Developing Adaptive Performers

Elizabeth Solberg

Many organizations strive to recruit adaptive performers. But how can they cultivate these qualities in existing employees?

Text: Elizabeth Solberg

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Change Management

Today, many, if not most, organizations operate in changing and dynamic business environments. Hence, the need for adaptive employees who cope with and respond well to changing job demands has become increasingly important.

Many organizations seek to increase the adaptability of their workforce by recruiting new employees based on personality traits or other individual differences that are shown to predict adaptive capabilities and performance.

However, taking a “selection strategy” is not a practical or ethical solution for dealing with existing employees’ whose task skills or adaptive capabilities are not sufficiently aligned with the demands of changing and dynamic work contexts.

So, how can we increase the ability and propensity to adapt to changing job demands among existing employees? Recent research emphasizes the influence that leaders, or immediate supervisors, have in cultivating such qualities in employees. My own research indicates that demonstrating mastery-oriented leadership could be beneficial for facilitating employee adaptivity.

Mastery-Oriented Leadership

Mastery-oriented leadership (in Norwegian, “mestringsorientert ledelse”) refers to supportive leader behavior aimed at facilitating employees’ learning and performance improvement based on an understanding of employees’ individual developmental needs.

It includes behavior such as providing helpful performance feedback, giving employees support and guidance in meeting their personal developmental goals, providing learning opportunities such as challenging assignments where subordinates can develop and strengthen their skills, and giving recognition to employees that builds feelings of mastery and self-esteem.

Alannah Rafferty and Mark A. Griffin differentiate this form of “developmental” leader support from emotional forms of support, such as displaying kindness for employees and showing concern for their well-being. This distinction is important for cultivating employees’ adaptive performance. Emotional support, while it could protect employees from the stress associated with changing work environments, is unlikely to have the same transformational effects on employees’ ability and motivation to cope with and respond well to changing job demands.

Mastery-oriented leadership is aimed at helping employees acquire new or improve existing skills, knowledge, and abilities: learning that prepares them to perform in diverse work situations.

Further, it is found to enhance employees’ confidence in their abilities to deal with a broad range of work situations, which increases feelings of control over dynamic situations. Other research suggests that it produces adaptive emotional and motivational states that facilitate more productive coping behavior when faced with change.

Who Benefits Most?

Some employees are more vulnerable to the strain caused by changing job demands, and can therefore benefit more from receiving mastery-oriented leadership.

For example, employees who are generally less open to work changes are also likely have less experience with change, and thus have a more limited repertoire of skills and task strategies to choose from when dealing with changes at work.

In my own research, I’ve found that mastery-oriented leadership facilitates the adaptive performance of employees who are less open to work changes, by supporting their efforts to learn the new skills or technologies needed to adapt to changes that affect their work.

Further, I’ve found that mastery-oriented leadership improves the adaptive performance of employees who are not inherently programmed to view changing job demands as opportunities for learning and growth. We describe these employees as being less “learning-goal oriented,” and expect them to see changing job demands as a hindrance and withdraw effort as these demands increase, thus resulting in less effective adaptive performance.

Mastery-oriented leadership moderates this relationship, such that we see more effective adaptive performance among low learning-goal oriented employees when they are working with immediate supervisors who display mastery-oriented leadership behaviors.

The Take Away

Don’t be too quick to write off employees who fare poorly with change as being incapable or resistant. There is a chance that these employees just might not have the personal resources needed to cope with or adapt to the changes at work they are facing.

As a leader or supervisor, you need be a resource for these employees by taking the time to understand their individual needs for development, giving them concrete and helpful performance feedback, offering advice and support that helps them to improve performance, creating opportunities that facilitate learning, and giving recognition when they perform well or meet developmental goals. That is, by being a mastery-oriented leader.



  • Lai, L. (2013). Strategisk kompetanseledelse (3rd ed.). Bergen, Norway: Fagbokforlaget.
  • Rafferty, A. E., & Griffin, M. A. (2006). Refining individualized consideration: distinguishing developmental leadership and supportive leadership. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79, 37-61.
  • Solberg, E. (2017). Adapting to changing job demands: A broadcast approach to understanding self-regulated adaptive performance and cultivating it in situated work settings (Vol. 5/2017). Oslo, Norway: BI Norwegian Business School.

This article is first published in BI Leadership Magazine 2017/2018.

BI Leadership Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Leadership and Organzational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 19. October 2017

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