Office politics are just as toxic in the work-from-home era

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Rumour spreading, excessive flattery toward bosses most common upsetting behaviours workers witnessed

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The gossip. The suck-up. The bully.

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Workplaces have been home to these toxic personalities since the beginning of work, and a new survey has found the problem persists in the hybrid world in which employees can be in-person or virtual. About half the 800 United States workers surveyed say the negative effects of office politics have stayed the same in the COVID era, while another 25 per cent say they expect the disruptive behaviour to get worse before it gets better.

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“Work is different today, so office politics is emerging in different ways,” said Dana Sumpter, an associate professor of organization theory and management at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School, who co-authored the research. “When you’re working remotely, it’s more difficult to get quality time with managers. So people might resort to sucking up to get that attention.”

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More than one-third of the surveyed workers said rumour spreading and excessive flattery toward bosses were the most common upsetting behaviours they witnessed, followed by blame-gaming, backstabbing and credit snatching. Rounding out the list were bullying and sabotaging. Half of those polled said they felt pressured to engage in such behaviours, and one in four has quit a job over it.

While it’s not entirely clear how the shift to more hybrid workplaces will affect the prevalence and impact of office politics for the long term, it’s obvious that one doesn’t need to be in an office to engage in office politics.

Office suck-ups, popularized by television characters like Dwight Schrute in The Office and Tom Wambsgans in Succession, typically take their cues from those in charge. And in a virtual setting, they may be even more inclined to engage in the behaviour to make sure they’re getting noticed by bosses, according to Sumpter.

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“When one person does it and gets rewarded, others see that’s what they have to do to get ahead,” Sumpter said. “It’s contagious, and organizations suffer.”  Some employees won’t put up with it. Two in five workers said office politics caused them to consider leaving their organization, and 25 per cent actually left because of it — with women more likely than men to have quit. That’s because women and under-represented groups benefit less from office politics, as they typically have less authority. “This is about power,” Sumpter said. “You are more subject to these games if you have less power.”

Managers need to call this stuff out

Dana Sumpter

But not everyone sees office politics as inherently bad, the survey found. Spreading rumours could be reframed as making sure everyone is aware of what’s going on behind the scenes. Sucking up is just a social convention to smooth all the complex interactions that are part of any workday.

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The research from Sumpter and her colleague Kurt Motamedi is the latest in a long line of scholarly looks at office politics. Organizations are inherently political arenas, academics have found, so the use of persuasion, manipulation and negotiation can be just as important as intelligence, ambition and hard work. Those skilled in office politics tend to get ahead in organizations, but that individual success can come at a cost to colleagues and to the reputation of the firm. More than nine out of ten workers polled by the Pepperdine researchers said too much office politics can cause ethical issues and a toxic workplace, along with potential legal problems.

  1. Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, said he would spend half of 2021 and 2022 working from home.

    How the great work-from-home experiment fell apart in big tech

  2. PSAC president Chris Aylward, right, and PSAC members on strike at a rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on April 26.

    PSAC strike: Why work from home is a sticking point in negotiations

  3. Globally, the average office worker has 153 per cent more meetings now than at the start of the pandemic.

    Tyranny of office meeting: How meeting bloat killing productivity

Still, gossip mongers and suck-ups won’t go away unless managers remove the incentives to such behaviour, while rewarding positive actions like collaboration. “Managers need to call this stuff out,” Sumpter said. “But we all have to work together to encourage the right social behaviours.”


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