How sleep deficiency can affect leadership

I’ve talked about the importance of sleep for your brain, before today. But let’s take it a bit further. A recent report shows that leadership skill is hampered by sleep deprivation. That means organisations may be at risk if insomnia prevails.

There is a cost of insufficient sleep to individuals and organisations. In a hyper-connected world that demands 24/7 attention to email and work response, we are all at risk of sleep loss. However, we need to manage this as it impacts on the quality of performance at work. Not only is the worker at issue, but also those who lead organisations.

Sleep deprivation impacts judgements
As I have mentioned in previous posts, sleep deprived brains have an impact on learning and on performance generally. Sleep deprivation can mean a loss of ability to make accurate judgements. It means that people can make irrational and unjustifiable claims eg denial about sleep needs.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex cannot cope with too little sleep. The prefrontal cortex is where the brain’s executive function is managed, from which leadership behaviours emanate.

The brain’s executive function includes things like:

  • higher order cognitive processes
  • problem solving
  • reasoning
  • organising
  • inhibition
  • planning
  • executing plans

Sleep and leadership
There are leadership qualities that correlate with organisational performance.  These include:

  • a strong orientation to results
  • problem solving
  • ability to take different perspectives
  • supporting others

A recent study shows the correlation between sleep and mental capacities, in the table below. The conclusion being that if deprived of sleep, these leadership qualities would be adversely affected.

Source: McKinsey&Company

Source: McKinsey&Company

Leaders are influential in determining organisational health, so effective leadership is important. Likewise, sleep is important – for people at all levels in organisations but especially in decision-making roles such as those held by leaders. Given the demands on people in these positions, it is especially important to consider the impact on the broader context.

What can organisations do?
The sleep issue may seem to be one outside an organisation’s domain of responsibility. That is, unless they make unreasonable demands on their leaders. Are there any organisations that don’t? In the world of ever-increasing globalisation, this is only going to increase. There are real challenges about being able to contain work to one time zone or to manage the boundaries of work that may encroach on sleep.

Suggestions include:

  • training – in sleep management, as in time management or communication skills programs
  • include sleep management as an integral part of well-being programs, on a par with nutrition, mindfulness and energy management initiatives
  • influence organisational policies:
    • travel – with more scope for travel at times that allows for adequate sleep before important meetings
    • team work – to share work load over time zones
    • email – allow for blackout times (not expecting 24/7 response)
    • establish work time limits – for functional work hours
    • mandatory work-free vacations
    • predictable/planned time-off
    • availability of napping rooms/pods
    • smart technology eg apps that enable sleep support and reminders

Sleep and you
According to the report by McKinsey, there is research to support the impact of sleep deprivation on work/task performance. They suggest:

  • 17-19 hours of wakefulness can equate to the same effect as 0.05% blood alcohol content
  • 20+ hours of wakefulness can equate to the same effect as 0.1% blood alcohol content

So, what about you? Do you work long hours and expect to be able to perform adequately? What are your expectations of others eg your children, your co-workers, perhaps your employees?

We all know that children who have not had adequate sleep are difficult to manage. Well most adults, are tall children. We are all subject to the same. When tired, sleep deprived or experiencing sleep deficits for other reasons, we can all perform below par – especially when it comes to working with and managing/leading others. We can all benefit from more, quality sleep. So do yourself, your people and your brain a favour, and sleep well!


The organizational cost of insufficient sleep by Nick van Dam and Els van der Helm Febuary, 2016.

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