Nearly every employee in any job situation has felt the impact of failed workplace humor – be it a poorly timed joke or humor that is downright offensive. Michele Williams of Cornell University’s ILR School says that failed workplace humor significantly impacts people’s moods and confidence – and that organizational culture and skill training can mitigate damage from inevitable “oops” moments.

MEDIA NOTE: “The Experience of Failed Humor: Implications for Interpersonal Affect Regulation,” which Williams wrote with Fordham University Assistant Professor Kyle J. Emich, can be downloaded from the June issue of the Journal of Business and Psychology.

Williams says:

“Just about everyone in the workplace has shared humor that fell flat or offended co-workers. It’s embarrassing and sometimes destructive, but managers and organizations can do a lot to prevent these faux pas from damaging relationships and trust.

“Creativity and other benefits of positive team culture don’t have to be sacrificed when humor fails – if an organization has a culture that promotes empathy and learning. That kind of culture makes people less susceptible to guilt, more resilient to failures and encourages them to help others feel more positive.

“Managers who combine a positive culture with interpersonal skill training can enhance employee confidence in maintaining that positive workplace culture, even in the face of bad humor, setbacks and failures that are part of all work relationships.

“Men and women may respond differently to failed and successful humor. For example, men, in general, felt guiltier after a failed attempt than women did, but reported more confidence in their humor ability than women did.

“Our study suggests that perspective taking – the empathetic process of ‘imagining how others feel’– may level the playing field for both men and women by making them better able to use the feedback from humor in productive ways.”

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