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Understanding employee engagement during organisational crises

Dr James Adonopoulos researches employee engagement during times of instability.

Being engaged – and hopefully happy – in the workplace is a basic expectation of employment.

But what happens to an employee’s feeling of connectedness and contentment when an organisation is overshadowed by calamity or under the threat of shutdown?

These are some of the questions that Dr James Adonopoulos tackled in a PhD that aims to help leaders avoid being blindsided by doubt and disruption during an organisational crisis.

He says employee engagement is defined by the extent to which employees are cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally stimulated at work.

 ‘While much has been written about this in the context of stability and normalcy, I was intrigued to see if what we think we know about engagement, also applies in the most extreme context of organisational crises.’

James says he was drawn to the topic through the fundamental belief that everyone has the right to be engaged in the workplace.

‘Most adults usually spend more time at work than they do with their family and friends so it’s really important that work motivates them to such a degree that they voluntarily exert greater all-round effort – which is what employee engagement is really all about,’ he explains.

However when an organisation is under financial, legal, accidental or reputational crunch, that’s the time that employees are at their most vulnerable he says.

‘It is also when they’re at their most emotionally negative. So it’s imperative for us to find out what engages and disengages them during an organisation’s volatile, turbulent and uncertain experiences.’

James’s research uncovered several important findings that he hopes will make a difference into the way organisations manage employee communications and engagement during times of instability.

‘One of the most significant was that a perceived laissez-faire leadership emerged as the greatest instigator of disengagement during an organisational crisis,’ he says.

It showed that a leader’s inaction – rather than action – is the biggest driver of employee angst but James says this can be rectified by simply providing open, inclusive and timely dialogue.

 ‘Communicating, providing ongoing information and regularly consulting with employees is a relatively easy way to avoid disengagement,’ he explains. ‘By knowing how to avoid disengagement leaders are hopefully better able to lead through these difficult periods with little effort.’ 

A second key finding was that during an organisational crisis, supervisors and middle managers are likely to enjoy a higher level of workplace engagement than other employees.

However this doesn’t mean that every employee should receive a promotion in the hope that it alleviates disengagement he explains.

‘Instead, we need to provide employees with two factors that this research identified as being synonymous with supervisors and managers: namely, voice and agency.  In other words, by giving employees some of what their superiors take for granted – which is the opportunity to be heard and to have autonomy – engagement won’t be as harshly affected during an organisational crisis.’

James says completing a PhD has been a significant milestone in a personal educational path that was sometimes rocky.

‘School was a difficult environment for me so I avoided studying as much as possible. As soon as I could, I joined the corporate workforce in a financial services call centre.’

 However, many years into his working James realised he needed to upgrade his qualifications for career progression so decided to enrol as a mature-age undergraduate student.

‘That really changed everything for me and I discovered how much I loved the world of academia,’ he recalls.

He went on to complete a master’s degree before working as a sessional academic at two Sydney-based universities.

‘Then, nearing the completion of my PhD, I was offered the role of Academic Dean at a large private business college. Not bad for someone who flunked his HSC!’ he smiles.

In his academic role, James is responsible for curriculum development, policy implementation, lecturer recruitment and management, student success and administration.  

‘I have approximately 100 teachers educating 1700 students across four campuses in Australia.  Our graduate and postgraduate courses are in business, management, accounting, tourism, and management,’ he says.

While undertaking a PhD is a significant step for any HDR student, James says choosing Deakin for his doctoral studies was a straight-forward decision.

‘Quite simply it was because of my supervisors – especially my principal supervisor Dr John Molineux who has been incredibly supportive, responsive and insightful throughout my candidature. I was also able to draw on further inspiration and expertise from other Deakin academics such as Professor Andrew Noblet, Dr Melissa Parris, and Dr Rodney Carr.’

Reflecting on his HDR study experience, James says it’s crucial to choose the right supervisory and subject fit.

‘Mutual respect the main key to a successful partnership but it’s also about wisely choosing the topic and methodology,’ he explains. ‘The topic must be aligned with your passions and interests otherwise it will be a slow and torturous process. The methodology must reflect your strengths. A PhD is hard enough without making it tougher by utilising methodologies that you neither enjoy nor understand.’

With a first journal article underway and a second planned in the next year, James has also recently presented his research at an international conference.

‘I had the opportunity to present at the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management Conference in Queenstown, New Zealand. It was a wonderful experience because, for the first time, it exposed me to external rigour via the peer-reviewed submission process,’ he says.

Completing his PhD earlier than planned, James says his HDR journey has been one of the most fulfilling and intellectually-enriching experiences of his life. 

‘Finishing earlier than I expected was certainly the most rewarding outcome, as was conducting research that culminated in quite a few significant findings. I was also fortunate to choose a topic that was genuinely in line with my passions and interests.’