With significant and rapid technological, cultural, demographic, and economic changes in our knowledge-based economy, employee creativity has become an increasingly crucial challenge for organizations to develop employees, enhance the core competence of the organization [1
], and help organizations not only survive but also maintain sustainable competitive advantage in the global market [3
]. Naturally, organizations increasingly seek different ways to foster employee creativity [6
]. The quest to understand effective leadership has become one of the most important goals and common aspiration for researchers, individuals, organizations, and societies around the world.
In recent years, ethical scandals across the world have drawn the attention of researchers toward the study of ethical leadership (EL), and the organizations are also trying to seek the proper mechanisms to redress their leader’s unethical behaviors and to enhance the integrity and social responsibility [8
]. Earlier research points out that EL has a significant and optimistic association with several sustainable aspects of leadership effectiveness, which comprise of workers’ engagement, job satisfaction, organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), and the performance and commitment to the organization [9
]. Likewise, successful organizations regard employees’ work engagement (WE) as one of the most important elements for their survival [13
] and improved organizational performance [14
]. Employees’ WE is connected with positive institutional and individual outcomes, such as improvement of productivity and organizational citizenship behavior, job satisfaction, and strengthening managerial efficiency and effectiveness [15
]. In contrast, these individual and organizational outcomes decrease with employees’ dis-engagement [13
]. On the other hand, employee creativity (EC), in today’s world, is increasingly believed to be the core organizational competence and needs to be enhanced among employees through proper training and adequate experience [16
]. For that reason, scholars link EC with organizational success [3
], and organizations are aiming to identify the right ways to promote creativity among their employees [17
Leadership is the most influential element of WE and EC because leaders establish a healthy work environment where employees feel more motivated and self-satisfied with the help of their positive behaviors [13
]. Relatedly, EL has also a positive impact on WE [19
] and EC [20
]. According to Feng, et al. [21
], WE will be improved when ethical leaders demonstrate supportive behaviors and build a healthy environment through the means of proper feedback, trustworthiness, interactional justice, fair decision making, and care. These supportive behaviors help them to be involved in organizational creative tasks and increased their creativity [18
]. According to Blau [22
], when a working group performs their job, which is beneficial or valuable for another group, then the other group will endeavor to reciprocate equally, in return. This will establish a reciprocal relationship between leaders and their followers [13
]. Consistently, employees feel more obliged and engaged in the organization when ethical leaders enable them with socio-emotional resources [23
]. This may also increase the positive perceptions of employees for their leaders. Moreover, support from ethical leaders enhance the morality level among employees, and they put in extra effort to achieve sustainable organizational goals with full obligation, which actually demonstrate their greater AC [24
] and engagement [21
]. Relevant to the present research, only some empirical research has demonstrated the association between EL and EC through different mediators, such as voice behavior [25
], LMX and psychological empowerment [20
]. More research is needed to develop a better comprehension of this relationship. Therefore, we proposed to further explore the impact of EL on EC with different contexts in a non-western culture.
Cultural background and how employees interact with the leader should also be studied. Leadership styles need to be adapted to different environments and cultures in order to have an effective impact [26
]. Hofstede [27
] divided different groups of nations into various culture clusters where each has its own characteristics due to the history, culture, and tradition of the country. Resick, et al. [28
] further labeled the Asian countries as the Asian Confucius cluster that shared the common traits of collectivism, team orientation, and harmonious relationships. Out of the Asian Confucius cluster, China seemed to be the most influenced by the Confucian ideology where workplaces were shaped into close hierarchy relationships, with the subordinates having great respect and honor to the leaders as a child would behave to a father. For other Asian countries, which had a stronger influence on Western business cultures such as Hong Kong or Taiwan, that demonstrated some characteristics similar to the U.S. respondents, the overall behavior and perception of employees’ ethics were still shaped and impacted by traditional Chinese values. Hence, we have made an effort to investigate EL-EC relationship in the Chinese context using AC and WE as the potential mediators.
The research adds to the literature review in different ways. Firstly, it enabled us to determine whether employees EC and WE were intensified by EL within the institutionally bound culture, for example, to what extent is this EL successful in encouraging certain work behaviors in the Chinese government sector. Second, this research strengthens the present EL literature by seeking innovative contexts, which might have a distinct impact on followers’ outcomes. We attempted to develop a contributory mechanism of how EL works through AC and WE to promote EC in subordinates. Although, some other studies used different mediators to test this relation, for example, psychological empowerment [19
] and trust in leaders [29
]. Third, we investigated the mediation effect of AC on the association between EL and WE. Since most leadership studies are based on Western culture. Researchers have recognized the impact of national culture on influencing leadership attributes and effectiveness [26
], yet no research has explicitly investigated the relationships between ethical leadership and employee creativity using above mentioned mediators that are specific in the Chinese cultural context.
In this research, we have made a significant contribution to the existing literature on EL, AC, WE, and EC by investigating the unexplored side of the EL-EC relationship. In previous leadership studies, scholars suggested that a particular style of leadership can fortify a greatly determined staff [86
]. Therefore, we realized that EL is an appropriate style to make employees more engaged and creative. Engelbrecht, Heine and Mahembe [29
] argued that the qualities of ethical leaders, which includes trust, honesty, emotional attachment, fair decision making, and justice, encourage their followers to be highly engaged in their job. Our research findings are also consistent with those of Ali Chughtai [20
], which revealed that the behavior of a leader has a meaningful effect on the level of WE and EC.
Fewer researchers have reviewed the relationship between EL and EC [20
], and this is the first study to examine the influences of supervisors’ EL on WE and EC in the government sector institutions. We further explored the mediating effect of AC on the association between EL and WE, as well as a multiple mediation effect of both AC and WE on the association between EL and EC. The important contribution of our work is thus the mediated model, which provides a sound theoretical basis and might be used to assess the influences of EL on EC in Chinese public sector organizations with a collectivistic culture. The results exhibited that AC plays a partial mediation role on the relationship between EL and WE, and both employees’ AC and WE completely mediated the EL-EC relationship. Our findings showed that AC influences WE, which proves that when workers are affectively dedicated to the institution, they are more engaged in their work. This sense of engagement enables them to produce creative ideas, offer sensitivity to a problem, and add value to complexity [87
], self-confidence, persistence [18
], sustainable goal achievement, and dedication to work [88
]. The results of the current research also indicated that due to the causal-chain effect, WE and EC can be improved if the employees believe that they have the ability to engage in creative work. These causal-chain effects help to establish an emotional bond between the worker and the institution, and they determine how employees’ engagement is promoted to make the employees more creative.
6. Practical Implications
This study has some useful implications for practitioners. Firstly, this research proved ethical leadership (EL) to be an influential factor that enhances employees’ level of work engagement and indicates its crucial role to establish a healthy work environment where the employees become more courageous and engaged with their organization.
Second, as the outcomes of the current research showed the indirect influence of ethical leadership on employee creativity (EC) through affective commitment (AC) and work engagement, it is imperative for the managers and the supervisors to learn and seek all possible causal-chain relationships between ethical leadership and the employees’ engagement, which may enhance creative performance. Therefore, we recommend that organizations put greater emphasis on proper training and developmental programs for their leaders. As a result, the reciprocal relationships will be established between leaders and their followers, which may lead to greater commitment to the organization. Additionally, it will enable the leaders to identify the direct and indirect effects of ethical leadership in the psychological processes related to work engagement and employee creativity.
Third, to maximize the leadership effectiveness and make employees more engaged, creative, and committed, it is important for the leaders to offer organizational rewards to their employees, ensure their participation in the decision-making process, make fair decisions, and promote supervisory support.
Fourth, the Chinese context with strong roots in Confucianism is relevant to a modern Chinese society which has implemented the economic reform and open-door policy to Western countries for more than 30 years. Rapid industrialization and increased diversity in values have emerged in China. A new generation of individualistic and egalitarian Chinese has become an indispensable part of the Chinese workforce [89
]. More than ever before, leaders in China should pay attention to their own moral values which may enhance employees’ affective commitment, engagement, and creativity. These findings thus provide useful managerial implications that may meet these emerging needs in modern Chinese society.
Finally, the results of this study provide novel ethical implications that moral values are very important in achieving success. The executives and moral leaders must provide an ethical vision and mission, create a culture with strong shared ethical values in organizations, move beyond their self-interests and personal financial gains, and promote people’s creativity, quality of products and services, and sustainable development for the well-being of individuals in organizations as a whole.
7. Study Limitations and Suggestions for Future Study
There are some limitations to the present study. Firstly, the data utilized for this research was gathered from one source, and it might be the reason for the likelihood of CMV [67
], even though, we administered the questionnaire in three separate waves, assured the secrecy of the responses, and randomly ordered all the questions for each survey [67
]. Additionally, we applied Harman’s single factor technique to test biasness and found no significant effect. The most important point is the results from the confirmatory factor analysis (CFA), which the four-factor model had the best-fitted indices as compared to the other models with significant χ2
< 0.05). It provided strong evidence of lower CMV effects [67
]. However, we do acknowledge that to prevent the issues caused by CMV, future studies need to apply other methods of employees’ behaviors.
Second, our research was derived from the theories proposed in Western countries, and we obtained data and evaluated the proposed model in the context of Chinese public sector organizations. Even though earlier research had confirmed the relationships between ethical leadership and employee creativity [44
], no research has been conducted using employee affective commitment and work engagement as potential mediators. Therefore, the results of this study should be applied cross-culturally, and the replication of our findings will provide fruitful outcomes.
Third, the fact that study participants were recruited from an alumni database brings into question the extent to which their views represent those of others in the organization’s participants were employed. However, given the sensitive setting of our research, the Chinese public sector, and the sensitive nature of the questions related to ethical leadership and employee creativity, we feel contacting the participants directly allowed us to reduce social desirability bias.
Fourthly, we collected our sample from the eastern China region. To generalize the validity of our results, future researchers need to test our model empirically using samples from other regions and other Asian cultures. More research is needed in this direction.
Finally, our study could be repeated under different industry contexts to examine the causal relationships between ethical leadership and employee creativity in other businesses. Although we used structural equation modeling to carry out a simultaneous examination of our entire proposed model in the public sector, the results still need to be taken cautiously. We suggest that future research could address this issue by obtaining data from experimental and longitudinal research in different industries to strengthen the causal relationship between ethical leadership and employee creativity with different mediators and moderators.