You've just been hired. You'll be working closely with your boss for the first few weeks of your first assignment, and you've heard he can be a nightmare to work with, one-on-one. What is the single most effective thing you can both do, to make sure you get along? According to a new study, the answer is -- sleep.
How your relationship is born
When you're new, you and your boss are strangers and you can neither predict nor explain each other's behavior. A relationship between you is borne out of the need to eliminate this uncertainty.
At the start, you'll rely on heuristics. You'll go by the obvious signals the other person sends out, embedded in facial expressions and in behavior, to form an idea of their character. Once you know their character, you can predict how they will think and behave, and you'll feel more in control.
You'll both rely heavily on emotional cues and will be especially sensitive to negative emotions. If the other person sends out negative cues, for instance, if he is hostile, you're likely to attribute his hostility to his character rather than to the situation that caused the hostility. Over time, this creates a sour picture of the other person in your mind. This is bad for your future relationship because the "leader-follower relationship" is disproportionately shaped by the interaction at the start.
Sleep and your brain
Your "prefrontal cortex" sits just behind your forehead. It coordinates your attention and plays a key role in regulating your emotions so you don't place unnecessary emphasis on negative emotions. It also helps you read the emotions of other people.
The prefrontal cortex is extremely sensitive to sleep deprivation. In a small study, giving chronic insomniacs sleep therapy visibly increased activity within parts of the prefrontal cortex. A sleep-deprived prefrontal cortex may not be able to regulate emotion as well as it should. A recent study has shown how temporarily "knocking out" a part of the prefrontal cortex makes people carry unnecessary negative emotions from one event to the next and react negatively to neutral facial expressions.
Not getting enough sleep reduces emotional intelligence. This can give you a negativity bias -- you are more likely to notice negative behavior and emotions and to feel them yourself.
Sleep deprivation and your relationship
Poor sleep affects the boss-employee relationship through two avenues.
- Sleep deprivation prevents you from controlling your emotions. You may send out inappropriate negative emotional signals -- such as anger and hostility, without being aware that you're doing this. This will invite a negative volley back from the other person. You will wrongly assume the other person is being unpleasant -- you won't realize they are simply responding to your own behavior. This creates a vortex of negativity.
- Sleep deprivation makes you interpret the other person's behavior in a wrong way. You are more likely to see a neutral facial expression as a negative one and to read situations incorrectly. Negative emotions feel more intense.Your overall experience at work will feel negative and uncertain (because you're not reading things accurately) and you will mistakenly assume it is all because you have an unpleasant boss/employee.
Sleep deprivation also affects productivity, risk-aversion and high-level decision-making. Your performance in these areas will also affect your relationship.
If sleeping more is all it takes to have great relationships at work, then heading to bed an extra hour or two earlier every night is a small price to pay for more happiness, enhanced productivity and a clear head, the next day.