All of us have felt the effects of a poor night’s sleep. It’s no groundbreaking news that sleep is vital to our health, but can our sleep habits directly influence our leadership skills?
The clear answer is yes—however, with heavy workloads and busy schedules, sleep may not exactly be the top priority for many leaders. In fact, a lot of people may not even realize the extent to which sleep is affecting their performance at work. Indeed, despite the large body of research pointing to the negative effects of poor sleep, only recently have researchers and practitioners started to acknowledge the influence of sleep on leadership effectiveness.
How Exactly Does Poor Sleep Influence Leadership Effectiveness?
Both poor sleep quantity (how many hours of sleep we get a night) and poor sleep quality (how easily we fall and stay asleep) can have detrimental effects on leadership behaviors. By looking at our Top Talent Indicators we can see clearly the impact sleep has on leadership effectiveness.
Achieving Extraordinary Results
Exceptional leaders set high standards, exceed their goals, and produce extraordinary results. Sleep deficiencies can interfere with both our motivation and our ability to succeed at work. For instance, research has shown poor sleep quality and quantity can lead to decreased task performance, low productivity, and counterproductive behaviors.
Providing Thought Leadership
Poor sleep can also influence cognitive abilities necessary for thinking strategically and innovatively. For instance, sleep decrements are associated with impairments in attention, reasoning, and overall information processing. Importantly, sleep deficiencies are associated with decreased cognitive flexibility which is needed for creative thinking.
Attracting, Selecting, Developing and Retaining Talent
Sleep deficits not only influence our cognitive abilities and motivation, but also our relationships with others. Specifically, poor sleep can lead to decreased self-regulation, causing us to behave in impulsive or irrational ways – for leaders this could look like snapping at a colleague for something minor, or ineffectively providing feedback to a subordinate. At the extreme end, a recent study found that poor sleep quality among leaders was associated with abusive supervisory behaviors, including being rude, starting arguments, and making fun of others; as a result of this behavior, the study shows that engagement among work group members decreased.
Real Leadership Presence
Strong leaders are compelling communicators who demonstrate poise, confidence, and professionalism. Poor sleep quality or quantity can cause heightened negative mood and anxiety, which can influence one’s leadership presence. A recent study found that leaders who experienced sleep loss were less likely to be rated as charismatic by their subordinates due to ineffective emotion regulation. Additionally, poor sleep can make us negatively interpret ambiguous information, making us think threat is present, when in fact, it may not be.
Finally, poor sleep can prevent us from anticipating and driving positive organizational change. For instance, there is a large body of research suggesting sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality can lead to deficits in planning and decision-making, two functions necessary for assessing impact and deciding how and when to initiate change.
Recommendations for Improving Sleep and Leadership Effectiveness
With many high priority items and heavy workloads, sleep can fall by the wayside. However, it is important to consider the cyclical benefits of sticking to a healthy, consistent sleep schedule – that is, deciding right now to improve your sleep hygiene can trigger a cycle whereby good sleep leads to greater productivity during the workday, making it easier to prioritize sleep the following night (thus continuing the cycle of improved health and productivity). The following tips can help you initiate this cycle:
Set Boundaries for Work-Related Technology Use
Checking and answering work-related e-mail messages or other forms of communication technology while at home can be disruptive to sleep. If you’re a leader in your organization, you can set the norm for technology use at home. Shutting down your e-mail and other forms of work-related communication while at home can not only benefit you, but also your employees by modeling healthy work-home boundaries. It’s important to limit smartphone and laptop use in general before bedtime (even for non-work related purposes).
Improve Time Management to Allow for More Sleep
If sleep is not currently a priority due to a heavy workload, it may be necessary to re-prioritize items on your to-do list. Relatedly, leaders who like to maintain tight control of all work tasks would benefit from greater delegation to subordinates. Not only can effective delegation allow subordinates important developmental opportunities, it can free up time for higher priority tasks to get accomplished during the workday, making it easier to stick to a healthy sleep schedule.
Minimize the Negative Effects of Poor Sleep
It is important to note that for some leaders (like parents with young children), getting good quality sleep may not be realistic. When you notice you haven’t slept well, researchers suggest minimizing interactions or delaying important decision-making if possible. Other research has identified factors that may help mitigate the negative effects of poor sleep on self-regulation, including exercise and caffeine use (but not before bed; see Sleep Hygiene below).
Assess and Improve Your Sleep Hygiene:
Sleep hygiene involves habits and behaviors that contribute to good sleep quality. You can assess your own sleep hygiene using the Sleep Hygiene Index. Scores range from 0 to 52 and higher scores on this measure indicate poorer sleep hygiene. Detailed information about the Sleep Hygiene Index can be found in this research article.
The following websites provide more information on sleep and various tips for improving your sleep hygiene:
Whether you are currently in a leadership position or not, it’s essential to consider your sleep habits. If you aren’t getting enough sleep or have poor sleep quality, how might this influence your work? What are some steps you can take or have taken in the past to improve your sleep?