Flexible employees who quickly acquire new skills and adapt to changing work demands are valuable resources in dynamic business environments.
The need for flexible employees is amplified by the volatility and uncertainty created by forces such as globalization, digitalization, and crisis situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
But how can leaders facilitate, maintain, and increase this employee flexibility? And how might they stifle it?
Firms facing change
Together with research partners at NHH Norwegian School of Economics, I addressed these questions in a study carried out in small accounting firms in Norway.
The accounting industry faces rapid technological innovations that require business leaders to make significant changes in the services they offer and the competence they have available if they want their businesses to remain viable.
Accordingly, employee flexibility is of great concern of business leaders in this industry.
Creating a “mastery climate”
My colleagues and I proposed that leaders who are by nature personally concerned with developing competence and mastering new challenges (“mastery-goal oriented leaders”) should be more likely to view the volatility and uncertainty in this business environment as an opportunity for development and take a learning-oriented, problem-solving approach to the challenges experienced.
We expected that mastery-goal oriented leaders would create a “mastery climate” in their firms, that is, a work context where learning and mastery through personal effort and cooperation with coworkers is emphasized. We predicted that this mastery climate would go on to enhance their employees’ flexibility.
As predicted, we found that employees working for mastery-goal oriented leaders do experience a mastery climate in their firms, and that this increases employee flexibility.
Negative side effect
However, our findings also suggested a negative side effect of leaders’ mastery-goal orientation.
As mastery-goal oriented leaders are inherently motivated by mastering new challenges, they are more likely to actively seek out difficult tasks and situations where greater development is possible and push themselves hard to overcome obstacles that get in their way.
As a result, mastery-goal oriented leaders could simultaneously create an “adaptability climate” in their firms, where employees believe that being prepared for, responding flexibly to, and dealing effectively with change is expected behavior.
This can be less beneficial for promoting employee flexibility because it could trigger more controlled (and less intrinsic) motivation for displaying flexibility. In fact, we found that the negative effect of adaptability climate on employee flexibility completely cancelled out the positive effect generated through mastery climate.