“Good leaders don’t just happen over night,” says Inc.
Inc. is mistaken, but not in the way you might think.
Sleep is, in fact, the bedrock of good leadership. Not only that, but your sleep as a leader also has a direct bearing on the performance of your team.
If you want to be a better leader of a higher-performing team, the science is clear — you need to start with sleep.
You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
Despite volumes of research on the connection between sleep and good leadership, too few leaders prioritize sleep. According to an international study conducted in 2017 by the Center for Creative Leadership, 42% of leaders get six or fewer hours of sleep a night.
If you think you get enough sleep or can get by with less than what’s recommended (everyone’s sleep need is unique and genetically-determined but most adults need between 7 and 9 hours a night), you’re probably wrong. This is actually part of the problem: research shows that we significantly underestimate how underslept we are and how impaired our work performance is as a result. In Forbes’s “The Secret Career Booster That Costs You Nothing,” the author summarizes, “lack of sleep … apparently tricks you into thinking you’re an office all-star. People who slept just six hours per night for two weeks functioned as poorly as if they’d gone without sleep for 48 hours—yet they thought they were performing at the top of their game.” To put two nights of sleep loss into perspective, consider this: losing just one night of sleep leads to an 11% increase in response times — the equivalent to being legally drunk.
Why Your Sleep Affects Your Leadership Abilities
All leadership behavior relies on a set of higher-order cognitive processes known as the brain’s executive functions. These include problem solving, reasoning, organizing, inhibition, planning, and executing plans. The brain’s prefrontal cortex directs executive functioning and therefore, is largely responsible for the expression of leadership behaviors. While other parts of the brain can cope reasonably well under conditions of sleep deprivation, neuroscientists have found the prefrontal cortex cannot. Basic visual and motor skills, for example, directed by the occipital and cerebellum lobes of the brain respectively, degrade when sleep is deprioritized, but they do so not nearly to the same extent as these higher-order mental skills.
Leadership Isn’t Binary; Sleep Makes the Difference
Contrary to what many believe, leadership quality isn’t stable over time. Bosses aren’t just bad or good, period. Individual behavior can vary dramatically from day to day and week to week. What’s often responsible for this variance? The manager’s sleep debt.
How Sleep Debt Impacts the Four Behaviors of High-Quality Leadership
Let’s take a closer look at the impact of sleep debt (the difference between the sleep you need and the sleep you get) on the four types of high-quality leadership behaviors.
1. Results Orientation
Managing for OKRs and other organizational goals requires seeing the big picture while deflecting time-consuming distractions and promptly identifying and addressing issues that can impact progress.
Results orientation recruits the mental capacities of attention and concentration, both of which are severely incapacitated by a lack of sleep. In one study, researchers found a 300% increase in cognitive lapses that reduced alertness and attention after just two nights of restricted sleep.
2. Solving problems
Problem-solving draws on faculties like insight, creativity, and pattern recognition. Insights are the product of memory restructuring and consolidation, in which sleep plays an essential role. Research shows working memory degrades 40% under conditions of sleep deprivation. It’s no surprise then, when researchers studied the impact of sleep on insight, they found twice as many subjects gained insights after eight hours of sleep compared to the same period of wakefulness.
3. Seeking different perspectives
Seeking different perspectives and deftly integrating them into strategy requires making decisions on sound analysis, accurately weighing the relative significance of different inputs, and avoiding the many cognitive biases to which decisions are prone.
Because sleep is essential to all three stages of the learning process — before learning, to encode new information; after learning, in the consolidation stage, when the brain forms new connections; and before remembering, to retrieve information from memory — sleep deprivation makes it difficult to learn new information, and decreases our likelihood to revise and adapt strategies in response to failures. One night of sleep improves learning task speed by up to 20% and accuracy by up to 39%.
Decision making meanwhile requires integrating emotion and cognition and is similarly impaired by lack of sleep. After two nights of sleep deprivation, research participants experienced significantly greater difficulty deciding upon a course of action.
4. Supporting others
It’s in this realm of supporting others that sleep science has some of the most surprising implications for leaders.
What’s crucial to note is sleep deprivation not only undermines the actions of the sleep-deprived leader but also negatively affects the performance of his subordinates — often without him even realizing. Which is to say, a single sleep-deprived leader triggers a performance decline of the entire unit. We’ll dive into the details below, but at a high level, this is the logic:
First, sleep deprivation causes a decline in leadership ability. Subordinates’ perception of the leader’s ability deteriorates and the relationship between the leader and those being managed worsens, leading to declines in employee productivity and performance. These declines are affected directly through the leader’s lack of sleep, but also indirectly, as the subordinates themselves wind up sleeping less and then performing worse as a result.
How Lack of Sleep Undermines Relationships
Per McKinsey, leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges.
Sleep supports all of these behaviors by reducing activities in the amygdala (the subcortical brain structure responsible for emotional processing) in response to previously encountered emotional stimuli. Put plainly, sleep frees up your mind from the previous days’ stresses so that you can better focus on supporting others.
A lack of sleep, conversely, makes supporting others just about impossible. For starters, you’ve probably experienced feeling irritable when you sleep poorly. Indeed, a lack of sleep hampers your ability to exert self control and makes it more likely you’ll overreact, expressing your feelings in a more negative manner and tone of voice. Sleep deprivation also makes it difficult to interpret other people’s emotions, be it through their facial expressions or in their tone of voice. Not meeting your sleep makes it difficult build trust and to respond with empathy.
In one study, organizational behavior researcher Christopher Barnes surveyed 88 leaders and their subordinates for two weeks and found that when bosses slept poorly, they were more likely to exhibit abusive behavior the next day.
In keeping with our human inability to assess how sleep deprived we are, research shows managers might be similarly unaware of the way in which their sleep deprived-driven behavior is undermining relationships with their subordinates. Another study by Barnes measured the sleep of 40 managers and their 120 direct reports during the first three months of their assigned time working together, along with the quality of these boss-employee relationships. His team found sleep-deprived leaders were more impatient, irritable, and antagonistic, resulting in poor relationships. The researchers expected this effect would diminish over time as people got to know each other, but it did not. Most problematic of all, these groggy leaders were completely unaware of the negative dynamic that persisted throughout the three-month study.
How Lack of Sleep Undermines Your Ability to Inspire Your Team
Beyond patience and an even temper, another key aspect of supporting your team is inspiring them—especially in times like these. It’s troubling then that the perceived charisma of leaders dropped 13% when they lost just two hours of sleep in one study. Why? When leaders demonstrate positive emotion, their direct reports feel good and perceive their bosses as charismatic.
How Your Lack of Sleep as a Leader Transmits to Everyone Around You
Leaders who discount the value of sleep can negatively impact not just emotions but also behaviors on their teams. Barnes goes so far as to characterize this as “viral contagion”: “The emotional dysfunction experienced by sleep-deprived individuals … can be ‘transmitted’ to well-rested others who come in contact with an under-slept individual.” Recall the study by Barnes on the 88 leaders and their subordinates. With the bosses’ abusive behavior, came a subsequent, not altogether surprising, lack of engagement from their teams.
But leaders can also degrade team performance indirectly, through what Barnes terms “sleep devaluation.” Consider a typical scenario where a manager might devalue sleep to their team: maybe they boast about only getting a few hours of sleep, send work emails in the middle of the night, or praise employees who work late nights. Employees pay attention to these signals and modify their behavior accordingly. Indeed, subordinates of leaders who model and encourage poor sleep habits get about 25 fewer minutes of nightly rest than people whose bosses value sleep. They also report that their slumber is lower in quality.
This is a big problem with cascading effects. We’ve already covered how detrimental unchecked sleep debt can be to your direct reports’ focus and productivity (not to mention your quarterly OKRs).
An even more troubling twist is that a manager’s devaluation of sleep can lead employees to behave less ethically — perhaps because of what feels like a high-pressure work culture as well as diminished moral judgment and decision making. Indeed, Barnes’ previous studies have shown that a lack of sleep is directly linked to lapses in ethics.
How to Lead and Sleep by Example
The case for sleep is undeniable, but poor sleep habits can be deeply entrenched. How do you incite change? While sleep tips and tricks abound, we’ve summarized some science-based best practices to encourage naturalistic sleep:
- Awareness: Leaders can start with a baseline understanding of the “Two Process Model of Sleep Regulation.” The first key aspect of this is your sleep debt, or how much sleep you’ve missed, relative to your need, in the past 14 days. The second is your circadian rhythm, which drives your daily energy peaks and dips. Tracking and minimizing your sleep debt, then scheduling your day to take advantage of when you’re at your best will improve your efficacy in myriad ways.
- Environment: To fall asleep and stay asleep, make your bedroom cool, dark and quiet, like a cave. Set the thermostat to between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, ensure your room is dark enough that you won’t know when the sun comes up (we recommend a sleep mask), and wear earplugs.
- Behavior: Modifying behavior throughout the day can also help you to fall and stay asleep. In the morning, get natural sunlight first thing and be active. During the day, stop drinking coffee as early in the day as possible, or altogether, as caffeine stays in your system for up to 10 hours. Be calculated with naps: it’s best to keep them to 15-20 minutes or a full sleep cycle (90 minutes) and avoid napping too late in the afternoon. By evening, you should avoid late large meals, limit alcohol, and block blue light (we recommend these orange glasses).
Getting enough sleep is just as crucial for you as it is for your team, so pass these recommendations on. And remember that your team is watching you for cues about what’s important in the workplace. Stop wearing sleep deprivation like a badge of honor, and if you must write a late-night email, use a delayed-delivery option so you’re at least modeling the right behavior for your team. You can undoubtedly squeeze in more work, hobby, friend, or partner hours if you sleep less but at what cost? A decline in the quality of your work, your emotional capacities, and your ability to lead.