UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

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UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

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Boss being a jerk? Blame it on bad night's sleep, study finds

12/16/2014

Parents know that their children are more likely to behave badly when they haven’t had enough sleep.

But a lack of sleep isn’t a problem just for kids. It also can turn bosses into jerks.

And bosses’ bad behavior – hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior – affects their subordinates, which in turn erodes their engagement in their work.

A study by a team of business professors found that daily sleep quality – not quantity – influenced supervisors’ self-control and abusive behavior toward subordinates – and ultimately, the degree to which their subordinates were engaged in their work.

The research was conducted by:
• Christopher M. Barnes of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business
• Lorenzo Lucianetti of the University of Chieti and Pescara
• Devasheesh P. Bhave of Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business
Michael S. Christian of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

It is published in the article “You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Sleepy: Leader Sleep, Daily Abusive Supervision, and Work Unit Engagement” in the Academy of Management Journal.

The professors conducted a field study of 88 leaders and their subordinates. For two weeks, leaders completed surveys at the beginning of each workday about their sleep the night before and their self-control at that moment. For the same two weeks, their subordinates completed surveys at the end of each workday about the abusive supervisor behavior of their leaders and their own work engagement that day.

“Not many people would expect someone else’s sleep to influence their own behavior, but this is precisely what we found. Leaders’ sleep quality influenced their entire unit’s work engagement,” Christian said. “And while past research has portrayed abusive supervision as stable over time – some bosses are jerks and some aren’t – our study shows that the same boss can be abusive one day and nice on the other. Conversely, the typically nice boss isn’t immune from the side effects of insufficient sleep and can behave badly with their staff.”

“We hope our work demonstrates to leaders that their sleep matters and should be a priority and can be even considered a good business decision,” said Barnes. “When they sleep better, they’ll provide a better workplace for their subordinates – who will be more engaged and therefore productive in their work.”

Based on their findings, the professors made recommendations for business leaders:
  • Look at their sleep quality if they want their staff to be truly engaged
  • Be aware of what triggers their abusive behavior
  • Try to delay important interactions and decisions if they slept poorly the night before
  • Use training to connect the dots between their poor sleep and abusive behavior towards their staff – and their staff’s resulting subordinate hostility and attitudes.