In the digital economy era, leaders exert influence during work hours as well as beyond work hours, expecting employees to be available after work hours and responsive to work-related matters immediately via electronic communication devices, henceforth named “after-hours electronic communication expectations” (AECE). Previous studies have shed light on the promoting and inhibiting effects of AECE on employees’ job performance, but no research has adopted a unified perspective to explain this observation. Resultantly, we know little about the influence of leaders’ AECE affecting job performance and why it occurs. Drawing upon conservation of resources theory, we propose that leader AECE may affect employees’ job performance through three resource paths. Specifically, in the resource gain path, leader AECE improves employees’ job performance through organization-based self-esteem. In the resource loss path, leader AECE reduces job performance through stress perception. In the resource threat path, leader AECE reduces job performance through reputation maintenance concerns. Furthermore, we consider employee self-leadership an important boundary condition and suggest that it can enhance the resource gain effect and weaken the resource loss and threat effect.
To verify the theoretical framework, we carried out an experimental study (study 1) and a multi-wave, multi-source field study (study 2). In study 1, we recruited 224 full-time employees to participate in the experiment; 4 participants were dropped because they failed the attention test. Participants were randomly assigned to either the manipulation group (i.e., high leader AECE group, n = 111) or the control group (i.e., low leader AECE group, n = 109). Leader AECE was manipulated by presenting different WeChat screenshots. Specifically, we asked participants to imagine that they received a message from their immediate leader at 9 PM, and presented experimental materials in the WeChat screenshots. In the screenshot presented to the control group, the leader sent two messages including “Take your time, contact me when you are free”. In the screenshot presented to the manipulation group, leader sent three messages including “Please respond ASAP” as well as four unconnected voice calls. After reading different screenshots, participants were asked to complete questionnaires containing manipulation tests, organization-based self-esteem measurements, stress perception, reputation maintenance concerns, and demographic information. In Study 2, our sample comprised 418 full-time employees from state-owned enterprise in Guangdong Province and their immediate leaders. We collected data in three waves, each with a one-month interval in between. In Wave 1, the employees reported leaders’ AECE, self-leadership and demographic information. In Wave 2, the employees reported organization-based self-esteem, stress perception and reputation maintenance concerns. In Wave 3, we invited leaders to report subordinates’ job performance. Consequently, our final usable sample included 346 employees.
Study 1 revealed that compared to the control group, participants in the manipulation group reported higher levels of organization-based self-esteem, stress perception and reputation maintenance concerns. This finding confirmed the causal relationship between leader AECE and three mediators. Study 2 suggested that in the resource gain path, leaders’ AECE positively influenced subordinates’ organization-based self-esteem, which in turn enhanced job performance. Employees who received AECE from the leader were more likely to experience stress perception in the resource loss path. But stress perception did not have significant effects on job performance. In the resource threat path, reputation maintenance concerns played a mediating role between leaders’ AECE and job performance. Furthermore, self-leadership moderated the indirect effect of leaders’ AECE on employees’ job performance through organization-based self-esteem and reputation maintenance concerns, such that the effect was weaker when self-leadership was high compared to when self-leadership was low. Self-leadership did not moderate the relationship between leaders’ AECE and stress perception.
This study makes several important contributions. First, drawing on conservation of resources theory, we integrate the promoting and inhibiting effects of leader AECE on employees’ job performance in a theoretical framework, which helps form a more comprehensive and dialectical understanding of the mixed effects. Second, we explore the mediating mechanisms underlying the relationship between leaders’ AECE and job performance, contributing to the AECE literature by revealing the “black box” of new leadership's influence on job performance. Third, we demonstrate the role of self-leadership in moderating resource threat effects, which provide guidance for mitigating the negative effects of leaders’ AECE.