The Delta Variant: Crushing Our Mindset

Office returns delayed. Business trips halted. And morale down the tubes. A lingering pandemic creates yet another unprecedented leadership challenge.

The health damage is distressingly easy to spot: nearly 630,000 new cases a day worldwide on average, and more than 9,500 daily deaths since COVID’s delta variant arrived. The toll on organizations is also relatively easy to quantify: ships unable to unload cargo because of a global shortage of healthy workers, firms forced to push back their September office reopenings, and high-profile events canceled entirely.

But experts say this latest COVID surge is also taking an exacting toll on the mindsets of people up and down the corporate ladder. It’s a little harder to measure, gauged more in frustration, irrational decision-making, and a return to the uncertainty that many people thought they were past, at least in the United States. “There’s a definite fatigue,” says Melissa Hadhazy, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Industrial practice.

In theory, this is the same set of problems that many have been feeling over the last 18 months, and in theory, some of the ways to combat that frustration still apply. The challenge now is that businesses are often driven by momentum; many organizations have seen tremendous progress in the health of their workers and their bottom lines since the beginning of the year. The delta variant’s surge has put a stop to that. “We love seeing progress and quick wins—we do not like to feel like we are going backwards, losing ground,” says Dennis Baltzley, a Korn Ferry’s global solution leader for leadership development.

Some of the frustration, at least among senior executives, is that their visions of everyone coming back to the office, happy to see one another and ready to take their companies to new heights, has been dashed … again. “Organizations want to pass a D-Day,” says Juan Pablo González, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s sector leader of professional services. The problem is the impact of the delta variant—and whatever comes next—varies considerably by location. Some workplaces may be fully vaccinated in areas of the world where COVID has remained contained, while in other places, the virus is running rampant among many unvaccinated people.

Experts suggest senior executives empower their middle managers to make decisions on when to open certain facilities. Those lower-level leaders are also the ones having conversations with many employees, finding out which of their teammates are dealing with sick relatives, uncertain school and daycare situations, technology problems, and other issues that have developed over the last 18 months. “There should be a mindset shift among senior leaders from making declarations to asking questions,” González says. Such questions can include “What is everyone else doing?” “How is everyone feeling?” and “How are you getting your work done?”

Frustrated executives also should look inward, making sure that they themselves are managing change effectively. Experts say if a leader isn’t particularly good at managing change, it will likewise be difficult for them to motivate their teams to do so. “It’s like on a plane—put on your own oxygen mask before [you help] anyone else,” says Elise Freedman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Organizational Strategy and Workforce Transformation practice.