The interviewers who use this question like to try to assess multiple different aspects of your on-the-job behavior at once. Since this is a delicate question, it gives equal insight into your temperament, communication skills, ability to assess others, and loyalty.
Make sure to find an answer that reflects well on all those things and you will stand out as a strong candidate.
Just remember to keep your answer focused on the goal, which is always showing how you are going to fit well into this company and this role.
Points to Emphasize
Use these as touchstones to shape your answer, and that way you can keep it focused and moving forward.
- Round out the evaluation, so that it gives the hiring manager insight into both the positive and the negative traits of your old boss in a rounded way.
- Focus all criticism, positive and negative, on aspects of the performance that can be measured for improvement or easily cross-referenced in the same way.
- Keep in mind the need for different approaches in the workplace, and acknowledge how your supervisor tailored their approach to their specific role.
- Remember that 'what you think' will reflect where you see yourself. If you want to lead, then assess their effectiveness from the point of view of the results they show for the company.
Mistakes You Should Avoid
Here are some areas to steer around as you plan your answer.
- Never criticize personal habits when you could be focused on higher-priority aspects of someone's performance.
- Remember that there are multiple ways to accomplish goals, and be sure your process-oriented critiques point to measurable shortcomings and not personal preferences.
- Wherever you can, avoid making assumptions. This includes assumptions about motivations.
- Don't reignite old grudges, no matter how strong they were. If your last experience wasn't positive, at least you can say it's over.
Here's one way to handle this question without coming off as too strong or as uncritical.
I didn't really get along with my last boss, but he got results and he respected the quality of my work, and that's what's important. We learned that the best way to work together was to stay on task, and he was that way with just about everyone, so no one thought he was playing favorites. I prefer to work with people who are more flexible, but the fact that I was not micromanaged and I was free to find my own approach to the tasks I was given was great.
Even less positive experiences can show that you are thinking objectively and strategically if you shape them right.