|Sleep deprivation makes it harder for us to inspire others, or to be inspired|
There’s an archetype of the tireless leader who scorns slumber in favour of getting things done – Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, to name a few. But if you think you’re going to inspire anybody by routinely working through the night, you might want to think again. Research published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that sleep deprivation has the specific effect of making it harder for us to charismatically inspire others. And in a double whammy, the research suggests that followers who are sleep deprived are likely to find it particularly difficult to be inspired by their leaders.
Christopher Barnes and his colleagues asked 88 business students to prepare a commencement speech (a talk meant to inspire students at their graduating ceremony), and then to deliver it in front of a video camera. Half of the participants made the speech in a state of sleep deprivation (the previous night they’d had to complete a survey every hour between 10pm and 5am), the others were fully rested.
Afterwards the students answered questions about their own performance, including their ability to engage in “deep acting” – regulating their emotions by reaching inward and trying to genuinely experience these emotions. Also, a team of judges watched the videos of the speeches and rated the students’ performances for charisma. The judges didn’t know who the students were, nor whether they were in the sleep deprived condition or not, but nonetheless they consistently rated the tired orators as less charismatic.
This result was just as Barnes and his team predicted because previous research has shown that sleep deprivation makes it harder to control our emotional displays, and that one component of charismatic behaviour is being able to embody gravity, enthusiasm, or righteousness as the situation demands. Bearing this out, sleep-deprived participants considered themselves less able during the speech to engage in deep acting. And the worse they felt they were at deep acting, the less charismatic the speech.
A second experiment turned the tables to see how observers deal with charismatic content when they are tired. The researchers cherry picked some of the more charismatic or uninspiring videos from the first experiment, and then asked 109 student participants to watch them back and rate each for their charismatic effect. Half of these participants were sleep deprived and they felt less charismatically impressed by what they heard. As this can’t be related to their own deep acting skills, what was going on? Again, the answer is emotion: the tired participants felt less positive, and this lower mood explained the degree to which sleep deprivation affected their ratings. This is because in searching for an external explanation for our feelings, we are liable to misjudge the source – in this case the students blamed their feeling flat from tiredness on the fact the orators weren’t that charismatic.
The tireless leader trope may not come out of nowhere: there is evidence for a gene that provides resistance to sleep deprivation, and the will to persevere during certain crises may temporarily outweigh the costs. But the costs – summarised here – can be substantial, including attention deficits, poorer decision making and risk evaluation, and memory lapses. Now we can add charismatic influence to that list. Moreover, role-modelling long hours risks propagating these habits to the rest of the organisation – so even leaders who have the rare ability to shake off their own tiredness will be presiding over cognitively impaired, irritable followers in no mood for their pronouncements. Forty winks are a wise investment indeed.
Barnes, C., Guarana, C., Nauman, S., & Kong, D. (2016). Too Tired to Inspire or Be Inspired: Sleep Deprivation and Charismatic Leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000123
Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!