Didn’t Get the Job? Here’s How to Win When You Lose

Rather than complaining, show initiative by trying to improve yourself at a time when many would withdraw.

You really worked hard, polished your resume and beefed up your interview skills to get the new position. Then you found out you were passed over for the job. You thought you surely were the best candidate, and it’s a big disappointment as you try and figure out what happened. It’s especially awkward and challenging when you applied for a position within your institution and now have to work with the chosen person, potentially as your new boss.

No one wants to lose. But you can grow the most by losing if you truly take the time to critically examine yourself and your flaws.

Physicians and other highly skilled professionals are goal-driven and often take disappointment hard; we all are highly competitive by nature, because these behaviors are selected out by the very process that allowed us to become physicians in the first place. It’s hard to get into medical school, and admissions committees self-select based on high individual achievement (excellent grades, high MCAT scores, great letters of recommendation, etc.). The competition continues in medical school to get good residencies (USMLE scores, letters, etc.).

Failure is not taught to be an option, so it’s natural that we have difficulty dealing with it. And most physicians have had success during their early careers (or they would not have become doctors), and this is often the first taste of not obtaining a desired goal.

Have you ever been any of these people? 

  • Bill, a 39-year old hospitalist, was not picked for the newly created inpatient medical director role. It went to Stan, a more seasoned practitioner who does not have the same robust academic credentials. Yet, Stan was widely regarded as more personable and a better networker with the doctors. Bill had conflicts with Stan in his new role, and eventually went to a competing institution across town.
  • Christina, a 43-year old anesthesiologist, recently lost a board election at her national society meeting. She thought she was the leading candidate, but was extremely disappointed when the final tally came in. She believed that her academic credentials alone would carry her but didn’t spend much time getting to know many of her constituent colleagues. She left the society soon after.
  • Alice, a 43-year old academic internist, found out she did not get the assistant dean position for which she had applied. The position went to another woman, whom she perceived had inferior credentials and less experience. This was the second such position she had not obtained; she decided to quit her position at the university and go work as a higher-paid community internist. 

All of you probably know one of these three people or have been one of them yourself. It’s tough, but ask yourself: Were you really the best candidate? It’s easy to say someone played favorites or it was all “due to politics,” and politics may have played a role, but what are the facts? Imagine you are one of these candidates, and it’s easy to have sour grapes about not getting the position but try to look at it objectively. 

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How could you have interviewed or presented yourself better? My guess is no matter how well you think you did, you could have done better.

Do you have a positive leadership image? It’s not so much about your physical characteristics as your communicative ability and interpersonal behavior patterns.  Here are several characteristics that contribute to positive leadership image:1

  • Values in action: Team player, integrity, puts others before self.
  • Interpersonal behavior: Genuineness, respect, value of others.
  • Demeanor: Confident, composed, authoritative.
  • Communications: Articulate, appropriate vocal quality, makes self heard.
  • Intellect/expertise: Analytical skills, vision, domain knowledge.
  • Interpersonal skills: Connects easily and has good rapport with people.
  • Outcome deliverability: Energy; takes responsibility for outcomes.
  • Status/reputation: Role, networks, achievements, reputation.
  • Physical characteristics: Grooming/dress; stature; body language.
  • Power use: Extent the person uses his/her power (fear, enforcement).

Look at these qualities objectively: are you the best you can be in all of them? None of us can be perfect in all aspects, but you can always improve. Work with an executive coach to improve your greeting, interpersonal skills, etc.  

Don’t Sulk 

Disappointment is natural, but sulking isn’t going to get you very far.

Get some objective advice from a mentor who can realistically size up your abilities and comment on how you might have improved your candidacy. Also try and solicit feedback from the decision-maker in the process (e.g., selection committee chair) to see what the issues were. While this may seem awkward, what do you have to lose?

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Rather than complaining that you didn’t get the job, you are showing initiative by trying to improve yourself at a time when many would withdraw from such discussions. There will be other opportunities down the road, and chances are some of the same folks will be on the next search committee.

What additional training or experience could you have obtained (management courses, advanced management degree) that would have made you stand out more as a candidate? What did the successful candidate have that you didn’t?

RELATED: What Attributes Do Organizations Seek in Future Physician Leaders?

Did you take something for granted? Your personal appearance? Maybe you could have dressed a little better. Did you do everything you could have done to ace the interview? Did you have a good set of questions for your interviewers that showed proper preparation and interest in the position and institution?

Maybe you did all these things right, and still didn’t succeed. Perhaps the best candidate won; or maybe that’s not the case. In any event, you can’t change history and have to go forward either way. As they say, life isn’t always fair.

If you work at the same institution, be a gracious loser. No one wants to see a petulant, angry person walking the corridors being the person everyone wants to avoid. Being positive in the face of disappointment, as hard as it may be, is a chance to show your character to those who may be decision-makers next time. 


No one wants to lose. But I would say that you can grow the most by losing if you truly take the time to critically examine yourself and your flaws. Anyone who has never lost an election, not gotten a job, etc., probably hasn’t tried very hard or set the bar sufficiently high. On the other hand, sulking and complaining about your fate is going to result in regression, lack of self-improvement and the same outcome next time.

RELATED: Successfully Interviewing Candidates for Physician Positions Requires Preparation, Planning

Winning at everything isn’t going to make you improve yourself professionally. Don’t consider not getting the position a failure; it’s an opportunity to grow and become better in all aspects of your professional life. Look candidly at your credentials and think of how you could have handled the situation better so that you can have a different outcome next time. John Maxwell, in his book Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn maintains that many of life’s greatest lessons are gained from our losses.2

You can get something positive out of such an experience. You might not succeed again the next time, either, but if you don’t take this unique opportunity to improve yourself, you surely never will. If you view the primary goal to be improving yourself rather than getting the job, you will put yourself in the best mindset to succeed.

Matthew Neal, MD, MBA, CPE, FACP, FACE, is executive medical director of academic affairs at Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Hospital, and assistant dean for educational affairs and faculty development and clinical professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine in Muncie, Indiana. He also is a member of the Physician Leadership Journal's editorial board. 


  1. Dagley, GR; Executive Presence: Influence Beyond Authority. Australian Health Resources Institute, 2013.
  2. Maxwell, JC; Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn. Boston, Center Street Publishers, 2013.


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