The science connecting effective leadership to sleep

Forty-three percent of business leaders do not get enough sleep at least four nights a week, according to the Harvard Business Review. While many sleep-deprived leaders prolong their waking hours to do more work, sleep deficiencies can significantly undermine important aspects of leadership behavior and negatively impact financial performance.

The last part of the brain to evolve was the neocortex, which is responsible for functions such as sensory perception, motor commands and language. The front part of the neocortex, the prefrontal cortex, controls executive functioning, which includes higher-order cognitive processes — problem solving, reasoning, organizing, inhibition, planning and executing plans, according to the report. Leaders rely heavily on these functions. And while other regions of the brain can operate just fine with limited sleep, the prefrontal cortex cannot. 

There are four main functions of leadership that are proven to be negatively impacted by inadequate sleep, according to the report.

1. Operating with a strong orientation to results. To do this, leaders must be able to focus and avoid distractions while at the same time be able to comprehend the bigger picture of the company's performance. Sleep deprivation reduces the ability to focus, according to the report. Research shows that after between 17 and 19 hours of wakefulness, individual performance on a range of tasks is equivalent to a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent. After 20 hours of wakefulness, an individual's performance level is equivalent to someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent, according to the report.

2. Problem solving. Adequate sleep is important for numerous cognitive functions that play a part in problem solving, such as insight, pattern recognition and creativity. Studies have found a link between a full night's sleep and new insights, as well as between afternoon naps and creative problem solving, according to the report.

3. Openness to outside perspectives. Numerous studies have identified the impact of sleep on all three stages of learning: before learning, when the brain encodes new information; after learning, when it consolidates the information; and before remembering, when the brain stores the information to memory. Sleep also affects people's ability to accurately weigh the value of different inputs, avoid tunnel vision and reduce cognitive bias, according to the report.

4. Supporting others. Understanding others' emotions and situations is an integral precursor to helping them. However, if one is sleep deprived, the brain is more likely to misinterpret others' facial cues or tone of voice, according to the report. Additionally, those who are sleep deprived are less likely to fully trust someone else.

It is in an organization's best interest to ensure its leaders and employees are getting enough sleep each night. To encourage workers to hit the hay at a reasonable time, organizations can develop training programs that increase awareness and encourage behavioral change regarding sleep practices. Additionally, they can ensure policies — such as those regarding travel and expectations for email and response times — are consistent with a value of sleep. Other measures, such as mandatory work-free vacations, time off, nap rooms and smart technology can help workers get enough sleep.

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