Conversations in Management: Yahoo!

“…We need to be working side-by-side.”

Yahoo Internal Memo.

YahooYahoo stirred up quite a controversy when a confidential memo was leaked to the press announcing that all employee telecommuting agreements were being voided. Come June, everyone will be showing up in the office to put in their time. The outcry was immediate. Yahoo and particularly female CEO Marissa Mayer, were labeled “mom unfriendly” and “family unfriendly.” When it was noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found as many men as women telecommuting, the plan was found to be all around “unfriendly.” Some argued that drastic measures were needed if the wounded Yahoo was to ever compete with the mighty Google. Others claimed that the backlash would add to Yahoo’s woes. Recruitment, retention and free falling morale issues might undermine their ability to claw back to relevance. Some opined that telecommuting fostered inefficiencies. Others cite studies claiming that telecommuting promoted productivity, engagement, job satisfaction and the ever elusive morale.  As is so often the case these days, the opinions expressed were all diametrically opposed to one another. At the end of the news cycle the average Joe or Jane was left scratching their head and wondering what to believe.

Lost in the kerfuffle was that whatever the business case might be for eliminating telecommuting, Yahoo didn’t make it. Instead, they resorted to the time honored tradition of expressing an opinion, as an irrefutable fact. They did it as you might expect. The opinion, “we need to be working side by side,” was wrapped in corporate happy talk designed to make a questionable idea seem self-evidently good. This is something to which we’ve all grown accustomed. We’ve been treated to the ironies of, “in order to improve customer service, we’re reducing our hours.” Or better yet, “we’ve improved our incentive program to offer you even more rewards.” Of course, missing in the announcement is the fact that your points are now worth only half as much as before. But the inclination to disguise bad news is something that goes back to childhood. More disturbing than the spin, is the unwillingness of leadership to simply spell out the reason for the change. Granted, as the memo states, “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” But just as many brilliant ideas come from reflection, “alone” time and deep thought. After all, while half the population are extraverts who will thrive with this togetherness, the other half are introverts who will find the whole business distracting. Surely, with all the problems currently facing Yahoo, there had to be an objective reason or compelling metric for eliminating telecommuting. That’s the story that needed to be told. That’s the story likely to gain employee buy-in.

Like Yahoo, the natural inclination for most of us is to try to temper bad news with something positive. We like to, “look on the bright side.” Sure, the tougher souls among us caution that they don’t “sugar coat” things but even they soften when the subject is a bit closer to their hearts. There’s nothing wrong with this approach as long as we face and tell the truth. There are always reasons for the decisions we make. When those decisions impact others, we need to be ready to fully explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. We may take some heat when we do this, but at least folks will understand the “why” behind the “what.”  Next time you have to deliver bad news, save the spin and just tell the story. You might discover the news isn’t quite as bad as you thought.    —Ebert

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