The discretionary role of the line manager in inspiring work engagement and innovative behaviour
: a study of social exchange and job resources in the public sector

  • Alexis Southall

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis is about the discretionary role of the line manager in inspiring the work engagement of staff and their resulting innovative behaviour examined through the lens of Social Exchange Theory (Blau, 1964) and the Job Demands-Resources theory (Bakker, Demerouti, Nachreiner & Schaufeli, 2001). The study is focused on a large British Public Sector organisation undergoing a major organisational shift in the way in which they operate as part of the public sector. It is often claimed that people do not leave organisations; they leave line managers (Kozlowski & Doherty, 1989). Regardless of the knowledge in the literature concerning the importance of the line manager in organisations (Purcell, 2003), the engagement literature in particular is lacking in the consideration of such a fundamental figure in organisational life. Further, the understanding of the black box of managerial discretion and its relationship to employee and organisation related outcomes would benefit from greater exploration (Purcell, 2003; Gerhart, 2005; Scott, et al, 2009). The purpose of this research is to address these gaps with relation to the innovative behaviour of employees in the public sector – an area that is not typically associated with the public sector (Bhatta, 2003; McGuire, Stoner & Mylona, 2008; Hughes, Moore & Kataria, 2011).
The study is a CASE Award PhD thesis, requiring academic and practical elements to the research. The study is of one case organisation, focusing on one service characterised by a high level of adoption of Strategic Human Resource Management activities and operating in a rather unique manner for the public sector, having private sector competition for work. The study involved a mixed methods approach to data collection. Preliminary focus groups with 45 participants were conducted, followed by an ethnographic period of five months embedded into the service conducting interviews and observations. This culminated in a quantitative survey delivered within the wider directorate to approximately 500 staff members. The study used aspects of the Grounded Theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) approach to analyse the data and developed results that highlight the importance of the line manager in an area characterised by SHRM and organisational change for engaging employees and encouraging innovative behaviour. This survey was completed on behalf of the organisation and the findings of this are presented in appendix 1, in order to keep the focus of the PhD on theory development.
Implications for theory and practice are discussed alongside the core finding. Line managers’ discretion surrounding the provision of job resources (in particular trust, autonomy and implementation and interpretation of combined bundles of SHRM policies and procedures) influenced the exchange process by which employees responded with work engagement and innovative behaviour. Limitations to the research are the limitations commonly attributed to cross-sectional data collection methods and those surrounding generalisability of the qualitative findings outside of the contextual factors characterising the service area. Suggestions for future research involve addressing these limitations and further exploration of the discretionary role with regards to extending our understanding of line manager discretion.
Date of Award23 Jan 2014
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorPawan Budhwar (Supervisor), Judith W Scully (Supervisor) & Matthew Carter (Supervisor)


  • management
  • innovative behaviour
  • work engagement
  • social exchange
  • trust

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