Better the Devil you Know Than the Saint you Don’t: Follower Uncertainty Aversion in the Attribution of Leader Ingratiatory Intent

  • Jacques Ding

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Research has shown that ingratiation in the workplace is an effective approach to impression management which positively influences a number of work-related outcomes. While significant strides have been made in understanding the benefits of upward ingratiation, scholars have also pointed out its potential to backfire, that is, ingratiation has been found to elicit detrimental effects especially during situations where the ingratiator is relatively less powerful than the target, for instance, a subordinate ingratiating with his or her superior. Scholars have labelled this phenomenon as the ingratiator’s dilemma. However, since leaders hold considerable legitimate power over their followers, the current research attempts to explore how leadership downward ingratiation (LDI) is different from its upward counterpart by investigating the boundary conditions and its outcomes on follower performance. Accordingly, by drawing on the theoretical tenets of Uncertainty Reduction Theory and Conservation of Resources Theory, the current research deviates from conventional understanding of ingratiation focusing on valence of intent (i.e., selfish or selfless) and instead proposes that the clarity or unclarity of intent serves as boundary conditions. Accordingly, it was hypothesised that a negative effect of LDI and task performance via work engagement is observed when perceived instrumental and altruistic intent are low whereas a null effect is observed when high. To test these predictions, three studies were conducted. In Study 1, a vignette experiment conducted with N = 60 participants yielded no statistically significant findings, thus offering no support for the hypotheses. In response to design flaws, Study 2 was conducted as a cross-sectional study with N = 250 participants to test the hypotheses in a field environment. To ensure theoretical robustness, the conceptual opposite of work engagement, that is, psychological withdrawal, was tested as mediator in Study 2 and the moderated mediation analysis indicated support for the hypotheses. To test whether the relationships unfold within a short time frame, Study 3 was designed as an Experience Sampling Method study with N = 74 participants. Though the data yielded statistically significant results, two unexpected conclusions could be drawn. Firstly, a positive effect of LDI on work engagement was observed at high levels of perceived intent instead of a null effect, suggesting that work engagement and psychological withdrawal are unique constructs that are independent of one another. Secondly, perceived altruistic intent exhibited a lagged moderation effect. Implications and future research directions were discussed.
Date of AwardJun 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorClaudia Sacramento (Supervisor)


  • leadership downward integration
  • work engagement
  • task performance
  • perceived altruistic intent
  • uncertainty reduction theory
  • conservation of resources theory

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