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3 Ways Older Workers Know to Beat Office Politics

Survey reveals differences in how generations handle difficult workplaces

spinner image one employee whispers into another employee's ear while sitting across from a colleague

​As more workers return to the office, they might also bring the office politics back with them. According to a recent survey from Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School, 68 percent of respondents said office politics were prevalent in their workplace. The most common types of office politics according to the study are rumor spreading, “sucking up” and “blame gaming.”

But given how much working environments have changed with the rise of remote and hybrid work, those toxic workplace behaviors may also have shifted, particularly in how they affect workers of different ages and experience levels.

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“Office politics is nothing new, right? It’s about power. It’s about scarce resources. It’s about human behavior, so it’s kind of been around forever,” says Dana Sumpter, an associate professor of organization theory and management at the Graziadio Business School and coauthor of the report. “But what’s interesting about really exploring the changing dynamics of office politics now is that we are in this context of a changing world of work. What it means and what it looks like to go to work every day has been significantly reexamined, if not rewritten, since the pandemic.”

Those changes in the world of office work, and the politics that often go along with it, can mean different things depending on what stage a person is at in their career. Older workers, however, may have some insights they can share with their younger colleagues.

Here are three ways experienced workers can teach their coworkers about managing office politics.

1. You don’t have to change jobs to get away from your office’s politics

One of the most striking findings of the online survey of 800 office workers that was conducted in November 2022 was the gap between different age groups on the question of whether they would leave a job because of office politics. Among millennial respondents, 31 percent said they switched jobs. Only 24 percent of Gen Xers and 19 percent of boomers said the same.

Some of that gap could be due to the differing financial and personal obligations of people in those age groups, but Sumpter says workers who have more experience navigating office politics might be able to guide their younger peers to solutions that don’t involve a job search.

“Older employees could help inform younger employees that the nature of the office politics might not be as bad as they think,” she says. “It’s all in how you handle [the younger workers’] concerns and really help to coach them through those types of situations. That could be a tool for preventing turnover.”

2. You can build a relationship with your boss while working from home

Three in 5 (59 percent) of the office workers surveyed said that being mostly/fully in the office is more likely to contribute to negative office politics, compared with only 1 in 10 who say hybrid (11 percent) and mostly/fully remote work (10 percent) adds to office politics.

The numbers suggest that remote and hybrid work could lessen the bad parts of office politics. But working from home also reduces the opportunities workers have to build face-to-face relationships with their bosses and coworkers. That’s another area where experienced workers may be able to offer their colleagues some assistance, Sumpter says.

“Younger employees in some ways are more at risk to suffer the negative effects, such as career development being stymied because of lack of face time, reduced ability to build those interpersonal work relationships, and reduced ability to champion the work or goals that they meet or exceed,” Sumpter says. “All of that is kind of hampered when you work remotely.”

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Older workers who tend to have already established themselves in their careers and their business relationships could mentor their colleagues remotely or offer other types of support to help them manage concerns they have about their jobs and careers.

3. Career success is still possible even with office politics

According to the survey, 59 percent of boomers said that office politics have never prevented them from moving up the ladder or accessing other opportunities for development in the workplace. Only 43 percent of Gen Xers and 33 percent of millennials said the same.

While the survey doesn’t dive into all the reasons for these differences, the gap suggest that boomers found ways to pursue their careers successfully without getting derailed by office politics. That generation’s insights and support could be particularly valuable to their younger colleagues.

“Having those bridging conversations between folks of different generations at different stages in their life is such a pathway to understanding and inclusion,” Sumpter says. “Not only can it help older and younger employees to have a better understanding of each other’s experiences and perspectives, but it also can help with exchanging valuable information and best practices. Younger employees could have a heck of a lot to learn from older employees and how to navigate those types of political situations.”

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