Cornell University

July 9 2014

No Laughing Matter

Workplace culture, training can soften failed humor: research by Williams

MicheleWilliams_188x188Failed workplace humor impacts moods and confidence, but organizational culture and skill training can mitigate damage from "oops" moments, according to research by Assistant Professor Michele Williams. 

"The Experience of Failed Humor: Implications for Interpersonal Affect Regulation," published in June by the Journal of Business and Psychology, was coauthored by Williams and Fordham University Assistant Professor Kyle J. Emich M.S. '09, Ph.D. '12.

"It's embarrassing and sometimes destructive, but just about everyone in the workplace has shared humor that fell flat or offended co-workers. Our study suggests that managers and organizations can do a lot to prevent these faux pas from damaging relationships and trust," Williams said in an interview.

"Creativity and other benefits of positive team culture don't have to be sacrificed when humor fails if an organization has built 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."

The research, the first quantitative study to measure willingness to persist after failed humor, has implications for organizational behavior in areas such as group decision making and intragroup conflict, Williams said.

The 127 study participants were undergraduates recruited through an online pool. For $15, each completed questionnaires individually in two phases. The first phase was an online questionnaire that measured differences in traits such as guilt.

A week later, students were randomly assigned to write a failed humor narrative or a successful humor narrative, and then responded to a second questionnaire that asked detailed questions about events recounted in their personal narratives.

The data yielded results suggesting that managers who combine a positive culture with training in perspective taking, empathy and emotional intelligence facets can enhance employee confidence in their abilities to help maintain a positive culture.

Culture and training also boost managers' willingness to persist in their support of positive cultures -- even in the face of everyday setbacks that are part of work relationships, she said. Yet, Williams notes, most workplaces devote little time training employees to feel more confident in their abilities to support positive cultures.  

Men and women may use and respond differently to failed and successful humor, Williams cautioned. For instance, most men felt more guilty after failed attempts than women, but reported more confidence in their humor abilities than women, research found.

Regardless of gender, humor can be a useful tool.

"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 that encourage them to help coworkers feel more positive."

Adjusting confidence downward after humor fails can help people pause and put in effort to make their next attempt successful, Williams said, and adjusting confidence upward after the successful use of humor encourages people to continue using humor.