Some years ago I was a senior manager of a small public sector agency. We thought we had the hiring process nailed. We would select the final three candidates, interview each intensively on consecutive days and then meet on the fourth day and decide. The information was fresh and we could make an offer quickly so the potential employee would have the weekend time to decide.
One Thursday afternoon, the three on the hiring group were visiting about the candidates we had just interviewed and had chose who we thought to be the clear best. At the time, we had a wonderful administrative associate named Doris. She walked into the room on another matter and casually asked, “Who are you going to hire?” When I mentioned the name her face fell and she said, “Really?” We asked her to sit and share her impressions about our preferred candidate.
During the interview with this person, something came up that required the immediate attention of the three of us, so we parked him in front of Doris for about 20 minutes. The person we found so charming and personable treated Doris with condescension and disdain. Naturally, we were troubled by this new information. Doris, who was a font of common sense, suggested we sleep on it, then decide. The next morning, the decision seemed obvious and we began to look at the other candidates after thanking Doris for her input. From then on, we “accidentally” parked all candidates in front of Doris. This experience was a rich learning experience.
First, we learned and were surprised by the fact that there are some people, fortunately not many, who seem to have two sets of behavior. One set for their managers and peers and another set for those below them in the pecking order. For these people status seems to drive their behavior toward others, shades of what a rigid social class system would be like.
This also raises a question for those who have managers reporting to you. How do you ascertain that your managers show respectful behavior to their direct reports? Apparently, looking down through the chain of responsibility is not so easy. How to create a sensing process that captures accurate information about your managers and preserves the chain of responsibility? A topic for another day.
Second, we learned that events and decisions often look very different the next morning. Doris intuitively knew if we caught some ZZZs, we would make the right decision.
Scientists have been studying sleep for several decades, and much is known about normal and abnormal sleep. The most important fact is that sleep deprivation has many negative cognitive, emotional and physical effects. In fact, research on animals shows that if completely deprived of sleep, some will die. What is most important to know is that sleep goes through a series of 90- to 110-minute cycles, and in one of these of these cycles, where rapid eye movement, loss of muscle tonus and dreaming occur, the brain appears to be actively processing. No one is sure what the brain is processing but this stage, called REM, seems to be the critical element of sleep. (See http://1.usa.gov/f9P4gy for more on this.)
Over the years, I have learned never to be pushed into big decisions without sleeping on them. Also, if you have what seems to be an intractable problem, think about it very briefly at bedtime and when you awaken the solution is often in your head or will soon pop up. A wondrous thing, the human mind working for us even when we are sleeping.
An article in the Wall Street Journal recently (http://on.wsj.com/euvgR1) noted that about 30 percent of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived and that only about 3 percent can function with only five to six hours of sleep. It noted that most of us need seven to nine hours to function optimally. My own experience with sleep deprivation suggests that if all Americans received an adequate amount of sleep, it would produce huge gains in productivity. When sleep deprived, I lose the mental edge that lets me do very good work. Interestingly, although we can develop a debilitating sleep deficit and multiple nights of sleep deprivation require longer for rebound, we cannot build what may be thought of as a sleep bank to draw upon. Apparently, the positive effects of sleep are used shortly after they are generated.
Some years ago we had a 17-year-old niece come to live with us and do her junior year in a local high school. Of course, we set up ground rules, easy to enforce because we had the car keys. One rule was: no TV after 10 p.m. So what can I do, she asked? We suggested three things: study, read or sleep. As it required the least effort she chose to sleep. Within a week we saw a noticeable improvement in her attention, with a concurrent decrease in irritability. She became as nice as is possible for a teenager. N of 1 studies are not scientific, but it was after this event that I began to read more about the power of a good night’s sleep. For these reasons I try to optimize my sleep patterns. Pleasant dreams.
John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.