By: Winston Mattis

There are many reasons that may explain why your boss may be agitated and just plain and outright mean. There may also be several reasons that help explain why your boss may not consistently be a jerk, tending to flip flop in management style.  Personality traits, or in some cases personality disorders (e.g. mood swings), stress on the job, personal stressors on and off the job, incompetence, management style, impostor syndrome and a host of other factors may all be contributors to a supervisor being sweet and gentle one day and mean, rude and reprehensible the next.

Sleep deprivation has long been linked to many illnesses, including mood swings, obesity in children, etc.

Oprah Winfrey recently conducted an interview with the owner of Huffington Post who made it clear that she now gets seven hours of sleep, a change she consciously made after collapsing from sheer exhaustion at work in a pool of her own blood.  Her experience sends out a clear signal that many workplaces across North America are actual time bombs because so many executives, managers, and supervisors are pushed to do more with less.  The push to make more, to create more, to do more, to take work home can’t support body rejuvenation.  Corporate cultures based on the principle of filling every last crevice of one’s calendar with work may inadvertently be creating workplaces that are ticking time bombs.

The foregoing opinion tends to be supported not only with anecdotal information, but also by a growing body of research.  Evidence that sleep deprivation can alter the quality and frequency of workplace relationship is prevalent.  Objective research suggests that people’s interactions at work are a function of the amount and quality of the sleep they get each night.

At the anecdotal level let’s take very busy consultants and lawyers as a proxy.  As a group they often get very little sleep.[1]  Experientially we are all aware that after about ten hours of work we cease being productive. With lack of sleep some consultants become so irritable, short, and impatient that they are not fun to be around.  It is absolutely painful to watch otherwise extremely nice and considerate people transform into colossal jerks simply because of time pressures to produce and conclude projects on time and within budget.  At the empirical level there seems to be a growing amount of research that links not only:

Christopher Barnes,  Lorenzo Lucianetti,  Devasheesh Bhave, and Michael Christian are authors of a recent study titled: You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Sleepy: Leader Sleep, Daily Abusive Supervision, and Work Unit Engagement.  These authors provide the following abstract to their recent study.

“We examine daily leader sleep as an antecedent to daily abusive supervisory behavior and work unit engagement.  Drawing from ego depletion theory, our theoretical extension includes a serial mediation model of nightly sleep quantity and quality as predictors of abusive supervision.  We argue that a poor night’s sleep influences leaders to enact daily abusive behaviors via ego depletion and these abusive behaviors ultimately result in decreased daily subordinate unit work engagement.

We test this model through an experience sampling study spread over ten working days with data from both supervisors and their subordinates.  Our study supports the role of the indirect effects of sleep quality (but not sleep quantity) via leader ego depletion and daily abusive supervisor behavior on daily subordinate unit work engagement.”

Virtually any study can be subject to criticism based on its definitional, methodological and theoretical soundness/bias.  Let’s leave all of those critical arguments aside for one moment and focus instead on substantive content:

The study is important from several perspectives.  Firstly, the study labels as abusive conduct that for many help explain a leader’s effectiveness.  Secondly, the study tends to turn upside down the range of appropriate responses to supervisor abusive conduct.  One impact of the study is to force organizations to examine whether overworking their leaders negatively impacts upon the organization’s culture and bottom line. Thirdly, the study’s conclusion seems to support a more wholesome approach to responding to issues that play themselves out at work.  The reason for poor quality sleep on occasions may have little to do with the organization, yet the impact of poor sleep plays itself out in the organization.  For example, the reason for poor quality sleep may have to do with pressures from marriage, childcare, elder care, illness, etc.  Some of the factors that impact upon poor sleep may be gender linked.  A mom, in a supervisory/leadership role may experience more fatigue than her male counterpart because child and elder care issues often land in a woman’s lap, more so than in the laps of men.

Indirectly, the research draws into question the basis upon which formal leaders are chosen within organizations.  Many large organizations provide formal leadership training programs to emerging leaders who are selected by existing leaders.  In highly technical functions leaders are often chosen based on technical, not people skills, yet their effectiveness at leadership is a function of their people skills, not always their technical abilities.  At least one factor that helps to determine who gets selected for leadership training is how hard the person works.  Hard workers tend to be rewarded in leadership selection. In certain organizations hard work is measured by the number of billable hours (e.g.: large law firms, large consulting firms, investment banks, IT firms and accounting firms).  Working long hours corresponds to sleep deprivation.  The irony is that leaders are selected in part because they work long hours, but the research results are suggesting that working long hours is counterproductive to effective leadership and leadership effectiveness.

When Arianna Huffington collapsed from exhaustion she was sleeping about four to five hours per night.  She changed and Huffington is now an advocate for organizational leaders getting at least seven hours sleep.

For Huffington lack of sleep does not compute.  It makes no sense.  For Ms Huffington lack of sleep does not only result in abusive leadership, it is a matter of life and death.

Huffington near death experiences should send chills through cell of every organizational leader, why?  They are walking down the Huffington pathway prior to her post-collapse awakening, so their abusive management tendencies are the least of their problems. Organizations that pride themselves managing by objective data should examine whether their practices are in sync with research.  Are organizations that provoke overworked and sleep deprived people in any position to produce effective, long-term leaders? Are such organizations doing anyone justice?

It is time for organizations to re-think the whole leadership selection process and what it takes to become an effective leader within the organization and make decisions based on the conjunctive: what people need to be effective as humans and as leaders.


[1] The author of this piece has been fortunate to be included in both of those groups at various points in my life..