How to Handle Obnoxious People in Power

A reader recently asked if I would write an article about how to handle obnoxious people in power. So, to start, I wanted to find out what we mean when we call someone obnoxious. Is it a person who throws their weight around? Do they try to “one up” others? Are they arrogant or inconsiderate? (All the way from Colorado Springs, I can see your heads nodding now – yes, yes and yes.)

How to Deal with Obnoxious People in Power by Laura Benjamin

(Photo credit: Eric Schickler Photography)

Webster’s definition is this: behavior that is annoying or objectionable due to being a showoff or attracting undue attention to oneself.

I figured there may be more to it than that, so I asked the stylists in my hairdresser’s shop today. They see tons of people and have a common sense perspective on human behavior. (Of course, I’m a little ray of sunshine and a breath of fresh air when I walk in there, but others, maybe not so much.)

They said, “People who talk too loud. It seems like they want everyone to hear what they’re saying and it makes it hard for us to have conversations with our clients.”

That got me started. So I came up with my own list of obnoxious behaviors, but it’s not exhaustive, so feel free to add your “favorites” in the comments at the bottom of this page.


People who…

    1. engage in the “cell yell” where they talk so loud on their phone that everyone around them gets to hear all the gory details of their conversation
    2. tell you they’re open for a meeting anytime in the coming week and then every date/time you offer won’t work for them
    3. don’t say thank you when you hold a door open for them
    4. take forever to order at a fast food place because they’re calculating how many pennies they’ll save from ordering a la carte versus getting the meal deal
    5. consistently say “maybe” when you ask if they’d like to do something or go somewhere and don’t offer any alternative to your suggestion
    6. squeeze into the revolving door space you’re in with their luggage rather than wait for the next opening
    7. splash water all over the restroom counter and don’t wipe it up so your shirt gets wet when you stand at the sink and have no place to put your purse down
    8. won’t move forward in line (either standing or in their car) and let a large gap exist when there are many people standing behind them – there’s something about seeing forward momentum that makes people happy
    9. throw trash out their car window
    10. pull out a million coupons at the grocery store (It’s always when you have ice cream in your cart)
    11. blast the bass through their car speakers so you can feel your heart vibrate
    12. wander onto the shoulder of the road and spit gravel into your windshield so it cracks
    13. drive slower than traffic in the passing lane when they should (and could) move over
    14. ignore the sign to merge two lanes into one, pass everyone who did merge and then expect someone to let them in at the last minute
    15. pull into the campground at 1am and make tons of noise setting up
    16. wait to complain about a meal until the last bite, then expect their dinner to be free
    17. ride bicycles side by side on a two lane road with no shoulder and heavy traffic
    18. consistently keep people waiting because their time is much more important than yours
    19. take your parking spot when you have your blinker on – here’s a classic scene of revenge in a video clip from the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes

Bet you’re wondering how I could come up with so many reasons to get bent out of shape. Okay, I’ll simmer down, but I think we should call ‘em as we see ‘em and get clear on what disrespectful behaviors cause us the most frustration. We should also try to understand the reasons why obnoxious people do the things they do.

Our ultimate freedom is the right and power to decide how anybody or anything outside ourselves will affect us. ~Stephen Covey


People who are obnoxious often want to have power or influence over others. It can come from a deep-seated sense of insecurity. Maybe they grew up with few choices, were bullied or abused. So these behaviors are their way to get control over their life. They could also be people who…

  1. never learned how to show confidence and mistakenly feel that over-the-top assertiveness illustrates competence and self-worth
  2. are impulsive about most things and don’t realize their impulsivity may be interpreted as selfishness
  3. have been rejected, disappointed, overlooked or underestimated in the past and vow not to let it happen again
  4. find that bravado, a big show, flash, glitz and aggressiveness are often admired by others. They’ve seen people get rewarded for it and use that approach as their default.
  5. may have a physiological issue that impacts social skills. While most of us are not qualified to diagnose anyone’s medial condition, we should be aware that some behaviors are a result of genes or trauma. Through no fault of their own, they wage a daily battle to regain control over themselves. You may happen to be collateral damage.
  6. want to cause you harm – no bones about it, they ARE out to get you. You could have done or said something to provoke them or you look like a coach or teacher who wasn’t kind.

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”  ~Mahatma Gandhi


It’s hard enough to deal with these behaviors, but when the person has power over us, it makes it doubly difficult to cope. They may control your paycheck or the quality of a product or project where your reputation is on the line. They may be a relative. No matter who they are, you need survival skills before you do or say something destructive. So take one or more of these action steps to cope and hopefully turn things around:

1. Ask for their advice. It can take them by surprise because most people will push them away, ignore them or retaliate. This approach may require all the self-control you can muster, but it can pay off big time when they realize you’re not a threat and they’ve not gotten under your skin. Instead of an adversary, they may start to see you as an ally. Here’s a great book by Bob Burg on how to turn adversaries into allies. 

2. Say, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be X (hurtful, disrespectful, dismissive, etc.) when you said/did X.” Danger: don’t follow up that phrase with the word “but” because it’ll put them on the defensive. Your goal is to let them know the impact of what they’ve said or done while giving them the benefit of the doubt regarding their intent. By saying you understand they couldn’t have possibly meant their words or actions to have that affect, you’re letting them save face.

3. Say, “It would help me out a lot if you’d do/say X next time. That way I’ll be able to do Y.” By stating the preferable actions, words and behaviors you’d like to see and saying why it’s important, you give them a constructive approach to get better outcomes. Too often we know we don’t like what someone is saying or doing, but we we fail to be specific about better behaviors. And that leaves people knowing they did something wrong but without an example of what to do differently.


We’ve looked at examples of obnoxious behavior, reasons why people may do the things they do, and respectful strategies you can use with anyone, especially people in power. You can be assertive in a non-threatening way. And more importantly, you don’t have to ignore something that’s keeping you up at night. When we feel some control over circumstances, it can reduce our stress levels and improve our personal performance.


Stop Saying That’s Just the Way I Am

How to Recover When You Say Something Stupid

Does Your Difficult Boss Need a Jerk-o-Meter?


  1. Thanks for this topic, Laura! We discuss this phenomenon at home all the time. I don’t see these as obnoxious power plays as much as I see it as complete oblivion. The common denominator for almost all of the things you mentioned is total OBLIVIOUSNESS! So many people today just don’t see outside of themselves or get out of their heads long enough to know that they are doing these things. I think very few of these people have the “I don’t care” or “I’m more important” perspective. Everyone’s in our own little world.

    My big pet peeve is when I’m on a plane and the person next to me stretches out to full wing span and takes up both arm rests and then some, so I am forced to sit like a punished child with my hands in my lap for the entire flight.Some people have no idea how much space they take up, and I’m not talking about the size of a person, it’s about USE of space.

    I don’t think these things only happen with people in power positions, but to everyone; neighbors, friends, colleagues, etc. But I do I think people in a leadership role have a greater responsibility to be aware of their impact on others. But then really, shouldn’t we all?

    I’d like to add another tip: Most people are starving for kudos. Give the person a genuine compliment and see how far that gets you! 🙂

    • Hi Cindy, really great points and very important final tip you offered! I agree most people don’t have a vindictive bone in their body but either haven’t been taught or never learned good interpersonal skills, respect for others, etc. Oblivious to the world around them and space they share with others is a common cause. My “favorite” airplane experience is also the folks who kick the back of the chair in front of them, jostling the person around. We could have a very long list indeed! Thank you for your comment Cindy!