Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Management, Operations and Marketing


Background: Increasingly high turnover rates in volunteer organisations have reached critical levels. Australian volunteer emergency service organisations are struggling to maintain adequate volunteer numbers to continue to deliver vital services to the community. The experience volunteers have with their leader is one of the strongest predictors of future volunteering. Despite industry, government and academics calling for increased focus on the training and development of volunteer leaders, there is currently limited theoretical and/or empirical guidance to support this endeavour. Little is known about what leadership approaches are effective or suitable with volunteers. Furthermore, it is unknown how volunteers’ experiences with their leader comes to influence their decision to stay with or leave the organisation. This thesis seeks to address these issues and formulates an evidence-based approach for improving leadership to help retain volunteer workers in Australian emergency service organisations.

Aim: The aim of this thesis is to examine the application of managerial autonomy support, an interpersonal style proposed by Self Determination Theory (SDT), as an approach to volunteer leadership, focusing on its potential to retain volunteers. In order to achieve this, the thesis addresses three objectives. First, the hypothesized conceptual model that delineates the relations between perceived managerial autonomy support, followers’ basic psychological need satisfaction, job satisfaction and turnover intention is tested in the volunteer organisations. The second objective is to determine whether, through an SDT-based leadership development intervention, leaders can change and/or develop their managerial orientation towards autonomy support. The final objective is to ascertain whether followers of these leaders perceive changes in their socio-contextual climate during the intervention period.

Method: A total sample of 363 participants was obtained for this study, comprising 167 leaders and 196 followers across four volunteer emergency service organisations in Australia. A quasi-experimental design tested the impact of an SDT-based leadership intervention on leaders (n=65) and their followers, compared to a control group of leaders (n=102) who received no training. Leaders’ self-reported managerial orientation was assessed at pre-test, post-test and one year after the intervention. Followers’ perceived managerial autonomy support from the leader, basic psychological needs satisfaction, job satisfaction and turnover intention were measured before and after their leader completed the intervention.

Results: A test of the hypothesised model via structural equation modelling indicate that emergency service workers’ perceptions of leaders’ managerial orientation influenced their job satisfaction and subsequent turnover intention through basic psychological needs satisfaction. Testing the impact of the SDT leadership development intervention, leaders in the experimental condition changed their interpersonal orientation towards autonomy support after completing the intervention and these reflected enduring changes that remained evident one year later. The intervention was most effective for leaders with relatively little prior experience leading volunteers, who showed greater propensity for developing their managerial orientation. Followers did not report any significant changes in the provision of autonomy support from their leader, basic psychological need satisfaction, job satisfaction or turnover intention over the nine weeks their leader was participating in the SDT-based leadership development intervention.

Contribution/Implications: This thesis provides one of the most in-depth empirical explorations to date, of the malleability of managerial autonomy support amongst organisational leaders. A contribution is made to the scholarly study of volunteer leadership more broadly, by offering a validated theoretical model of leadership and its influence on followers in the volunteer context. This research provides support for Self-Determination Theory in the volunteer organisations.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.