Be Less of a Jerk: Do Something About Your Sleep

One of the delights of being an academic is sometimes you stumble on a useful, practical gem, and one such gem is an article titled, “You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Sleepy: Leaders’ Sleep, Daily Abusive Supervision, and Work Unit Engagement” by Christopher M Barnes, Lorenzo Lucianetti, Davasheesh P. Bhave, and Michael S. Christian published in the Academy of Management Journal. The study maintains that sleep may be one factor to be taken into account in explaining abusive supervisory behavior. The researcher make the point that at least some of the daily variation of negative leadership behavior may be explained by the sleep factor. Interestingly, the authors find that the quality of sleep rather than its quantity may be associated with abusive behavior.  Abusive behavior is catalogued as hostile verbal and non-verbal behaviors, not including physical contact. This finding suggests that maybe leaders should monitor their sleep habits.

In the workplace, the authors argue, leaders face situations where they are tempted to react in impulsive and abusive ways. Perhaps they are frustrated due to lack of progress, or maybe they explode when they notice a mistake or when their ideas are criticized.  Each of these situations puts leaders into a situation where their ego strength is depleted and they are less capable of the self-regulation necessary to control their impulses. At the moment when self-regulation is so critical, when stopping and reflecting on the short- and long-term consequences of their behavior is essential, leaders instead react by impulsively lashing out.

The authors make the case that poor sleep quality results in ego depletion, which in turn can lead to abusive supervisory behavior which consequently cannot only impede employee engagement but also have negative consequences for the team and the organization.

What’s the point? Think of the stress that leaders and entrepreneurs are under when developing new products, searching for new markets, and competing for resources.

Leadership, especially in an entrepreneurial setting, is demanding. Mistakes are made, resources are limited, and competition is inevitable–setting up a situation that requires a great deal of self-regulation to hold forth and to be steady and reflective.

The vicious cycle is that the very stresses that leaders and entrepreneurs labor under may lead to poor sleep quality, which leads to less self-regulation and more abusive behavior, eroding the support of the very people whose support you need to promote your good ideas and move your agenda.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that part of negative supervisory behavior varies daily, and may vary due to the quality of sleep of the leader. Obviously, this isn’t a complete or total explanation why you may be a jerk as a leader or supervisor, or to say definitely that in all cases that poor sleep quality is a predictor of abusive supervisory behavior. But if poor sleep quality explains a fraction of your negative supervisory behavior, maybe you should consider doing something about your sleep habits. Your colleagues will appreciate it, your family will appreciate it, and all and all, you may find having a better night’s rest worthwhile.

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