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The work of academic managers in HE

This study examines the work of hybrid managers in universities - the academic staff that hold management roles, overseeing the work of other academics.

In higher education institutions, the hybrid manager role is a crucial link between academics and senior management and is responsible for helping deliver organisational strategy. As the connection between senior leadership and those on the ground, they are critical in the contribution they make to knowledge brokering, strategy formation and implementation and facilitation of change - particularly at a time when the macro environment in which higher education exists is subject to considerable pressures, scrutiny and change.

A critique of the existing hybrid manager research highlights a reductionist approach and it has been suggested that referring to hybrids as ‘reluctant managers’ doesn’t reveal all the very different forms or shapes that reluctance can take, nor does it account for those who are more enthusiastic about the role.

Further, much of the research to date has been located amongst hybrid managers in healthcare, whilst little is known about this leadership cadre within the higher education context.

Hybrid managers are increasingly common in public sector organisations and the growth of this group is linked with the introduction of ‘new managerialism’, which represents government public policy that encourages the application of managerial techniques within public organisations to improve organisational performance. Professionals in these sectors have strong existing role identities (e.g. physicians) and frequently experience identity-related challenges.

In 2011 UK higher education as a sector contributed £73b to UK economy and employed over 378k people. As a major recipient of public funding, universities cannot ignore the crucial role of its ‘hybrid managers’ in ensuring effective resourcing and providing the connection between senior leadership and those on the ground.

This study examines the role of hybrid managers in academia, focusing on the motivations of university heads of department, challenges that affect their successful enactment of the role, their relationship with power dynamics and their development needs for undertaking leadership as a hybrid.

An appropriate lens through which to understand the tensions HODs are subject to in their hybrid role is institutional logics. Malhotra and Reay (2019:2) explain “institutional logics provide ‘rules of the game’ that guide the behaviours and daily activities of both organizations and individuals.” Universities, like other professional bureaucracies, are subject to multiple logics and as such, tensions and conflict are inevitable, since individuals must interpret which rules should be followed.  Universities are characterised by both professional logics and managerial logics.

Professionalism and managerialism can be thought of as ‘competing institutional logics’ since professionals have historically resisted new ways of organising professional work that challenge professional dominance and autonomy. Individuals negotiate tensions among multiple institutional logics by identifying with certain logics and distancing from the others.

HODs who identify with managerial logics will emphasise their managerial identity, whereas HODs who embrace professional logics will emphasise their professional identity.

A pilot qualitative study has been conducted which has identified 5 tentative types of heads of department according to the emphasis they place on their ‘professional’ or ‘managerial’ identities. We have also identified enablers and obstacles to performing the role effectively, as well as a set of development needs.

We have received funding from the BA / Leverhulme Small Research Grants scheme to enable us to expand the project over the next two years, ending March 2024. The next phases will explore the HoD types previously identified, and the motivations and challenges of the hybrid role in this context. We will also examine power and the means through which HoDs enact their role effectively. We aim to create and trial evidence-based development for HoDs to enable them to thrive in their roles and to produce a freely-available toolkit for universities to support their HoDs more effectively.


Paper accepted for the 81st Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, 29 July - 4 August 2021: Budjanovcanin, Alexandra and Denney, Fiona: Hybrid Managers in Higher Education: Power, Identity and Challenges

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Professor Fiona Denney
Professor Fiona Denney - I am a Professor in Leadership and Business Education in the Organisations and People division in Brunel Business School and my focus is on human-centred leadership. My research interests are focused on hybrid management and compassionate leadership in organisations including universities and the not-for-profit and public sectors.  I hold a BA / Leverhulme grant for a project investigating the role of hybrid managers in universities.  I am always interested to hear from prospective doctoral students whose interests align with my research areas. In a career of over 20 years, I have been a business studies academic in the areas of marketing and general managment and leadership and I have held a number of central university positions.  Between 2003 and 2019, I worked in academic staff and researcher development, including being the Assistant Director of the Graduate School at King’s College London and heading up the Brunel Educational Excellence Centre at Brunel University London until 2019.  Both of these positions plus my national and international work for Vitae (see have involved me in strategic leadership and operational management including managing people, projects and resources, which now form my research interests in leadership.  I served as a member of the Executive Committee of the UK Council for Graduate Education as well as the Honorary Secretary between 2017 and 2021.  I am also a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).  I am currently an external examiner for the University of Lincoln's College of Social Science Research Degrees Board and have served as an external examiner in many other UK universities including UCL.  I am also involved in providing consultancy work for Epigeum - a major developer of online training programmes for the higher education sector owned by Oxford University Press.  I am a qualified and highly experienced executive coach and I coach senior executives in professional services industries as additional consultancy work.

Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.

Project last modified 28/11/2023