Maybe Your Mean Boss Is Just Sleepy

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yawning cat on laptop
Photo: Anna Spysz/Getty Images

Perhaps the best way to appease a terrifyingly hostile boss is not to work faster and try harder. Maybe you should just buy them a nice sleep mask and some earplugs instead. Bosses are more likely to engage in abusive behavior toward their employees — like publicly belittling them, for example — after getting a crappy night’s sleep, says a forthcoming study in the Academy of Management Journal

Previous research in this area assumed that some supervisors always manage their teams in a hostile manner, and others never do. But if you’ve ever had or been a boss (or a person, for that matter), you know it’s more complicated than that: Sometimes, basically nice people have days on which they act like jerks, and vice versa. So while it’s true that most of us are probably meaner when we’re operating on very little sleep, this paper is an example of a pretty new way of thinking about abusive bosses.

In lead study author Christopher Barnes’s previous work, he’s found that sleep-deprived people have a harder time exerting self-control; for example, he’s found that they are more likely to act unethically. So Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, wanted to see how this might affect a supervisor’s behavior at work. Here’s how he and his colleagues went about testing this theory, as Barnes writes in Harvard Business Review:

[W]e 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. … 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 their work that day. It is not clear why sleep quantity did not have the effect we predicted, but the effect for sleep quality was very clear; a given leader engaged in more jerky boss behavior after a poor night of sleep than a good night of sleep, and this influenced his or her subordinates to disengage from work. 

In short: A sleepy, cranky boss has a lot in common with a sleepy, cranky 2-year-old. 

Maybe Your Mean Boss Is Just Sleepy