What Else Can Go Wrong?

Everything from product ordering to Zooming is a hassle for executives this winter. How large is the toll, and what do leaders do?

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Remember when staffers didn’t quit? And fuel prices didn’t implode the shipping budget? And clicking “buy” meant that your order would soon arrive? The most basic business maneuvers are inducing headaches in executives worldwide this season. Leaders can no longer plan on inventory arrivals (supply chain problems) or promote favorite staffers (they’ve already jumped ship) or tweet (cancellation risk) or grab a quick coffee (an understaffed café).

As parts of the world begin moving past the pandemic, experts say a headache of a different sort is emerging. To be sure, leaders are grateful that employees are safer now with vaccination rates rising and COVID-19 death rates in most places falling. But as the pandemic’s horrors fade, experts say many people are discovering that little else in business appears to be easing. Indeed, call it the Age of Inconvenience. Or even annoyance. And it has created new tests and challenges for leaders and managers in all parts of companies.

Business actions that previously took minutes now require attention and revision, appearing repeatedly on every to-do list. (Call to see if a critical manufacturing part is arriving or stuck on a ship weeks late. Check with HR about an open position. Be sure the manager who works on a hybrid schedule is in the office that day.) Such sharp increases in daily hassles are extremely taxing both emotionally and physically, fueling frustration, irritability, and exhaustion, says Amelia Haynes, associate researcher at the Korn Ferry Institute. “It’s a perfect storm,” she says. “When the processes we rely on become unreliable, we can no longer rely on our own established habits and patterns. It all enormously increases cognitive load and stress.”

This always-on state of existence is exhausting for most leaders because our minds are fond of shortcuts, habitually recognizing patterns and routing us into semi-autopilot mode for most tasks. “It saves us a ton of time and energy,” says Haynes. “But when things aren’t running smoothly, our processes don’t work anymore.” Suddenly, booking a business flight requires much more attention than mindlessly searching for a ticket and pressing buy. Ditto with stocking and hiring and planning, all of which “employs a ton of self-control and self-regulation and self-monitoring,” Haynes says. “It’s just so much work. It’s an incredible amount of cognitive labor.”

Outside of work too, employees are facing a new reality, full of daily hassles such as skyrocketing gasoline costs to childrens’ uncertain school schedules. All of this only raises the on-edge effect when the Zoom calls start.

Answers to handling brain churn are never easy. Practically speaking, experts say leaders need to prioritize where to devote their limited focus, and likely delegate other decisions to a wider group of people, says Mark Royal, senior director at Korn Ferry. This can work against leaders’ instincts, because leaders may feel inclined to be more involved in more decisions. “Focus more on key decisions that require an extra degree of thinking in an uncertain time,” says Royal.

An attitude shift will help this feel like accomplishment and not a slog. “You and your business are not uniquely suffering from these challenges,” says Royal. “If you can cope with them more gracefully than competitors, you can gain advantage.” Seeing these frustrations in a new light morphs them into potential gains, which you can then navigate with more agility and flexibility.

Haynes says that constant hassles require a greater reserve of personal energy. Korn Ferry recently released a paper on how to do so, by investing in social connection, resilience, healthy habits, and a strong sense of purpose. “These don’t necessarily reduce cognitive load,” she says, “but they set you up to be in a better position to manage it.”

The internal and external messaging around this new, inconvenient reality can be tricky. No one wants to hear a CEO gripe about inconvenience. “Acknowledging these realities can quickly sound like complaining, whereas too much optimism can come across as detachment,” says Andy De Marco, vice president of human resources for the Americas at Korn Ferry. This is a narrow line that all leaders are gauging right now. “Acknowledge reality while also providing hope.”