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Mean boss? Might be due to a bad night’s sleep

Click on the video above to see Christopher Barnes, now associate professor of management, explain his research. The video was produced in mid-September 2015 for the October 2015 issue of Academy of Management Journal (digital edition).

Managers are more likely to engage in abusive behavior when they are not getting enough quality sleep.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by Christopher Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Barnes’ research has previously demonstrated that lack of sleep contributes to a litany of workplace ills among employees—errors, accidents, procrastination, lack of creativity and ethical breeches, to name just a few.

His latest shifts the focus from subordinate to supervisor. And it builds on a foundation of considerable research indicating that abusive managerial behavior is more a function of situation than temperament. In other words, any boss can be mean or nice, depending on a number of factors influencing his or her behavior.

One of the most significant factors is sleep. “Sleep is important for restoring one’s ability to exert self-control,” writes Barnes in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post on the paper.

Quality, not quantity

To find out how important, Barnes collaborated with co-authors Lorenzo Lucianetti, Devasheesh Bhave and Michael Christian to conduct a field study of 88 leaders and their subordinates, charting patterns of sleep against reports of abusive behavior such as publicly berating an employee.

They found that the incidence of abuse rose sharply on days following a bad night’s sleep for the boss. And the result of that abuse was far worse than bruised feelings. Employees were less engaged and productive on abusive days.

“We found that daily leader sleep quality, but not quantity, influenced the leader’s self-control and abusive supervision behavior, and ultimately the degree to which his or her subordinates were engaged in work that day,” Barnes writes.

The cumulative effect of abusive behavior, he adds, is employee stress, low job satisfaction, deviant behaviors, poor performance, and intensions to quit.

“If leaders want their subordinates to be truly engaged,” Barnes concludes, “they should start by looking at their own sleep. Fortunately there are strategies for improving sleep.”

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

Read Barnes’ entire HBR article.

Watch Barnes explain his study on Wall Street Journal video.