Why Sleep Deprivation Is Worse for You–and Your Business–Than You Think
Fatigue makes you seem less charismatic, less intelligent, and even less passionate. Even worse is the effect on employees.
If you are a leader, one thing keeping you up at night should be that things are keeping you up at night.
Sleep deprivation has a deleterious effect on almost every aspect of leadership, from charisma and management to decision-making and ethics, according to Christopher Barnes, a professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. “Problem-solving and creativity are two of the big ones that get hit,” Barnes says. “People struggle with self-control. They are likely to chase high levels of risk and start to ignore the potential for loss.”
The result is that a whole lot of people who shouldn’t even be operating heavy machinery are operating complex organizations. That’s not good for employees, shareholders, or the leaders themselves, who endanger their reputations along with employee morale and productivity.
Elon Musk thrust entrepreneurial wakefulness into the news in August when he copped to working 120-hour weeks and using Ambien. Richard Branson gets five or six hours a night; ditto Jack Dorsey. Such people boast they don’t need much sleep. But “almost everyone who says that is fooling himself,” Barnes says. A tiny portion of the population carries a genetic mutation that reduces the toll sleeplessness takes on cognition. The rest get so accustomed to functioning at reduced capacity “that it becomes your new normal,” Barnes says. “You measure your performance against that rather than how you would be after a good night’s sleep.”
The cost to charisma
Most entrepreneurs recognize that sleep deprivation dulls their problem-solving and decision-making skills. Such deficits, if necessary, can often be addressed by a strong, better-rested executive team. But in a startup, the main thing founders have to sell is themselves. And sleeplessness degrades their ability to express the charisma and passion that lure investors, employees, and customers to their track-record-less ventures.
In experiments conducted by Barnes and several colleagues, leaders who slept poorly were less able than well-rested counterparts to muster the kind of positivity required to inspire the troops. Their speeches, consequently, received lower charisma ratings from third-party observers. Charisma is related to passion: The entrepreneur’s most valuable resource also gets lost in the drowsy fog. That hurts leaders not just with employees but also with investors, who in some contexts are influenced by passion. “It is reasonable to expect that if you give that pitch after a short night of sleep you have just lowered your odds of getting funding,” Barnes says.
Fatigue also takes a toll on physical features. Research shows that when people interact with the sleep-deprived, they pay attention to droopy eyelids and mouth corners, pale skin and fine lines. Facial features are crucial to human interaction. Consequently, such distortions may have a negative social impact.
Nutshelled: Lack of sleep makes leaders look and sound bad. “People don’t think, ‘Wow, that guy must be working hard to be so tired,'” Barnes says. “Instead what they see is, ‘This person is not especially articulate. They are not looking very smart. They are not looking very charismatic.’ You are just much less impressive when you are sleep-deprived.”
Sleep-deprived leaders also are more likely to act unethically, because their self-control is on mute. “Unethical behavior usually means you are facing a temptation,” says Barnes, whose research shows that people may behave more or less ethically depending how much sleep they got the night before. “If you cannot exercise self-control, then you cannot overcome that temptation.”