When new managers and their employees meet for the first time, they begin to forge their working relationship, which will be a crucial factor in how they both experience work, how much they trust each other, and how effectively they can work together. You may have a direct report that you hold in high regard, whom you give the most important tasks to, and spend the most time mentoring. You may have another direct report whom you see as a drag on the team, give fewer opportunities to, and are less effective working with. The first few months of working together with any given employee is especially important in determining how the relationship will proceed.

In this post, we discuss a newly uncovered predictor of the quality of these relationships: sleep. In our previous work, we found that sleep deprivation undermines leader charisma and can lead to abusive supervisor behavior. Building in part from that work, in our latest project we sought to examine how sleep influences the development of leader-follower working relationship quality in newly assigned leader-follower pairings. We start from the premise that sleep deprivation would make leaders and followers experience more negative emotions at work (in the form of hostility). You can probably easily remember a time in which you had a short night of sleep and had a bit of a short temper at work the next day. This is a very common experience, and is largely driven by the fact that sleep deprivation undermines the parts of your brain involved in regulating emotions.

The expression of hostility can be damaging to a newly forming work relationship. Hostility naturally invokes feelings of threat, and erodes feelings of psychological safety in a given context. A single episode of yelling hostilely at a an employee might be forgiven. However, if it is a common occurrence, that employee may start to feel that the supervisor has a lack of respect and empathy, and that they have a poor quality work relationship with that leader. Indeed, there is previous research indicating that the expression of hostility is damaging to relationships. Thus, our prediction was that sleep deprivation would lead to the expression of hostility, which would in turn damage the working relationship between a manager and an employee.

In testing these predictions, we examined both sides of the leadership coin: leaders and followers. We conducted two field studies with newly assigned leader-follower pairs in organizations situated in Brazil. In our first study, 86 leader-follower pairs that had just started working together completed a survey about their sleep, hostility, relationship quality, and other variables that were used as statistical controls. Consistent with our expectation, we found that leader sleep deprivation undermined the follower’s perception of the quality of their working relationship. We also found that the effect went the other way as well; sleep deprivation on the part of the follower also had a harmful effect on the leader’s perception of the quality of their work relationship.

You and Your Team Series

Becoming a Manager