A Coach-Like Selection Interview: Assessing Behavior

By Robert Hicks, PhD
November 1, 2016

There are guidelines that physician leaders can follow to help gauge whether a job candidate’s demeanor is a good match for their organizations.

Coaching has many purposes, but helping people change their behaviors is at the top of the list. Generally, the motivation to change is driven by an individual’s desire to become more productive personally or professionally. However, there are instances where people are not behaving in accordance with what their job requires and coaching is an intervention to promote needed change to avoid unwanted consequences.

Behavioral issues, not the lack of intellect, motivation or technical competence, often are the reason that many professionals find their jobs in jeopardy. As a leader, the more you can ensure that people are behaviorally matched to their jobs through the selection process, the better chances of success they will have. Then coaching can be a developmental activity as opposed to a remedial endeavor. 

Any job has two sets of requirements:

Technical — professional knowledge and skill requirements.

Behavioral — personality characteristics and behaviors needed for success.

Assessing personality traits is an area where many physician leaders falter. Of course, if the person being considered for a job is a known quantity, it may not be a matter of assessing the personality characteristics as much as failing to consider the behavioral requirements of the job as a part of the decision criteria for selection. 

For this article, let’s assume that the individual being consider (or courted) for the job is an outsider and his or her behavioral attributes must be ascertained, at least in part, from the interviewing process.

Here are a few guidelines to follow: 


Words don’t have meaning, people do. If you are interviewing a candidate and the candidate asserts, ”I’m dedicated to building a team” it is common to assume that the meaning of that statement is obvious. However, in selection interviewing you cannot afford to assume anything; you need to ensure that you understand. 

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An accurate interpretation of what another person is saying depends on understanding the meaning of their words from their point of view. Suppose that I told you that I don’t like working in a system where administrators interfere with my department. That statement will have a particular meaning for me given my experience, expectations and values. In other words, it means something only within the personal context I bring to it. But what does it mean to you? That will depend on your experience, expectations and values. In other words, your context. If we share a similar context, we will have a shared interpretation and mutual understanding of what is said. If not, then we will be using the same words but referring to something different. To understand the candidate from his or her frame of reference, apply the following coaching practices in your interviews:

Withhold judgment. Most of us are so confident that we understand the meaning of what a candidate is saying that we spend time evaluating what was said rather than exploring their words. It is standard practice for interviewers to make evaluations of a candidate while they are simultaneously conducting the interview. Although some assessment of the candidate will come naturally during the interview, the most accurate assessments occur after the interview when you have the time to go over the data without the pressure of simultaneously conducting the interview. It will require most of your attention constructing a line of questioning that will provide insight into a candidate’s personality. Therefore, it is almost impossible to do an adequate job of collecting information about the person while evaluating its relevance at the same time. The behavioral interview is for learning about the person; evaluation comes later. 

Clarify their narrative. Candidates are often vague with their statements. If the candidate were to say, “I like working as part of a team,” their declaration contains several unanswered questions. What do they like about working in a team? What does teamwork look like in this person’s mind? How does the candidate behave as part of a team? Do they need to work with a team all of the time at the expense of their independence? Are there times that they find team-based projects frustrating? You’ll never understand the person’s frame of reference for that statement until such questions are answered; and, until you know the answers, you won’t gain insight into his or her personality and potential behavior on the job. Clarifying a person’s narrative is a key objective during coaching and should remain so during a selection interview. 


The behavioral interview is designed to understand the candidate as a person. The standard practice for getting to know most candidates is to take them to dinner to interact with them in an informal setting. The problem is that any intelligent candidate will be on his or her best behavior during that time. Furthermore, in such a setting you will only see a slice of their behavior. Anybody can behave a particular way for a short period. To add to your knowledge about the personality of the person (besides administering a behaviorally based assessment) set aside time to interview the person with the sole purpose of focusing on retrieving examples of how he or she behaves in a variety of situations. This practice will help you discern patterns of behavior that will give you some idea of what to expect on the job. If possible, keep the behavioral interview separate from other interviews, such the technical/professional interview or the “selling the candidate on the job or organization” interview. 

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Get behavioral examples. A fundamental premise of the behavioral interview is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Therefore, during the interviewing process, press for specific examples that illustrate what people are saying about themselves. You want the candidate to describe the actions, speech and thoughts that occurred in the situation he or she is referencing. I sometimes describe it as obtaining a “verbal replay” of an event that will illuminate the thinking and personality of the person. This practice is especially important when a candidate uses a behavioral adjective or phrase to describe him or herself, e.g. “I am pretty good at dealing with political situations.” Trust, but verify! 

Spontaneity is essential. A question that is often asked by interviewers is, “How can I trust what the person is telling me?” This concern is valid because candidates are usually prepared for “checklist” questions such as, “Tell me about a Physician Leadership Journal 63 time you successfully dealt with a difficult person.” However, the most trustworthy behavioral examples are derived from unplanned and unfiltered statements. For example, suppose a candidate arbitrarily says, “My CMO always believes she has the answers, and it’s hard to change her point of view.” If this is an unsolicited comment, it provides an excellent opportunity to obtain a behavioral example of how the candidate deals with someone who has a fixed point of view. The point is, pre-planned questions are okay, but the most reliable answers come from questions that are created from the candidate’s spontaneous remarks. 

Listen and ask questions 90 percent; share your thoughts, 10 percent. Research shows that most interviewers will talk 60 percent to 80 percent of the time. They become engrossed in telling the candidate about the job, the organization, or even talking shop if the job is in a technical area in which they are interested. Naturally, the more you talk, the less you learn about the candidate. Just as with coaching, listening and inquiry is crucial. 

Listening, clarifying, understanding and asking for examples are fundamental practices when it comes to coaching. These same practices can be used in a behavioral selection interview to help determine the personality match to the job. It’s just a matter of focusing on their behavioral history in addition to their professional history. 

Robert Hicks, PhD, is clinical professor of organizational behavior and founding director of the Executive Coaching Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. He also holds an appointment as faculty associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center and is the author of Coaching as a Leadership Style: The Art and Science of Coaching Conversations for Healthcare Professionals.


Topics: Career Planning Journal

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