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Editor’s Note:

Given the fierce competition in today’s business environment, leaders, especially those in rapidly evolving industries, often exhibit a perfectionistic tendency toward their employees to foster their creativity. However, whether leader perfectionism can boost or undermine employees’ creativity is inconclusive. Then, why can leader perfectionism affect employees’ creativity? To whom and to what degree can the perfectionistic tendency of leaders affect the creativity of their subordinates? In order to examine these questions, Zhi Liu and Yuntao Dong, associate professors in the Department of Organization and Strategy Management at Guanghua School of Management, Peking University, and their collaborators have conducted a research. The research paper, Leader Perfectionism—Friend or Foe of Employee Creativity? Locus of Control as a Key Contingency, has been published in the Academy of Management Journal.

The following summary is excerpted from the paper.

01 Background

Nowadays, managers tend to require their subordinates to create novel and useful ideas, products, and services, to go beyond customers’ expectations, and to achieve standards that are insurmountable for competitors. Therefore, leaders tend to demonstrate a perfectionistic tendency toward employees (leader perfectionism) by establishing exceptionally high standards for them and expecting them to deliver the best possible outcomes without errors or defects. Famous examples of perfectionistic leaders include Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, and leaders in the East, such as Kazuo Inamori, Jun Lei, and Mingzhu Dong.

On one hand, perfectionism shown by leaders has the potential to foster employee creativity, as employees need to move away from existing solutions and try different alternatives to meet the requirements of their leaders. On the other hand, leader perfectionism can increase stress, drain employees and dampen their creativity. Given that the standards of perfectionistic leaders are exceptionally high, employees may find such requirements overwhelming, making it more difficult to generate novel ideas.

02 Theories and Hypotheses

The research adopts a self-regulation perspective. Self-regulation theory contends that self-regulation starts from a perceived discrepancy between the current and desired states that drives individuals to work toward the desired goal. Leader perfectionism creates such a discrepancy, which can trigger two regulatory states of employees, namely, engagement and emotional exhaustion. Engagement is a positive and fulfilling state in which employees are motivated to fulfill perfectionistic requirements. Emotional exhaustion is an overall state of being worn out, in which employees feel fatigued and frustrated under great performance pressure. Engagement and emotional exhaustion, in turn, influence employees’ creativity in different directions.

Previous research has shown that people’s experience of these regulatory states varies. Therefore, it is important to examine the moderating factors. A key moderator is locus of control. Individuals with an internal locus of control (i.e., internals) believe that they are capable of mastering their fate and controlling their external environment. By contrast, individuals with an external locus of control (i.e., externals) believe that their behaviors and outcomes are dominated by external forces. The researchers propose that whereas internals are motivated by their perfectionistic leaders to engage themselves to pursue perfectionistic goals, externals are less engaged in fulfilling their leaders’ perfectionistic requirements and feel more exhausted.

The research also takes the level of leader perfectionism into account. The researchers predict that leader perfectionism will have a curvilinear effect on engagement for internals but a linear effect for externals. Internals may show greater work engagement in reaction to a perfectionistic leader versus a non-perfectionistic leader, but their engagement tends to decrease when the leader is extremely perfectionistic. Conversely, the more perfectionistic the leader is, the more strongly externals may feel threatened rather than motivated, and this trend is unlikely to stop or reverse.

In terms of the moderating effect on emotional exhaustion, the researchers predict that leader perfectionism will have a curvilinear effect on emotional exhaustion for internals but a linear effect for externals. They expect that internals will not experience emotional exhaustion in reaction to a perfectionistic leader versus a non-perfectionistic leader. However, if the leader is extremely perfectionistic, they will feel exhausted. By contrast, the more perfectionistic the leader is, the more strongly externals may feel emotionally exhausted.

FIGURE 1 Theoretical Model

03 Two Studies

The researchers have conducted two studies to examine the above hypotheses.

Study 1 was an experiment. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three manipulation conditions, namely, no perfectionism, perfectionism, and extreme perfectionism. First, the researchers measured participants’ locus of control. A sample pair of options was “What happens to me is my own doing” (internal) and “Sometimes I feel that I don’t have enough control over the direction my life is taking” (external). A point was assigned for each selected option, and higher scores indicated higher levels of internal locus of control. Next, participants received a pre-programmed message from a “leader” who described an idea generation task. In this task, participants were asked to complete a design proposal of an office space, which used to be a café, and use this space to increase employees’ work motivation and satisfaction. The messages that participants in different conditions received varied in specific standards and requirements, which served as the leader perfectionism manipulation. Upon completing the task, participants reported their engagement and emotional exhaustion by recalling their experiences during the task. Finally, the researchers performed a manipulation check and debriefed the participants. A sample item of the manipulation check was “My leader indicated that the task I do must be of top-notch quality”. Three professionals at an architectural design firm rated the level of creativity of each proposal.

Study 1 provided general support to the hypotheses but there were also inconsistent findings. To cross-validate the results and improve the generalizability of the findings, the researchers then conducted Study 2, a multisource, multiwave field study at actual firms.

In Study 2, the researchers collected data from the research and development teams at four high-technology firms in Northern China. With the CEOs’ support, the human resources departments gave the researchers a roster of team leaders from which 120 leaders were randomly sampled. These leaders provided the names of 718 subordinates. The researchers administered paper-and-pencil surveys at two time points with a six-week interval. At Time 1, leaders reported demographic information, and subordinates reported their perception of leader perfectionism, their own locus of control, and demographic information. At Time 2, leaders evaluated their subordinates’ creativity, and subordinates reported their engagement, emotional exhaustion, leader member exchange, and job complexity.

The researchers controlled individuals’ gender, organizational tenure, and education level in all analyses, as they were found to affect creativity. To rule out the effect of leader–subordinate relationship on the leader’s rating, the researchers also controlled for the dyadic tenure of each subordinate with the leader (indicating relationship duration) and leader–member exchange (indicating relationship quality). Previous studies also suggested that a task’s characteristics, such as complexity, may affect creativity. Therefore, the researchers controlled for job complexity in all analyses.

04 Summary of Findings

First, the researchers found that the effects of leader perfectionism on engagement and subsequent creativity were contingent on employees’ locus of control. For internals, they found curvilinear effects of leader perfectionism in the shape of a positive slope with diminishing returns. For externals, both studies found that leader perfectionism did not hurt their engagement or creativity via engagement. Second, they found that the effects of leader perfectionism on emotional exhaustion and subsequent creativity were also contingent on locus of control. For internals, both studies showed no difference in emotional exhaustion or creativity via it across various perfectionism levels. For externals, Study 1 showed the predicted increase in emotional exhaustion and subsequent decrease in creativity only when perfectionism was not too high. However, Study 2 revealed a significant increase in externals’ emotional exhaustion, which in turn had a marginally significant indirect effect on their creativity.

In sum, the findings indicated that internals can benefit from leader perfectionism (with diminishing returns) due to enhanced engagement without experiencing the downsides of perfectionism such as emotional exhaustion. In contrast, externals suffered from perfectionism due to increased emotional exhaustion without experiencing the upsides of perfectionism such as engagement.

05 Practical Implications

We build on this research to learn how how perfectionist leaders can best channel their high standards to their employees to achieve creative outcomes while also minimizing its adverse effect.

First, leaders should be aware that perfectionism is a double-edged sword in terms of its effects on employee creativity. Even for internals, the favorable effect weakens or vanishes when perfectionism is extreme. Therefore, leaders need to avoid setting standards that are far beyond their employees’ capabilities and should be tolerant of inevitable errors and failures during the creativity process.

Second, leaders should monitor their employees’ states to ensure that they are not exhausted by perfectionistic demands, particularly for those with an external locus of control, and provide resources to enhance their ability to fulfill requirements.

Third, leaders need to realize that creativity not only emerges in one’s pursuit of optimal solutions and flawless products but also evolves through processes of exploration, experimentation, and failure. Perfectionistic leaders should recognize the importance of tolerating errors, encourage trial and error, communicate negative feedback constructively, and make their employees feel enthusiastic and safe to cope with challenges in their journey to creativity.

About the Authors

Zhi Liu is an associate professor in the Department of Organization and Strategy Management at Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. Her research interests include organizational and social culture, cognition and mindset, ethics and justice, the psychology of corruption, leadership, and creativity.

She has published at worldwide top-tier peer-reviewed academic journals such as Academy of Management Journal, Annual Review of Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Research in Organizational Behavior, and Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. She chaired symposiums and presented papers at international conferences such as Academy of Management (AOM), International Association of Chinese Management Research (IACMR), and Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). She is serving at the reviewer board of Management and Organization Management and has been an ad hoc reviewer for Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Journal of International Business Studies, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, etc. She teaches courses to undergraduate, postgraduate, Ph.D., MBA, EMBA, and executives both in Chinese and English, such as Organizational Behavior, Organization and Management, Team Management and Leadership. She worked at a consulting firm and a cultural service firm.

Yuntao Dong is an associate professor in the Department of Organization and Strategy at Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. She received her Ph.D. from University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on leadership and leader empowerment, creativity, and employee emotion and resilience, in both traditional organizations and during the digital transformation via a multilevel lens. Yuntao’s work has been published in Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Management and Organization Management, Journal of Vocational Behavior, and Harvard Business Review(Online) and is regarded as ESI Highly Cited Paper. Yuntao is serving as senior editor of Management and Organization Review and the Rep-at-Large, Chinese mainland, of The International Association for Chinese Management Research (IACMR). She has won McBride Best Paper Award, Most Innovative Student Paper Award of Academy of Management (AoM), MOR Best Senior Editor Award, and the First place of the Innovative Teaching Contest of Beijing Universities. She has taught undergraduate- and graduate-level courses on organizational behavior, management and organization theory, theory and practice of innovation, human resource management, and research methodology.