The Marissa Mayer Death Spiral, and how to choke off innovation
The whole kerfuffle over Yahoo!'s decision to end telework for its employees has now run its course through the media, and after ingesting countless articles written by all manner of professional (tech exec, tech worker, HR, executive management, pundit, you name it) I can't believe how everyone missed the core issue at play and why Yahoo! is making a dangerous decision.
As a tech worker at a well known software company, we love the old joke about software R&D/engineers...it goes like this:
What's the difference between an introverted software engineer and an extroverted software engineer?
Answer: An extroverted software engineer stares at your shoes while talking to you.
This joke is funny primarily because it's true. More so than other industries and professions, engineering and especially technology is infused with individuals who would rate them as being more introverted than extroverted. Introverts (and I would classify myself as one) have inherited the earth when it comes to high tech. Once we built the bedrock institutions of the modern silicon computing era (see: Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, countless others) and changed forever the culture of those companies, work environments which allow introverts to work in environments which suit their personalities became a natural evolution, and telework is one such outcome. Introverts simply do not function well in group collaborative settings.
Plenty of studies and ample research support this truth; rather than recount them I'd point everyone to the great book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain.
Yet, despite the publicly celebrated stereotype of the introverted engineer or high tech worker, I have yet to read any critical analysis of Yahoo!'s decision where they recognize telework is a result of work cultures where introverts are allowed to design the environments that make them most productive.
And seemingly, Melissa Mayer does not recognize this either. She is employing a one size fits all approach to leadership, as evidenced by this decision. She spent her entire career at one company, which had the incredible fortune of being a runaway success. If it worked there, or if this decision would fly there, then surely it must fit here. It doesn't take a PhD or MBA to see this decision is rooted in a failure of her personality type to see what a tech company's culture should be like to foster innovation and collaboration.
Even worse is the news reporting. The main street media sees telework as one of those perks awarded to tech companies desperate to compete with other tech companies who fete their employees with free food, services, and all sorts of other fringe benefits. Nobody is acknowledging telework is about technology enabling a introvert culture to put themselves in a work environment where they will produce.
Likewise, the other focus has been on how this must be a good thing for Yahoo! because so many companies which have no idea how to build a strong company culture have failed in implementing work from home and other telework programs.
So, what happens next? Well it remains to be seen for Yahoo. But in a culture where introversion dominates and competition is fierce, I fail to see how forcing lots of your innovators to sit in meetings together "brainstorming" will result in anything other than employee disillusionment and mass exoduses to other places which support and encourage the programs which allow them to innovate and flourish.
And sorry to say, but if I had to guess, killing Yahoo will be a learning lesson for Marissa Mayer she takes with her to her next job, because regardless of the actual outcome at Yahoo I doublt anyone will pin this decision as a key indicator of her ability to lead or manage successful organizations on her own.