Faced with the impact of an uncertain environment such as COVID-19, if enterprises do not take action to prevent and control in time, they may miss the opportunity or be completely submerged in the new round of reform. Research shows that improvisation is an effective way to cope with rapid changes and seize unexpected opportunities in a complex and challenging environment [1
]. Improvisation is defined as a behavioral process in which team members try to achieve their goals in creative, immediate, and new ways, and it occurs when novel actions are deliberately designed and executed in the same process [3
]. Improvisation brings about novel and useful solutions in the spur of the moment and helps individuals to cater to the need for rapid responses [5
]. Meanwhile, teams offer faster and more flexible mobility and information processing capabilities than a centralized organizational structure [7
Improvisation is particularly important to both scholars and practitioners in that it represents the possible response of individuals and organizations to urgent problems [9
]. This behavior emphasizes an informal reaction to the status quo and an attempt to challenge organizational practices [10
], so it is risky for followers to engage in improvisation. Therefore, the inclusiveness and support of leadership is the basic condition for followers to actively implement improvisation. However, due to its complexity, improvisation remains challenging to grasp and the important gap in this literature is still obvious [3
]. Extant research on improvisation mainly focused on the effect of the team situation and individual traits in shaping individual and team improvisation [12
], while less emphasis is placed on leadership, which plays a pivotal role in creating conditions that enable teams to be effective [1
]. Moreover, the practice of informal leadership has become more widespread in current organizations as the emphasis on teammate cooperation and coordination is increasing [16
]. Organizational scholars have argued that flexible team interaction patterns promote efficient team responses to unexpected situations [18
]. Shared leadership, which is unlike traditional vertical leadership, may play an important role in triggering improvisation. Shared leadership distributes leadership rights and responsibilities and provides knowledge and information resources for team members to locate and share, which can satisfy their autonomy and creativity in work [16
]. This coincides with improvisation. Therefore, we argue that shared leadership is an effective way to motivate improvisation and be responsive to the unexpected environment.
Improvisation is not just a rational process; it is also a process with emotion as the carrier. It often requires individuals to make decisions and act on intuition, which is mixed with past cognitive and emotional experiences [21
]. In the 1990s, Mischel and Shoda proposed the cognitive-affective system theory, which holds that there are two processes between original information and behavior [22
]. One is the encoding process, in which the original information is input into the cognitive-affective unit for encoding and interpretation. The second is the process of behavior generation, which produces different cognitive, emotional, and behavioral results through the interaction of cognitive-affective units. This theory emphasizes that individuals’ responses to situations are not passive, obedient, or indifferent. It believes that people are active and goal-oriented and that they will make plans and changes by themselves. These basic assumptions are consistent with the basic assumptions of improvisation research [9
]. Just as Barrett et al. argued, when organizational environments are fluid, it is impossible for individuals to wait for things to be solved [24
]. The significance of improvisation is not a passive resignation to bewildering complexity, but is rather an appreciative recognition that we begin not from a clean slate, but with the complexity, history, coworkers, and uneven resources at hand. In this study, individuals and their teams are not only regarded as units of rational analysis, but also as an organism combining rationality and sensibility. Thus, from a dual path of cognition and affect, this current study investigates the influence mechanism of shared leadership on improvisation.
Although scholars in the field of shared leadership readily acknowledge that there is a positive correlation between shared leadership and individual outcomes [17
], studies show that there is a large unexplained variance in the impact of shared leadership on individual outcomes. Previous research has found that cognitive and affective processes are moderated by promotion focus [28
]. The influence of shared leadership on individual improvisation may be related to individual characteristics, such as promotion focus. Promotion focus is a self-regulation inclination, which is connected to self-enhancement demands. Gorman et al. found that the proper matching of leadership and individual regulatory focus can improve the effectiveness of leadership [29
]. However, previous research has pointed out that promotion focus is positively related to improvisation [2
]. Members with high promotion focus are more sensitive to the occurrence of positive results and are more active in their work. Based on regulatory focus theory, promotion focus will urge team members to change their reactions and behaviors in order to achieve their goals [30
]. In an emergency, whether an individual can immediately produce improvisation is closely connected with promotion focus. Thus, whether promotion focus has a significant impact in influencing the relationship between shared leadership and improvisation, and in determining the relationship between shared leadership and cognition-affection paths is the third research question in the current study.
Accordingly, we constructed and tested a theoretical model that examined how shared leadership may influence improvisation via cognitive-affective dual paths and aimed to make three significant contributions. First, this paper expands upon improvisation research from the perspective of leadership and explores the cross-level impact of shared leadership on improvisation. Mannucci et al. emphasized that improvisation is not a given but needs to be developed [13
]. Leadership, as a pivotal role in creating conditions that enable teams to be effective, has not attracted enough attention to its impact on individual improvisation [31
]. Second, based on cognitive-affective system theory, this paper supplements the mediation mechanism from shared leadership to improvisation. Third, this paper identifies promotion focus as an important boundary condition that moderates the impact of shared leadership on improvisation and the impact of shared leadership on improvisation via cognitive flexibility, thus underscoring the importance of promotion focus for improvisation for it may compensate for the lower degree of cognitive flexibility.
Based on cognitive-affective system theory, we examined how shared leadership motivates improvisation by highlighting the mechanisms through which such influence occurs. First, in line with our hypothesis, shared leadership has a significantly positive impact on improvisation. The positive impact can be analyzed from two perspectives. On the one hand, from the perspective of competence motivation, shared leadership distributes responsibilities and provides information resources for team members to locate and share, which can satisfy their autonomy and creativity in work and enhance their competence motivation to implement improvisation [6
]. On the other hand, from the perspective of cause motivation, shared leadership encourages team members to take the initiative to assume the “leader” role, enhances their perception of self-efficacy, and meets their autonomy needs, which can encourage members to implement improvisation to help the team get rid of difficulties [8
Second, based on cognitive-affective system theory, we found that CF and EI play dual mediating roles between shared leadership and improvisation. In the transition from shared leadership to improvisation, the first step is to rely on cognition to understand and interpret the environment. CF helps members to display diversified cognitive resource-allocation abilities in this process, so as to match with the leadership structure and stimulate team members’ high innovation beliefs and improvisation behavior [31
]. Meanwhile, different individuals differ in their ability to withstand anxiety or insecurity in response to environmental changes or challenges. EI plays a valuable role in effectively processing information in changing environments [41
]. Thus, we indicated and examined that shared leadership may stimulate group improvisation through EI.
Third, we found that promotion focus moderates the relationship between shared leadership and improvisation; promotion focus moderates the mediated relationship between shared leadership and improvisation via CF, but the cross-level effect was contrary to expectations in that PF mattered more when CF was lower than when it was higher. This may be because PF may compensate for the lower degree of cognitive flexibility [48
]. Based on regulatory focus theory, PF causes individuals to pay more attention to their ideals and hopes, as well as be more flexible [52
]. When confronted with external cues, members with strong promotion focus are likely to adopt flexible, exploratory, and innovative cognitive styles [51
]. Therefore, the moderated mediation association between SL and IM via CF is stronger under a lower promotion focus and weaker under a higher promotion focus. However, we did not find evidence for the moderated mediating effect of PF on the shared leadership–improvisation relationship via EI. Compared with CF, EI is more stable and relatively independent [74
]. Therefore, compared with the mediating effect of CF, the mediating effect of EI is not easily regulated by PF. These findings still need further investigation.
5.1. Theoretical Contributions
First, this paper expands upon improvisation research from the perspective of leadership and explores the cross-level impact of shared leadership on improvisation.
Improvisation focuses on an informal reaction to the status quo and an attempt to challenge organizational practices [3
], so it is risky for followers to engage in improvisation. Therefore, the inclusiveness and support of leadership is the basic condition for followers to actively implement improvisation. However, not much is known about the role of leadership in the process of improvisation, as well as about the type of leadership that will enhance or motivate improvisation. Although leadership is a much-studied phenomenon, it has been of little concern to those researching improvisation, perhaps in part because the latter phenomenon is still in its initial stage of development. Furthermore, studies that concentrate on the role of leadership on individual improvisation are still in their infancy [3
]. This absence is somewhat surprising because improvisation is the creative behavior of individuals to solve unplanned problems in time, which requires a rapid transition from plan to implementation [58
]. Whether at the enterprise or group level, there may be delays or weakening of improvisation behavior due to too much emphasis on cooperation, which reduces the infinite possibility of independent individuals. Meanwhile, previous research on improvisation usually focuses on factors at a single level, while Mangi et al. believe that research on improvisation should adopt a cross-level analysis method to consider the influence mechanism of team factors on individual improvisation [23
]. In view of this, the current study explores the cross-level impact of shared leadership on improvisation, which responds to the scholars in the call for study across levels of improvisation and deepens the understanding of individual behavior triggers off the cuff [6
Second, based on cognitive-affective system theory, this study supplements the mediation mechanism from shared leadership to improvisation. Most existing studies discuss the formation mechanism of improvisation from a single perspective [76
]. This study incorporates both the cognitive and the emotional process of the generation of improvisation into a theoretical framework from a compound perspective, which will open the black box for the mediation mechanism from shared leadership to improvisation.
Third, we examine PF as a crucial boundary condition that moderates the relationship between shared leadership and improvisation as well as moderates the relationship between shared leadership and CF for improvisation. Regulatory focus theory has been widely used in social psychology research, but it has not been a concern to organizational management scholars until recent years. In this paper, promotion focus is introduced into the research of shared leadership and individual improvisation and creatively corresponds to the cognition-affection mediation mechanism, which expands the scope of application of regulatory focus theory. Meanwhile, research shows that there is a large unexplained variance in the effect of shared leadership on individual outcomes, however, Gorman et al. and Lanaj et al. indicate that regulatory focus theory has unique explanatory power on individual behavior through meta-analysis [29
]. Consistent with their findings, we identify that PF is potent, such that a high level of PF amplifies the positive effect according to our moderated mediation model.
5.2. Practical Contributions
First, enterprises should strengthen the leadership training of employees, build a team structure and shared leadership within the team, and develop leadership training programs through a variety of ways and means. The realization of improvisation behavior is closely related to the solution of complex and uncertain problems. In this context, shared leadership, which emphasizes the sharing of leadership roles and responsibilities among team members, fits this need well. This is because shared leadership not only emphasizes that members take the initiative to solve complex problems, but also emphasizes that members should be given the authority needed to solve these problems, which means “let those who can hear the fire make decisions”.
Second, the key point of shared leadership in promoting team members’ improvisation is to grasp team members’ cognitive and emotional patterns. The motivational effect of shared leadership requires a comprehensive understanding of the psychological transmission patterns of team members in the face of shared leadership structures. On the one hand, the compound cognitive pattern of team members should be shaped to improve the effect of shared leadership. On the other hand, cultivating a high level of emotional intelligence among team members helps them deal with risks and uncertainties in the innovation process with positive and stable emotions.
Third, the effect of shared leadership on improvisation varies with the individual’s promotion focus trait. Team members with strong promotion focus should be delegated to more appropriately and given more flexibility and autonomy to enhance their sense of self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation, so as to stimulate their improvisation. Although previous studies have regarded regulatory focus as a relatively stable feature, recent research has revealed that context can alter the regulatory focus [79
]. Therefore, in addition to considering this factor in the arrangement of team personnel, members can also be guided to form promotion focus through training.
5.3. Limitations and Future Research
First, this study discusses the cross-level impact and action path of shared leadership on improvisation from the compound perspective. Although we tested the mediating role of team members’ CF and EI in the main effect from the “cognitive-emotional” compound perspective, this paper is only a preliminary attempt to study from the compound perspective, and the research can be deeply excavated based on different mediating combinations in the future.
Second, this study only considered the regulatory effect of promoting focus, but individual behavior may also be affected by other environmental factors. Therefore, other personality traits (e.g., proactive personality, work passion, innovative efficacy), other environmental factors (e.g., team climate, team support, organizational culture), and their interactions can be considered as moderated variables in future research.
Third, this study did not include the influence of traditional Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese culture emphasizes “Zhong Yong” (The Golden Mean) and team members are more traditional, which makes them more compliant with organizational rules and unwilling to take risks in improvisation. Therefore, future research can further explore the moderating effects of team members’ values of moderation, power distance, and traditionality.