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As a leader, you’re likely to make mistakes if you don’t get enough sleep. (Sharon Dominick/iStockphoto)
As a leader, you’re likely to make mistakes if you don’t get enough sleep. (Sharon Dominick/iStockphoto)

LEADERSHIP LAB

Sleep well, you’ll lead well Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

We all know that tired workers can be dangerous to themselves and others. But the effects of shift work and sleep loss go way beyond occupational safety, potentially affecting leaders and leadership in different and unexpected ways. And it is not only major sleep deprivation that needs to concern us.

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We are not talking about major sleep deprivation

Each Spring, as we set our clocks forward, we potentially lose an hour of sleep. Scholars Christopher Barnes and David Wagner showed that workplace injuries increased by 5 per cent, and their severity by 66 per cent, on the Monday after we set our clocks forward in the Spring daylight savings time. As dramatic as these findings are, the actual amount of sleep loss is even less than an hour – most people only lose about 40 minutes of sleep as a result of DST, showing just how sensitive we are to sleep loss.

Sleep loss and leadership

Relatively small amounts of sleep loss are also enough to deplete the cognitive and emotional resources needed for high quality leadership, leaving leaders vulnerable to making the kind of mistakes that can hurt their leadership. Feeling emotionally drained at work from too little sleep leaves leaders moody, irritable, and short-tempered, and unable and unwilling to show followers the caring and consideration that is the basis of high quality leadership.

Cognitive fatigue from too little sleep leaves leaders distracted and unable to concentrate fully. Aside from the obvious need to be alert to avoid errors, cognitive depletion can affect leadership more insidiously, leaving people willing to engage in more risky behaviors because they see less risk in their decisions and misinterpret the probability of successful outcome as higher. Not surprisingly, research confirms that insufficient and poor quality sleep are associated with unethical behaviours.

Tiredness resulting from sleep loss also leaves leaders prone to misinterpret events, especially when they feel threatened. Misinterpreting interactions with followers as more rude or more hostile than they really are, could result in leaders responding in ways that spiral downwards, hurting the quality of leader-follower relationships.

The cognitive tiredness resulting from too little sleep might make it difficult for leaders to even know that their decisions, interactions and behaviors are affected. Little wonder then that Bill Clinton famously said that “Every important mistake I have made in my life, I made because I was too tired”.

What can leaders do?

Is there anything that leaders could do to benefit their leadership behaviours? This is one area in which small changes might make a big difference in the short term.

Lesson 1: Don’t think of the weekend as a time for catching up on sleep lost during the week. Leaders with more than a one hour discrepancy between their time spent sleeping on weekends compared with weeknights received poorer leadership ratings by their peers (who did not know about their sleep patterns). Establish consistency in your sleep behaviours: The U.S. National Sleep Foundation recommends we all get between seven to nine hours sleep per night, every night, not just on weekends.

Lesson 2: Be willing to take a nap on the job, and see your employees doing so too. Let go of those old stereotypes that time equals productivity, and that people sleeping on the job must be disloyal and shirking their duties. In fact, naps of more than 10 but less than 30 minutes are restorative and can benefit performance, and those taking a nap may be your best employees bent on high performance.

Lessons 3: Limit your smartphone usage at night. Accessing smart-phones after 9 p.m. at night disrupts sleep and leaves people, including leaders, more tired in the morning, hurting work performance that day; also accessing a computer tablet at night adds to the morning tiredness.

Enjoying an old-fashioned book and resisting the urge to check your e-mails in bed could increase the quality of your leadership. And the benefits won’t stop there. Creating an environment in which your employees no longer feel obligated to respond to e-mails at night could have a trickle-down effect on their job performance the next day, too.

It’s time to recognize the role of sleep in leadership behaviour, and act on that knowledge: Our old, destructive stereotypes are simply not supported by recent research, and stealing time from sleep as a way to benefit our leadership is doomed to failure. Sleep is not for the lazy and weak, it’s for motivated leaders intent on enacting the highest quality leadership.

Julian Barling (@JulianBarling), is a professor of organizational behaviour and the Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston. His latest book, The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders, was published in January 2014 by Oxford University Press.

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