Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CLUES Is lack of sleep making you a poor leader?

Are you getting enough?

Ever considered that the amount of sleep you get is a key factor in staff retention?

Researchers tell us that sleep is critical for our children’s capacity to learn. If they don’t get enough sleep, their ability to make new connections and their ability to concentrate is impaired.

Typical daily sleep requirements for children by age are:

• Infants (3 to 11 months): 14-15 hours
• Toddlers: 12-14 hours
• Preschoolers: 11-13 hours
• School-age children: 10-11 hours

So, are your kids getting enough sleep?

And as importantly, are you?

Why does it matter?

High performing brains, especially the pre-frontal cortex areas (PFC), require heaps of energy in the form of glucose. The PFC is responsible for our executive functioning like planning, decision-making, analysis, comparisons and behaviour control i.e. complex cognitive activities.

Just like children, if we are haven’t had enough sleep then our bodies prioritise the available energy just to keep us physically functioning. That means our brains, especially the PFC, lag behind in the race for glucose.

Result: tired brains find it hard to come up with new answers. One consequence is that we end up repeating what we have done before even if we know we should find a new way. We find it hard to focus, we procrastinate or we hastily make decisions that we should sleep on!

Negative memories and bad decisions prevail

Add this piece of research into the mix: Dan Ariely at Duke University wondered if decisions made in negative emotional circumstances in the past influenced future actions when the original emotion was no longer present. He did some experiments and concluded that they did.

Reason: when we make decisions, we tap into the memories of decisions we made in the past in circumstances that can be linked in some way to the present situation. That’s easier for our brain than having to come up with new neural connections (a new decision).

Now, negative memories (and their associated decisions) will always come to mind first because our amygdala is always on guard to protect us. They will, as Ariely puts it ‘become part of the blueprint’ for future actions.

And it’s when we use this blueprint and respond inappropriately, that’s what I call The Almond Effect®.

If we are tired our PFC is too exhausted to reflect back on the emotional circumstances in which the original decision was made and consider whether the decision is still the correct one in the fresh situation.

We are then likely to make the same poor decision again even though we may not be feeling the same negative emotions we felt when the original decision was made!

I wonder if that’s why office feuds, silo battles, home arguments, even wars, go on for so long – long after the original cause has been defused. We just haven’t stopped to challenge the pattern in our brain and so keep repeating decisions and behaviours because ‘that’s the way it’s always been.’

Ask your people if they like working for you when you are sleep deprived

So, for most of us lack of sleep means snap decisions, procrastination, repeating bad decisions, inability to concentrate and bad moods. And because we are tired we eat the junk food our bodies crave for an instant sugar (glucose) hit. We are too weary to do any exercise and so the exhaustion cycle continues – just adding to the load on our bodies and the depletion of energy.

Do your people love working for you when you are like that? Are you a good leader? Do they feel ‘engaged’?

They might put up with it for a few days, a few weeks, even longer but in the end, they’ll walk away and find someone who is easier to work with.

What to do about it

I’m not your mother so I’m not going to tell you to go to bed earlier, take a break, get some exercise, eat proper food, cut down on the alcohol – you can work that out yourself.

But at the very least, acknowledge when lack of sleep is impacting the way you lead. Consider whether, if you were in your people’s shoes, you are providing the kind of leadership that will encourage your best employees to stay?

If the answer is no and lack of sleep has something to do with it, then maybe you should let your kids put you to bed, read you a bedtime story and kiss you goodnight!