Mastery-oriented leaders could stifle employee flexibility

Elizabeth Solberg

Four signs your management style suffocates your colleagues’ flexibility – and two strategies to prevent it.

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.

Are you a mastery-oriented leader?

Do you…

  • Gladly take on challenges at work that you can learn a lot from?
  • Look for opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge at work?
  • Enjoy challenging and difficult work tasks where you will learn new skills?
  • Like to work on demanding tasks that require a high level of ability and talent?

If you answered YES to the questions above, you display mastery goal-oriented tendencies and should consider how you might be fueling or stifling employee flexibility in your workplace.

Taken together, our study suggests that mastery goal-oriented leaders fuel employee flexibility when they encourage a work climate that promotes learning, yet simultaneously stifle it by signaling through their own goal striving behavior that flexibility is expected.

Advice for leaders

To be effective in facilitating employee flexibility, mastery goal-oriented leaders need to be able to identify how having this goal-orientation relates to the different behaviors they display in response to changes and uncertainty at work.

Leaders have to self-regulate these behaviors so that they focus on the positive aspects of their goal-orientation and reduce the negative aspects. For leaders wishing to act on these insights, I offer two pieces of practical advice:

  1. Reflect on your own mastery goal-orientation and identify how you display it at work. Even leaders who have very strong mastery goal-orientations may not fully display it at work, if human resource systems, or other organizational systems and structures limit the extent to which you can engage in your own mastery-goal tendencies and preferences.
  2. If you do identify yourself as acting in a mastery-goal oriented manner at work, your challenge is to carry on with the behavior that promotes positive outcomes in your unit – such as encouraging learning and collaboration, while trying to hold back from engaging in behavior that could trigger negative responses (i.e., selecting too difficult challenges, pushing too hard).

If you are unsure, ask your employees or your peers if they perceive that responding flexibly to changes is a clear priority and expectation in your work unit. If they answer yes, you are promoting an adaptability climate and need to be more mindful of the behaviors contributing to this.


Solberg, E., Sverdrup, T.E., Sandvik, A.M., Schei, V. In-Press. Encouraging or expecting flexibility? How small business leaders’ mastery goal orientation influences employee flexibility through different work climate perceptions. Human Relations. https://doi.org/10.1177/00187267211042538

Published 31. August 2021

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