the job.  Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon issue for teens to be 

dealing with on the job.  

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Activity 22. Workplace Ethics: Case Studies

For each of the following case studies, assume you are employed by a large computer company, with 

approximately 1,000 employees.  The company is located in your town.  Read each case study and 

follow the four steps for making ethical decisions.  You will be discussing your decision-making process 

(and your ultimate decision) with the group. 

Case 1:  LaKeisha is an administrative assistant in the Human Resources Department.  Her good friend 

Michael is applying for a job with the company and has agreed to be a reference for him.  Michael asks 

for advice on preparing for the interview.  LaKeisha has the actual interview questions asked of all 

applicants and considers making him a copy of the list so he can prepare.

Case 2:  Emily works in the Quality Control Department.  Once a year, her supervisor gives away the 

company’s used computers to the local elementary school.  The company does not keep records of 

these computer donations.  Emily really needs a computer.  Her supervisor asks her to deliver 12 

computers to the school.

Case 3:  Marvin is an assistant in the Building Services Department.  He has just received a new work 

computer and is excited to try it out.  His supervisor has a strict policy about computer usage (for 

business purposes only), but Marvin wants to learn the email software.  He figures one good way to do 

this is to send emails to his friends and relatives until he gets the hang of it.  He has finished all of his 

work for the day and has 30 minutes left until his shift is over.  His supervisor left early.

Case 4:  Jennie was recently hired to work as a receptionist for the front lobby.  As receptionist, she is 

responsible for making copies for the people in her office.  Her son, Jason, comes in and needs some 

copies for a school project.  He brought his own paper and needs 300 copies for his class.  If he doesn’t 

bring the copies with him, he will fail the project.  The company copier does not require a security key, 

nor do they keep track of copies made by departments.

Case 5:  Nonye works in the Customer Service Support Department and spends a lot of his day 

responding to email.  One day he got a message from an email address he didn’t recognize.  It said, 

“I’d like to get to know you better, outside of work.”  Nonye had no idea who sent it, so he deleted it.  

A few days later, he received another message from the same source.  Nonye ignored the message 

again, thinking they would stop. He mentioned these emails to one of his co-workers, who responded, 

“You’re lucky to have a fan.” The messages continue to come every few days and he’s feeling pretty 

weirded out.  


Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 


Activity 22. Continued - Steps to Solving Ethical Dilemmas

Identify the problem or ethical issue:   


































What are the facts?     




































What are some possible solutions?     








What are you going to do?  




































Also consider….how will you know if your decision was the right one?

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23.  Problem Solving on a Team 


Working together to solve problems is not always easy.  The purpose of this activity 

is to have participants explore how effective teams might address problems that occur among its 



30 minutes


    Activity 23 


There are times when getting a team of people to work together successfully on a job or at 

school can be a challenge.  Occasionally one person might display a bad attitude (for one 

reason or another) and cause the team to be less than productive.  Activity 23 presents 10 

different situations where the action of one team member is interfering with the team’s 


Divide a large group into smaller groups.  Have participants act out or create a skit for 

each situation – providing both positive and negative alternatives for working through and 

solving each problem.  Participants should take turns being the “difficult” team member. 

Participants can compare skits and responses and, ultimately, decide (as a larger group) on 

the best way(s) to handle each situation. 


Should each person on the team be “dealt” with in the same way? Are there ever any  

exceptions?  Explain.  

Journaling Activity

Think about a time when you were on a team and one member of the team wasn’t con-

tributing.  How was the situation handled?  What might you have done differently?  If you 

are a team leader, what can you do to help all team members contribute?  

Extension Activity

Using the problems listed in Activity 23, invite employers in to talk about how these 

situations are handled at their place of employment.  


Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 


Activity 23. Problem Solving on a Team

It’s hard work to keep a team working well together.  What would you say to or do about a team member 

in the following situations?


Is always late.   





















Whispers to others or starts side conversations during discussions.   
















Gets upset when his/her recommendations are not followed.  

















Hogs the conversation/discussion. 





















Leaves before the job/work is done.   



















Constantly tells jokes and gets people off track. 



















Refuses to work with another “certain” team member. 


















Won’t share in the leadership role. 





















Falls asleep.   























Just sits there.  























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Perception is one’s ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through our 

senses.  It is a way of understanding or interpreting something.  Sometimes the way we perceive the 

actions or statements of those around us may or may not reflect what is actually intended. This is 

generally due to our previous life experiences and/or what we believe.  The purpose of this activity is to 

get participants to reflect on and consider different perceptions and how to be proactive in making 

decisions based on those perceptions.

24.  Perception vs. Reality 


15 minutes


    Activity 24



   Optional:  Flip chart and markers 


Write the following on a flip chart OR have one copy of the sentence for each participant: 



Ask the group to count the number of “Fs” in the sentence (allow 15 seconds).  On average, 

most people will only spot three or four of the Fs in the sentence.  There are actually six. 

(The brain tends to skip the word “of,” or perceive it as “versus”).  Point:  One’s perception 

may not always be correct.  

Read the following short paragraphs aloud (or ask a youth participant to read):  


 Bob’s daughter is on the basketball team, but she doesn’t get to play much.  His 

daughter works hard and never complains, but Bob believes this is yet another 

injustice in his life and his daughter is not getting a fair shake.  Bob becomes 

annoyed and irritated.  He angrily confronts the coach, embarrassing his daughter. 


 John’s daughter is on the basketball team, but she doesn’t get to play much. His 

daughter works hard and never complains. John believes that the coach wants to 

win and most likely plays the girls that will help him reach that goal. John feels 

proud of his daughter’s commitment to the team despite not getting to play very 

much. John offers to help his daughter improve her basketball skills.

Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 


Is there any difference in the events as they were described?  What is the critical factor in 

the different ways each person reacted?  PERCEPTION!  Bob believed the coach’s actions 

were totally unfair – and John believed the coach was generally fair.  Why might each 

person perceive the situation differently?  

Now, discuss the four situations listed in Activity 24.  How might different people react to 

these situations?  What might their reactions be based on?  If a friend found him or herself 

in one of these situations, what advice would you offer? 


As a group, discuss some of the strategies you might use when faced with a situation similar 

to the ones in this activity.  Is there always a right or wrong way to respond?  Are there 

certain things you should always try to do?  If so, what are they?  

Journaling Activity

Think about how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you.  Do you think both are 

the same?  Explain. What are some things you can you do to change others’ perception of 


Extension Activity

Use Google Images (or a similar search engine) to locate different posters or illustrations of 

perception vs. reality.  Print them out and offer reasoning as to why perceptions and 

realities might not always be the same.


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Activity 24 - Perception Vs. Reality



 Your boss is talking to another employee as you walk into work.  You have reason to believe they 

are talking about you.  This makes you feel uncomfortable and upset.


 A close friend gets to go on a senior trip, all expenses paid.  You are jealous that this friend does 

not have to pay a dime – his or her parents are paying for everything.  You consider not going 

because you have to pay for part of your trip and do not think it is fair. 


 At work, you developed a new way to organize the filing system that makes it easier for the 

office staff to find documents.  You think your supervisor is going to take all the credit.


 You are a nurse.  The patient you are working with is ungrateful and rude, is always finding fault 

in everything you do, and is making your life miserable.


Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 


25.  Tell Me About a Time When...


Thinking on your feet is an important part of getting and keeping a job.  

Interviewers will often ask “behavioral” questions in addition to technical questions about actual job 

skills.  Often times, these open-ended questions will begin with, “Tell me about a time when….”  Being 

prepared for these types of questions – and having a plan for answering them – is an important skill.  

The purpose of this lesson is to introduce a strategy that participants can use to answer these types of 

questions calmly and effectively.  


30 minutes



   Activity 25 (one for each participant)


Ask participants the following questions:

1.   Who has been on a job interview?

2.   What types of questions were you asked?

3.   Were you ever asked questions that started with, “Tell me about a time when you…?”

Discuss with participants that many of today’s employers ask certain types of questions to see 

how well people can think on their feet.  Sometimes these questions are easy to answer and 

other times, not so much.  There is a strategy to use called STAR to help guide you through 

the process of answering these questions in a clear and complete way.  Use the description on 

Activity 25 to describe this technique.  Before asking participants to work on their own 

answers, use the following as an example of how the method works.

Question:  Tell me about a time when you provided customer service to an upset client.

S - (Situation/Task) 

I was volunteering as an office assistant in the payroll department of a local nonprofit 

organization.  An angry employee came to my desk and explained that his check amount was 

too low and that he wasn’t able to pay rent on time because of the mistake.

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A - (Action)

I promised the man that I would work with him to figure out what happened and what 

could be done. I compared the payroll records logbook with the computer payroll database.  

I discovered a data error, which explained the incorrect amount.  I explained what 

happened and was able to put in a request to give the man a check for his missing balance. 


R - (Result)

The employee thanked me and even asked to speak with my supervisor about how helpful I 


Offer participants the opportunity to work with one or a few peers.  Encourage them to 

practice answering these questions and learning from each other.  The more these types of 

questions are practiced, the easier they will be in an actual work or college interview. 


What was the easiest part of this activity?  What was the most difficult part of this activity?  

How might you practice the STAR technique?  Do you think it would be worth practicing?  

Why or why not?

Journaling Activity

Part of learning how to answer behavioral questions using the STAR method is recognizing 

your own skills and the areas where you have improved.   Do you feel comfortable talking 

about your skills? If yes, how did you reach this level of comfort?  If no, how can you learn 

to develop this level of comfort?

Extension Activity

Arrange for participants to meet with a series of employers for mock interviews.  Ask 

employers to use a sampling of the behavioral interview questions they use most 

frequently when interviewing potential candidates. Part of self-improvement is self-

reflection.  How can you use this activity to improve your soft skills overall? 


Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success 


Activity 25. Tell me About a Time When...

Use the STAR strategy below to guide you in answering the sample interview questions, “Tell me about 

a time when you…”

Situation (or Task):  Describe the situation that you were in or the task that needed to be 

accomplished.  Be specific and give enough detail so that the interviewer understands.  The situation 

could be from a previous job, a volunteer experience, school, or another relevant environment.

Action you took:  Describe the action you took.  Be sure to keep the focus on you!  Even if you’re 

discussing a group project or effort, talk about what YOU did – not the efforts of the entire team.  

Don’t say what you might do or what you might have done.  Say what you DID.

Results you achieved:  What happened?  How did the event end?  What did you accomplish?  What did 

you learn?


      …did not agree with a teacher or supervisor?  How did you handle the situation? 

      …were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone to see things your way. 

      …were faced with a stressful situation that demonstrated your coping skills.

      …used good judgment and logic to solve a problem.

      …set a goal and were able to meet or achieve it.

      …had to conform to a policy with which you did not agree.

      …had too many things to do and were required to prioritize your tasks.

      … were able to successfully deal with another person even when that individual may not have 

personally liked you (or vice versa).

      …tried to accomplish something and failed.

      …had to deal with a very upset customer or co-worker.

      …you motivated others.


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