Ask Alexis | My Previous Supervisor Never Offered Critical Feedback

women talking at work

Dear Ask Alexis,

I was reviewing your article on Interview Q&A | “What are Your Greatest Professional Strengths and Weaknesses?”. I found it very good, and my basic response is that my weakness is that I never completely learned a second language but I’m using software and online resources to brush up, or the same thing with quantitative analysis (neither of which are part of the job description in question when I offer this “weakness”).

I recently had an interview and the question was phrased differently: what would my supervisor say are my strengths and weaknesses? Strengths are easy, but I can’t say my supervisors are aware of my studies in Spanish or statistics. My last supervisor never pointed out a weakness to me in feedback so I’m not sure what to say if this comes up again.

Any advice would be appreciated!

Regards,

Stumped

***

Dear Stumped,

I’m sorry to hear that you never received any negative or constructive feedback from you previous supervisor. While you may have been a superstar employee, by withholding (or simply not prioritizing) constructive feedback, your supervisor did you a disservice.

However, if you find yourself in this situation, you’ll still need to offer a close-to-honest assessment of what your supervisor would have named as a professional weakness. Without genuine constructive feedback to share—and since I would agree that not having learned a second language is not a fit here—I would suggest getting more honest with yourself and taking a guess at what a supervisor or colleague might say.

Consider some of the questions below as you brainstorm your weaknesses:

  • Do you tend to clam up during brainstorming sessions and other staff meetings?
  • Do you have a habit of sending out emails before rereading?
  • Do you dive into the details while your team is still focused on the big picture?
  • Do you get caught up in the big picture, foregoing all the details?

Pick an area in which you truly want to improve and develop your skills and use that in your response.

For example, you could say: “Unfortunately, my supervisor didn’t offer much constructive feedback, but if I had to identify one area where I see room for growth…” and that’s where you share what you have identified as your weakness. But don’t forgot to note what you are currently doing to work on this weakness. The key is still to illustrate your ability to acknowledge an area in which you need to grow as well as your willingness to do the work.

Ask to hear the bad stuff, too

Moving forward, you should make it a priority for your professional development to get the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to feedback from your supervisor.

While positive feedback has its own place in the office—building morale, creating and nurturing a positive relationship, honest commendation when it’s due—negative feedback also serves an important purpose by offering us insight into where we have room to grow, challenge ourselves, and improve.

It’s important that you broach the subject with your supervisor and find a way to include that constructive feedback in your regular check-ins (when appropriate and relevant). While it can be difficult to just come out and ask to hear the bad stuff, you can implement a simple 1×1 or 2×2 protocol (arguably more productive and genuine than the dreaded feedback sandwich). The 2×2 system one is way to ensure that managers and staff members talk regularly about how things are going in their work. Here’s how to put it to work:

  • The manager and the staff member each fill out two things she is doing well and two things she could do better, as well as two things the other person is doing well and two things that could be better.
  • For the staff member, the focus is on her performance overall; for the manager, the focus is on her work with this staff member.
  • You might build a quarterly meeting around this form, or you could incorporate it occasionally in your check-ins with your supervisor.

If you don’t work in a culture of 360 feedback, you may want to drop the part in which you offer your positive and negative feedback to your supervisor and just focus on getting what you need from them. If you already plan an agenda for your check-ins, include a discussion of this exercise in your next meeting so that you and your supervisor are both clear on how to use this protocol and why you’d like implement it (perhaps on a quarterly or annual basis). Check out The Management Center for more on this method and other helpful tools for managing (and managing up).

***

Send your questions and comments to me at AskAlexis@idealist.org, and if we plan to publish your question, I’ll be sure to give you a heads up (and I’ll also be sure to keep your info anonymous, of course).

Looking forward to reading your stories and answering your questions!

 

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As a seasoned communications professional with 15 years of nonprofit experience and 6 years of experience creating engaging content and copy, I love the idea that a thoughtfully crafted piece of content can spark social change. Here at Idealist Careers, I'm eager to offer job seekers, game changers, and do-gooders actionable tips, career resources, and "social-impact lifestyle" advice.
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