Hansini Gunasekara

Hansini Gunasekara

Doctor of Philosophy candidate

Her research explores the role of leadership in fostering psychological safety among ethnically diverse organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand, says Hansini Gunasekara who joined AUT to pursue a PhD, supported by an AUT Doctoral Scholarship.

“My decade-long industry experience working across a range of sectors and settings enabled me to see first-hand the positive impact of meaningful employee inclusion strategies. However, it also made me realise that we still have a long way to go.

“As a woman of colour, a minority and an immigrant, I’ve been in settings where I felt welcomed and valued. I’ve also been in places where my voice was not heard. I hope that through my research and work fuelled by the research, I can educate and spread awareness about the challenges faced by minorities at work. With more people moving across the globe and with remote work options increasing, the workplace is becoming increasingly diverse – so this topic is important now more than ever.”

Hansini hopes that her research will add practical value to the field of organisational behaviour and leadership.

“I wanted to bring research and practice together through my work, as these still largely exist in silos, and research is often not accessible to practitioners. I believe, and hope, that my research will add value by expanding our understanding of psychological safety through diverse lenses, motivating future research and informing leadership practice. If I can make some difference in the way we lead and work by creating inclusive, psychologically safe spaces for everyone, that is my mission accomplished.”

The right fit
Her supervisor was the main reason she decided to come to AUT for her PhD, says Hansini who expects to complete her studies in 2026.

“I connected with Professor Helena Cooper-Thomas at a conference several years before I started my PhD. I was working in a people and performance role at the time, but had been thinking about one day revisiting my idea to do a PhD. I had been thinking about completing a doctorate since the last year of my undergraduate degree, many many years ago. I was familiar with Professor Cooper-Thomas’ work, as well as her work style, which aligned well with mine. So, when she was available and willing to work with me I had no hesitation.

“Doing a PhD, especially while working, can be challenging. So having support and a sense of community – both within my department, my faculty and beyond – has been very helpful.”

In addition to her studies, Hansini also entered the AUT Innovation Challenge and she is proud of winning the research commercialisation category.

“Winning an award at the AUT Innovation Challenge has enabled me to get my business off the ground. Upthrive Leadership is a leadership consultancy offering research-backed and practical solutions to foster inclusive leadership and psychological safety for all, so that businesses can fully thrive by tapping into the full potential of their people”

Advice for other students
There are two vital things to consider before embarking on a doctorate; great rapport with your supervisors and a good fit in terms of the topic, Hansini advises other students who are considering doctoral study.

“A PhD is self-motivated. If you’re not passionate about your research area or don’t have a supportive working relationship with your supervisory team, it’s not going to be fun. So, take time to carefully figure out what you want to research and who you want to work with.”

Treat a PhD as a journey, not a destination.

“It’s a long journey that will have many ups and downs, successes and failures, and acceptances and rejections. Taking time for yourself, prioritising connection with friends and whānau, and taking care of your health and wellbeing during this journey is important. With the right mindset, a doctoral journey can be incredibly rewarding.”

More about Hansini and her work