A step-by-step gameplan for when your company is in the news for the wrong reasons
One of the unpleasant aspects of being a manager is that you have to deal with employees who engage in punishable offenses, such as taking credit for another employee’s work, blaming someone else for a mistake, harassing a coworker, or violating company policies. Some typical disciplinary actions might include reassignment, suspension, formal performance write-ups, eliminating bonuses, or even firing. A good manager knows that these types of consequences are only effective if they are proportionate to the infraction. Too light, and they will not sufficiently communicate the severity of the infraction, both to the employee who broke the rules and to the peers who are watching. Too heavy, and you create an unfair environment that violates everyone’s expectations for justice.
We all want to believe that we are fair judges, and that we would be objective when allocating such measures. However, there’s an important factor that could undermine your ability to be fair: sleep. My colleagues — Kyoungmin Cho at the University of Washington and Cristiano Guarana at the University of Virginia — and I wanted to investigate this link. My previous research indicates that sleep deprivation impairs ethical judgment and behavior. And the research literature indicates that sleep deprivation leads to errors in decision making that the decision makers are oblivious to. As I discuss in my TEDx talk, sleep-deprived people are impaired without even being aware that they are impaired.
My colleagues and I started our research from the premise that sleep deprivation can augment negative responses to transgressions. Sleep-deprived people are more likely to interpret stimuli in a negative manner. This suggests that people will perceive infractions more negatively when they’re sleep deprived. In addition, sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to regulate negative emotions. This can make sleep-deprived people more likely to become angry or outraged, making them in turn more likely to respond negatively to people who engage in punishable behaviors. We hypothesized that sleep-deprived people would be more likely to dole out harsher punishments.
We wanted to test this hypothesis in a real-world setting, so we looked at some of the most important punishments meted out in the United States: prison sentences handed down by judges. The United States Sentencing Commission tracks the length of prison sentences (measured in number of months). We were able to access data from 1992–2003, giving us a useful measure of punishment.
It wasn’t possible for us to know how much each judge had slept before handing out a sentence. However, we were able to do the next best thing: We took advantage of the daylight savings time effect. Previous research indicates that on the Monday after the change to daylight savings time (when we “spring forward,” setting our clocks ahead one hour), people go to work with approximately 40 minutes less sleep than on comparable days. Although the clock change technically occurs at 2 AM on a Sunday, flexibility in weekend schedules means that a majority of the adjustment in human activity occurs on Sunday night. This results in what I refer to as “Sleepy Monday,” in which, on average, people are more sleep deprived than normal by a small but significant amount. Previous research shows that Sleepy Monday has measurable effects on workplace injuries, cyberloafing, and moral awareness, as well as having many other effects outside the workplace.
Taking advantage of this natural quasi-experiment, we compared the sentences handed out by judges on Sleepy Monday with sentences handed out the previous Monday and the Monday after. We included statistical control variables for sentence years, criminal history, offense level, type of trial, number of convictions, age, gender, race, and education of the offender, all of which were significant predictors of sentences. Above and beyond the effect of these control variables, we found that the sentences given out on Sleepy Monday were about 5% longer than those given out on the other two Mondays (see the source article here). Thus, a relatively small amount of sleep lost by a judge is associated with a noticeably harsher punishment.
Given the focus judges have on fairness, it is quite possible that managers in business contexts would display an even stronger effect. Moreover, we suspect that this captures a broader effect outside of the specific daylight savings time effect, such that sleep deprivation in general leads people to dole out harsher punishments for infractions.
Based on this finding, our advice to managers is to be aware of this potential effect on your judgment. If a subordinate engages in a punishable infraction after you’ve had a short night of sleep, you may allocate a punishment that is harsher than necessary, contributing to an unfair work environment.
Two potential ways to address this would be to either delay deciding on a disciplinary measure until you have had a better night of sleep or deliberately discount the measure you allocate to offset the effect of your sleep deprivation. Given the difficulty of calibrating the second approach, the first approach is probably the better option. And it bears repeating: If you want to be a better manager, aim to get at least eight hours of sleep each night.