In the current knowledge economy, individual creativity (i.e., “the production of novel and useful ideas by an individual” [1
] (p. 126)) has become crucial to firms [2
]. As their context is characterized by strong competition and the scarcity of resources, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) increasingly depend on employees’ ideas for their longer-term survival and to achieve a competitive advantage [5
]. Those firms operating in high-tech and knowledge-intensive industries particularly need to promote employee creativity as the foundation for the innovation and the introduction of new processes and products to the market [6
In knowledge-intensive SMEs, employees are the main bearers of tacit knowledge and their competences and creativity are important for the innovation process [8
]. Since these firms cannot compete in efficiency via economies of scale, they rely more on leveraging employee creativity [10
Although creativity and innovation are conceptually different, they are closely related constructs [11
]. Individual creativity focuses on the generation of new and useful ideas, while innovative behavior also encompasses their application [2
]. Some scholars (e.g., Amabile [14
], Janssen [15
], and Scott and Bruce [16
]) consider creativity to be the first phase of the innovation process, which also encompasses the promotion of ideas and their realization. In the same vein, LePine and Van Dyne ([17
], p. 865) emphasized that "innovation begins with recognition and generation of novel ideas or solutions that challenge past practices and standard operating procedures”. According to Joo et al. ([18
], p. 394), creativity is important in itself because it is “the seed of innovation”.
Research has extensively analyzed employee characteristics (such as creative self-efficacy, personality traits or creative skills, among others) as antecedents of individual creativity (see the narrative review by Anderson et al. [2
], and the review by Cai et al. [11
]). The importance of social context as a driver of individual creativity has also been recognized [2
]. Empirical evidence has shown that, in general, leadership styles focused on the relationship, such as leader–member exchange, boost creativity ([4
]; see also the meta-analytical reviews by Carnevale et al. [13
], Hammond et al. [21
], and Lee et al. [12
]). The social exchange theory [22
] and the principle of reciprocity [23
] hold that when individuals perceive that they have benefited from a positive relationship, they will feel indebted and obliged to reciprocate it exhibiting positive behaviors. In a close and positive relationship between leader and follower, the latter will engage in creative behavior by receiving support, trust, and resources from the leader [12
]. Nevertheless, it is necessary to go deeper into the underlying processes through which leader–member exchange (LMX) is associated with creativity. The fact that not all studies have supported this association (e.g., Clegg et al. [24
]) and the high variability in the relationships found in meta-analytical reviews suggest the existence of potential mediators and moderators in this complex relationship.
By proposing engagement as a mediator and job complexity as a moderating contextual variable, this paper helps to clarify the process model linking LMX to individual creativity and responds to the Qu et al.’s [25
] recent call for new research that analyzes the moderating and mediating variables in the LMX-creativity relationship.
Specifically, the goals of this study are (a) to examine employee engagement as a mechanism that transmits the effect of LMX on individual creativity, and (b) to analyze job complexity as a boundary condition that intensifies the effect of employee engagement on individual creativity.
As stated by Kahn [26
], engagement is “the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s “preferred self” in task behaviors that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional) and active, full performances” (p. 700). The physical dimension of engagement is manifested in the energy and effort exerted in the work role, the cognitive dimension is manifested in the attention and absorption in the work role, and the emotional dimension is characterized by a positive affective response (enjoyment and activation) towards the work role. According to Rich et al. [27
], this conceptualization of engagement goes beyond the traditional focus on physical or cognitive effort applied to a work role; it describes the degree to which employees simultaneously invest all their energies “in a holistic and connected manner” ([27
], p. 618) into the performance of their work roles, and how intensely and persistently they apply them.
Although individuals make choices concerning investing themselves in and expressing themselves through work roles [26
], leaders facilitate the conditions that render such actions possible [28
]. Kahn and Heaphy [29
] highlighted the relevance of the relational context, such as LMX, for engagement. Furthermore, it has been argued that employees engaged in their work roles tend to employ all their energies, display their real identity, thoughts, and feelings, and consequently, be more creative [26
]. By analyzing the effect of engagement on individual creativity, this research addresses Anderson et al.’s [2
] call for more research concerning motivational psychological states associated with individual creativity.
In the literature concerning creativity, intrinsic motivation (i.e., the desire to spend effort based on interest, pleasure, and enjoyment of the work itself [30
]) has been considered a proximal antecedent of individual creativity [1
], although a lesser effect than expected has been found (see Grant and Berry’s review [32
]). The use of engagement as a mediating variable was based on its recognition as one of the main motivational constructs [27
]. Although engagement shares conceptual space with intrinsic motivation (both involve effort and persistence; [27
]), engagement extends further because it is not just about performing a task for the enjoyment and pleasure it entails, it also incorporates the simultaneous investment of cognitive and emotional energies [26
]. In this regard, the study by Rich et al. [27
] found that engagement and intrinsic motivation were different constructs and that engagement explained additional variance in job performance and organizational citizenship behavior.
Despite growing evidence showing that engagement is a motivational psychological state relating contextual factors to employees’ attitudes and behaviors [27
], there is a lack of studies examining their mediating role in the LMX–individual creativity relationship. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, only two studies [37
], carried out in the service sector in India and South Korea, have empirically tested engagement as an intervening mechanism between LMX and innovative behavior. Since innovative behavior also covers the implementation of ideas, these studies do not allow to determine the differential contribution of LMX on creativity through engagement. Scholars [2
] advocate the need to examine creativity separately.
In addition, according to the interactionist perspective [39
], creative behaviors arise from the interplay between individual and contextual factors. This study proposes that the effect of engagement on individual creativity will be conditioned by the opportunities offered by the task context (represented by job complexity).
Job complexity is among the most important characteristics of contemporary jobs [40
], particularly in knowledge-based firms. It is recognized that more complex jobs offer employees more opportunities to be creative [41
]. Most of the creativity research has considered job complexity (usually measured as a combination of identity, variety, significance, autonomy, and feedback) as an antecedent of creativity [2
]. However, so far, research examining the moderating role of job complexity is still limited.
Volmer et al. [19
] claimed that “opportunities provided within high-quality LMX are best used in conjunction with job design features” (p. 475). Shalley et al.’s [44
] study showed that job complexity interacts with growth need strength and a supportive work context to affect individual creativity. Audenaert et al. [45
] found that job complexity positively moderated the influence of psychological empowerment on employee innovation. Recently, Cai et al. [46
] confirmed that job characteristics strengthened the association between employee psychological capital and creativity. However, how job complexity performs as a moderator in the LMX–engagement–creativity relationship has remained unexplored. Therefore, this study is the first to analyze these relationships.
Our study extends the literature on the implications of relational leadership (in our case, LMX) on individual creativity. Although there is a growing body of research that has used the LMX framework to explain creativity, according to Tierney ([47
], p. 175) “there is still much to be investigated in this realm”.
First, this study responds to the call by Qu et al. [25
] for further research on mediators in the LMX–individual creativity relationship. Specifically, engagement, a psychological motivational state that manifests itself in the physical, cognitive, and emotional energies exerted at work, is proposed. Although engagement is recognized as a robust motivational construct and calls for further research on its impact on creativity have been made (e.g., Anderson et al.’s [2
]), little is yet known about its effect on creativity [48
Second, given that the engagement–creativity link may be affected by the task context, we extend the research by analyzing the moderating role of job complexity, a key job characteristic in knowledge-intensive firms. Although both engagement and job complexity are relevant to creativity, surprisingly, their interactive effect has not been explored.
Taken together, this manuscript contributes to the recent literature focusing on analyzing the influence of LMX on individual creativity by testing a moderated mediation model and illuminating the process model linking LMX to individual creativity [4
As displayed in Table 1
, the correlations were aligned with our hypotheses. To confirm the constructs’ reliability and validity, we conducted CFAs. First, we analyzed the engagement measure fit as a second-order factor formed by three dimensions. The results indicated a satisfactory fit (χ2 (49) = 119.60; χ2/df = 2.44; CFI = 0.98; TLI = 0.97; RMSEA = 0.07). Second, we tested the fit of the structural model. The results revealed an adequate fit with the data (χ2 (316) = 870.53; χ2/df = 2.76; CFI = 0.93; TLI = 0.93; RMSEA = 0.07), implying the acceptability of the proposed model.
summarizes the statistics used to verify the scales’ reliability and validity. The composite reliability (CR) and the average variance extracted (AVE) of each scale exceeded the established minimum of 0.6 and 0.5, respectively [75
], supporting the reliability of the scales. Convergent validity was evidenced by verifying that all the factor loadings were significant and higher than 0.5. The discriminant validity between constructs was verified since the correlation confidence intervals excluded the unit value, and their squared correlations were lower than the AVE [75
The presence of a mediating effect requires that two conditions be fulfilled [76
]: the independent variable (LMX) should be significantly associated with the mediator (engagement), and the mediator should be significantly related with the dependent variable (individual creativity). To test the hypotheses, Model 14 established by Hayes [73
] was performed. Table 3
presents the results for the conditional process model. In support of hypothesis 1, LMX was found to be positively linked with engagement (a = 0.22, p
< 0.001). Consistent with hypothesis 2, engagement had a positive effect on individual creativity (b1 = 0.55, p
< 0.001). The validation of the two first hypotheses provides evidence for the indirect influence of LMX on individual creativity via engagement, confirming hypothesis 3. Moreover, confidence intervals for the indirect conditional effects of LMX on individual creativity at various values of job complexity estimated by bootstrap did not include zero (Table 4
). This provides additional evidence supporting hypothesis 3.
The interaction effect between engagement and job complexity was positive and significant (b3 = 0.13, p
< 0.05), confirming hypothesis 4. Figure 2
, plotted using the process by Dawson [77
], supports this interpretation of the moderating effect by showing that the engagement–individual creativity relationship is significantly strongest when job complexity is higher.
As seen in Table 4
, the indirect influence of LMX on individual creativity via engagement is moderated by job complexity (hypothesis 5). Since the confidence interval estimated by the bootstrap for the index of moderated mediation excludes zero (0.003–0.061), this result provides additional support for hypothesis 5 [78
]. It was evidenced that the higher the job complexity the stronger the indirect influence of LMX on employee creativity was.