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How to Measure Communication Skills in the Hiring Process

June 13, 2018


I don’t know that many healthcare professionals would immediately consider communication as being at the very top of the list of traditionally valued skills, but maybe that’s changing. It might be changing because in today’s complex healthcare world, all of the more traditionally valued skills are useless if you can’t communicate effectively.

We just completed a round of meetings with senior leaders, directors, managers, and front-line staff at a mid-sized health system. This is an urban safety net system that is struggling with the same challenges as other, similar, organizations. 

Our task is to build a model and vision for the behavioral skills that matter most – the skills upon which we’ll build the selection, development, performance management, and succession planning tools and processes.

As you can imagine, much of these discussions focused on key attributes like:

  • Commitment to the mission

  • Service-orientation

  • Problem-solving skills

  • Adaptability

  • Innovation

It was inspiring to hear that successful team members MUST love the mission and MUST be able to do more with less.  As one pharmacist put it, “You’d better love the challenge of taking on seemingly unsolvable problems.”  With limited resources and the need for extreme team work and collaboration, one skill kept coming up – and coming up in different contexts:  Communication

Why Does Communication Matter?

The groups pointed out several ways where communication is critical:

  • Staff need to be effective advocates for patients.

  • Despite the business challenges, senior leaders need to effectively communicate how much the mission, patients, and staff, still matter.

  • The organization, leaders and managers, need to deliver well-crafted messages, consistently. Communication errors can be devastating to morale and employee engagement. 

  • Leaders and managers need to be effective at communicating to the staff the “why” of important decisions.

  • Directors need to communicate amongst each other to solve problems, in a supportive manner.

  • Daily communication – written and oral, between physicians, nurses, and front-line staff are critical to effective patient care.

  • Providers and staff need to be effective communicators with a patient population who often struggle with limited language skills, limited resources, and a limited understanding of the health system.

Research supports what these participants are seeing. A recent study revealed that communication errors were linked to nearly 2,000 patient deaths and $1.7 billion in malpractice costs over a 5 year period.

Similarly, a study at the University of California, San Francisco, found more than a quarter of hospital readmissions could be avoided with better communication among healthcare teams, and between providers and patients.

Research has also shown strong, positive relationships between a healthcare team member’s communication skills and a patient’s capacity to follow through with medical recommendations, self-manage a chronic medical condition, and adopt preventive health behaviors.

Related: Research Shows that Better Communication Equals Better Care

More broadly, effective communication helps an organization manage change, and create the culture it needs. For instance, effective communication can foster psychological safety which promotes a culture where people are empowered to contribute in constructive ways.

Communication is a Broad Concept

Communication covers a broad array of concepts, problems, and skills:

  • At the organizational level, you can examine the way leadership communicates to the community, to patients, and to staff.

  • It covers the effective use of communication tools, technology, and processes.

  • The basics of clarity, composure, choosing the right message, and the right vehicle.

  • Body language, communicating respect, and being open to new ideas.

  • The ability to communicate, effectively, to different audiences.

  • The importance of informal communication – how leaders interact with staff in the elevator.

  • Not just delivering a message, but engaging in dialogue, which requires the ability to listen, and a level of emotional intelligence.

  • Written communication skills are often overlooked: The structure, tone and wording of emails, texts, reports, and even PowerPoint presentations.

How Do You Evaluate the Communication Skills of Candidates?

How do you improve communication? The first place to start is the hiring processIf communication is predictive of success, you should be evaluating candidate communication skills – and not just at the leadership level.  You need a patient care technician or nursing assistant who is willing and able to communicate effectively with nurses, nurses with physicians, and so on.

I asked Laurie Wasko, Ph.D, and Director of Consulting for Select to weigh in.  Laurie’s team helps leading healthcare organizations build efficient and effective systems to evaluate candidates. Here’s what she said:

There are a few different ways we can measure communication in the hiring process.

First, define what you mean by communication. Then think about the position level, your applicant population, volume, etc., and then identify the resources you have for the hiring process.  You can use that information to identify the best measurement method to evaluate communication skills, considering time, and resource constraints.   

  • Want to measure impact? How articulate someone is? Confidence and poise? These things are observable and can be measured in a phone screen, an interview, or onsite presentation.

  • Want to measure communication as it pertains to customer service or emotional intelligence in human interaction?  – Situational judgment questions are a good measurement method here, or perhaps situational challenge interview items (asking “what would you do” vs. “tell me about a time”).  For higher level roles, a role play might be more appropriate.

  • Simple grammar and punctuation skills and command of written English? A simple writing assessment might do the trick.

How Do You Improve Communication Skills?

As “communication skills” covers so much ground, you need to understand where the gaps are to begin addressing them. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Incorporate it into Educational Programs. There needs to be more focus on effective communication during nursing and medical school. Recent efforts to integrate concepts like emotional intelligence are a good start. I did some teaching of graduate level clinicians where we taught basic group communication and facilitation skills – as part of routine interactive classes on more traditional topics. We received feedback that when these clinicians entered their field, they were, indeed, far beyond their peers in their ability communicate effectively.

  2. Recognize the Importance. This seems obvious, but not all organizations recognize they have a problem. Even if they hear it from staff, they dismiss it – assuming that it’s too vague to address or simply not a priority. The best organizations consistently evaluate the effectiveness of their communication, at all levels, and in all contexts. Make it a daily priority, ingrained in what you do - NOT a program.

  3. Formal training. I know I just said it’s not about a program – but there is, definitely, a role for effective formal training. Our group has found great value, recently in a program called Fierce. Training needs to consider broader communication strategies, effective meetings, interpersonal communication, written communication, and even the most effective use of email.

  4. Model, Coach, and Mentor. Even the best formal training is wasted, though, if you don’t build a culture of effective communication. This happens when leaders model good communication skills and coach and mentor their teams, on a daily basis. Not a day goes by that someone on our team doesn’t ask for feedback on something as simple as a client email – “Is there a better way to say this?” “Does this set the right tone?” Similarly, good teams tend to provide constant feedback on communication efforts.

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Bryan Warren Bryan Warren is the President of J3 Personica, a consulting, assessment, training, and coaching firm, and a guest blogger for PSI. Bryan is an expert in progressive talent strategies, with a particular focus on leader and physician selection and development.