Don’t emulate Yahoo— regardless of your stance on telecommuting— when you’re calling others to action.

Yahoo the employer is lucky that Yahoo the internet company doesn’t do an OMG! celebrity news feature on organizations. What if OMG! featured not just child stars gone bad, but also companies that crave controversy? Yahoo would be front and center.

With its latest controversy—the decision to end work-from-home-arrangements—Yahoo’s leaders added fuel to the fire in the way it handled the announcement.

Based on the news media accounts, CEO Marissa Mayer and Executive Vice President of People and Development Jackie Reses did almost the exact opposite of what’s required for a clear, compelling call to action.

The Yahoo call to action had almost all the elements of a “taser ask.” It stuns and staggers people, causing them to freeze or flee. They may comply with your request, but they’re not eager to commit. And in fact, they may tune out or become disengaged.

Why was it a bad ask? The reasons include:

The timing. Yahoo made the announcement on a Friday afternoon, Pacific time, as the weekend was beginning.

If you’re trying to hide the news or avoid the media, you make a Friday afternoon announcement. If you want people to pay attention, you choose a time when people are focused.

(At least the Yahoo execs didn’t release their memo the day before a holiday as Sarah Palin did when she announced she was resigning as Alaska governor on July 3. And some wags will say Yahoo’s home workers weren’t working anyway, so does the timing really matter?)

The method. Yahoo used email to announce their decision to all Yahoo employees at the same time, it seemed from the press coverage.

It’s better first to notify those who are most affected—in this case managers and the work-at-home employees and give them an opportunity to ask questions. Ideally, you want them involved in helping you structure the change and the announcement. Then once they’re on board, you explain the decision to everyone else.

The message elements. Yahoo’s call to action, as reported by Kara Swisher of allthingsd was a general request, rather than nuanced. For example, it excluded these elements that make a call to action powerful and compelling and gets people to move:

  1. Not appealing to a higher purpose—Yahoo’s mission.
  2. Not requesting volunteers to lead the way.
  3. Not providing baby steps for work-at-home employees to take, such as returning to the office one or two days a week over the next couple of months, until they’re back in the office full time.
  4. Not providing a lifeline to ask for help.

Yahoo’s request did include a deadline by which to act, which is an important element of good calls to action.

It’s too soon to measure the effectiveness this call to action on the intended participants—namely the at-home workers and their managers—and others at Yahoo. It’s also too early to know the impact on  the company and its performance.

Yet, judging by all the blog posts, news articles, online and offline chatter, Yahoo’s announcement hit a nerve with workers and leaders in all types of organizations.

The unintended consequence is that we’re all talking about the merits of flexible work arrangements, leadership controls and the role of technology, rather than Yahoo’s turnaround and the services and products it offers.

Yahoo may be using this action to trim unneeded workers, as some have suggested, but if so the price may be high in terms of public attention and goodwill.

If Yahoo had followed the principles of crafting compelling calls to action as I teach them, Yahoo leaders wouldn’t have found themselves in this awkward situation.

What are you doing to avoid taser asks and make your calls to action compelling?

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