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posted: 3/11/2012 7:41 AM

What to do with know-it-all assistant

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My previous column responded to a worker who thought she was being targeted by a boss who had it in for "successful, outgoing females."

As promised, the other side of the coin:

Q: I'm a new manager and am finding the process challenging. While I supervise a team, I did not hire them, and I don't have the ability to fire them. We all report to the same supervisor; however, I'm the "team lead," so I direct most of the projects. My issue is I don't feel respected by the project assistant. She's a great worker and very intelligent; however, she's in her early 20s. I get the impression that she often second-guesses my direction or decisions. While I appreciate all feedback from team members, her communication style is very upfront and borderline rude. I didn't speak to supervisors that way when I was her age. I also feel that she tries to tell me how to do my job. It's evident she thinks she could do a better job than I can.

What statements can I make when she's out of line? I've stopped responding to emails in which I feel I have to justify any decision to her.

A: Ah, to be 23 and know everything. How I miss it.

What we have here is a clash between two people who may be feeling pressure to prove themselves. The trick is to avoid crossing the line from confidence into arrogance.

What's the difference? Confidence says, "I can do anything." Arrogance says, "I am the only one who can do anything." Remember that there's a reason why you are the team lead. You have the experience to make the trains run on time and on budget. You're smart to seek input, but the final decisions are yours.

Why am I telling you what you already know? Because you need to be radiating confidence that you are the person for this job.

Which brings us to your snarky sidekick. She may be fresh from an academic environment that rewarded in-your-face bluntness, or she may just be lacking in soft skills. If you shut down dialogue, you will likely confirm in her mind that she's right. As with a Chinese finger puzzle, you may need to move toward her to get her to loosen up.

If she cuts you off in front of a group, ask her to hold the thought and bring it up with you after the meeting. After you've heard her out in private, you can say, "Thanks, that's a good suggestion, but I prefer to stick with my plan in this case" -- or, if she makes a good point, consider trying it her way, and give her credit when due. If the rudeness gets out of hand, you don't have to huff and puff and blow her down. Instead, address her -- cutting her short on the spot, if need be -- with the quiet assurance of someone who is in charge: "I don't pretend to have all the answers, but my decisions are based on years of experience. I welcome respectful dissent, but you should start from the assumption that I have a reason for doing things my way."

Finally, if you can't beat 'em, co-opt 'em. Is there a minor project you can put her in charge of, to handle as she pleases? That could lighten your load, help her start earning the respect she craves -- and keep her too busy to kibitz. And maybe, just maybe, she'll see how much harder it is to call the plays from the field than from the sidelines.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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