By Gloria Lombardi

Emma Bridger is an award-winning employee engagement specialist and Director of People Lab. Her expertise includes culture change, psychology and organisational behaviour as well as the application of new media inside the enterprise.

Bridger is also the author of the newly released ‘Employee Engagement’, a manual that takes a practical approach to core internal communications topics. I wanted to catch up with her to know more about her studies and what to expect from her book.

In this interview we discuss the role of social media, leadership as well as individuals’ responsibility to take effective steps toward the creation of engaging organisations.

Gloria Lombardi: ‘Employee Engagement’ is the title of your new book. What was the motivation behind writing on the subject?

Emma Bridger: There is a lot of great work on employee engagement, but most is academic.

‘Employee Engagement’ links the theory to the practice. It brings studies in psychology to the practicality of work to explain how to build and support engagement. I wanted to write a book for practitioners – a manual that would give them real practical tools and techniques, yet backed up by science and research.

GL: What is important for readers to know about the book?

EB: All the area around the ‘why’ of engagement, which I explore in one of the main chapters. We very rarely answer this question. We know what employee engagement is and that is matters. Yet, we often forget to ask ourselves why this is the case. We just intuitively say ‘if we are engaged, then we do a better job.’

GL: Will answering the ‘why’ contribute to the creation of better workplaces?

EB: Yes. We can appreciate the fundamentals for building experiences that enhance people’s positive feelings and happiness at work.

There is robust research that supports this idea that if we are in a particular space where we can experience certain emotions, then we will be able to work smarter, harder, more creatively and innovatively. Using that science to explain to the C-suite why employee engagement works is key.

GL: Based on your studies, is there something that stands out with regards to the application of the theory to the practice?

EB: The real turning point for me was about 10 years ago. I was conducting major surveys inside a number of corporates bringing my background in psychology and research. It was really hard work and we did not make any gains. There was progress, but not a huge amount. In my head I was thinking that there must have been a better way to approach engagement.

It was at that time when I heard about the strength-based method and started to apply it to my studies. It suddenly made all the difference.

I started to have different conversations with people; I asked them to tell me the stories of their most engaging periods in their jobs rather than what was not so good about their careers. As I started to collect these memories, a totally different scenario was coming out as opposed to the results revealed from the surveys – new themes like autonomy, mastery, purpose, the people I work with, the company having integrity were emerging. This let me understand that we needed to explore engagement in a different way.

Often we look at it from a deficit-based approach – we explore the problems and then, we try to fix the issues. There is nothing wrong with finding out what is not working, but it is equally valuable to identify what does work and build on that.

So, I developed a whole toolkit about the strength-based approach.

GL: At simply-communicate we focus on social media inside the large enterprise. We believe that it is having a transformational impact on employee communications. Based on your research, how do you see the relationship between social technologies and staff engagement?

EB: Social media is providing an immense opportunity for employee engagement. For example in the way measurement is conducted. The days of the one-year engagement survey are over. Today, employees expect to contribute their thoughts and be included on a real-time basis.

Social technologies have been completely revolutionised by this aspect. New applications like Thymometrics and other tools are allowing employers to tap into staff’s ideas regularly. Ultimately, it helps the organisation to shift from transactional to transformational engagement.

But, it requires a change of perspective. Most companies are still in the mindset of ‘how can we stop our people doing this?’ rather than seeing it as a great opportunity to create dialogue.

Employees go to social media and external sites such as Glass Door at any time to express their voice. We can’t stop them doing that. So, it is better to encourage and channel these conversations internally. Enterprise social networks (ESNs) like Yammer, Jive, or Chatter have a key role here. They enable people to collaborate, feel part of a community, and have many more informal discussions.

GL: You mentioned mindset. Building on that, what key challenges need to be addressed?

EB: The real challenge is that social media outside of work is ‘up to us’. It is us who decide how to keep and manage our personal relationships.

The situation becomes more problematic with social media at work: suddenly there is the reputation of the company, and all the perceived rules about how we should use it. Depending on the culture of the organisation, some companies are ready to have open and transparent conversations. Others have in-depth rules and regulations, which creates an interesting and paradoxical challenge: people start wondering ‘How can I use it? How should I use it?’ Employees become slightly fearful of saying the wrong things or coming across the wrong way.

This is posing a layer on how they approach the tools, reducing the full power of social media.

GL: What would be your advice to internal communicators who are trying to remove this layer inside their organisation?

EB: It all comes down to organisational culture and readiness. You need to assess where you are at, how people are using these channels, and how they want to use them. Most importantly, you need to give them a purpose and clear objectives rather than just saying, “By the way, we have a new social tool. Use it.’

Surprisingly people do like rules. I do not mean severe restrictions, which put them off. I am talking about guidance; direction and etiquette on how they are supposed to behave.

Purely ‘free flow’ often makes people feel uncomfortable or worst, they will use it in an immature and inappropriate way.

GL: That is an interesting point. The idea of having freedom when using social media is often confused with chaos.

EB: I think it is very true. People feel safer when you give them some boundaries in which to operate and try things out. I am not advocating the heavy corporate policies. Just a few outlines can help colleagues know what and how to get involved.

It is about communications, and in this respect, internal communicators have a big opportunity to make an impact.

GL: Let’s talk about leadership.

EB: It is one of the most important influences to engagement. Even if we work for a fantastic company, and we love our daily job and the people we work with, if our boss is not a good one, we are unlikely to be fully engaged.

We can’t pass over that. It just makes us feel miserable.

GL: What is your advice to employees who have a bad relationship with the boss? Should they give up and find an alternative place to work or stay there and try to change things?

EB: It is difficult to say. Many professionals left their previous company because of the boss, and were able to grow and flourish somewhere else. Others instead, stayed in the job and nurtured an important skill, ‘resilience’. Sometimes, working for difficult people can do us a favour.

However, if that goes too far it may be time to move on. We know when it happens. I call it the ‘fear to send’: we are writing an email to our boss. We read it dozens of times before pressing the button ‘send’ because we are afraid of the reaction we will encounter. In that state of mind we are unable to do our best since we are more focused on the boss’s thoughts rather than on our job.

GL: Engagement is incredibly personal to each of us. What can the single individual do to help himself to be engaged?

EB: This is a really good point. We are talking about very complex human behaviours. We can’t demand individuals to become engaged. We can’t say, ‘By the end of Q4 I want you be engaged’. It is the individual who chooses to be so.

My suggestion to people is to do some personal analysis on themselves by reflecting on what they need to be at their best at work. It is an individual’s responsibility. Then, having conversations with managers is crucial.

This is obviously different for each employee. Some need autonomy and the freedom to be creative. Others need structure and want to know what is expected of them.

On a practical side, there are interventions coming from positive psychology, which look at how we can improve our wellbeing – from mindfulness to exercising, meditation, gratitude and random acts of kindness. Research shows that if we apply these practices we will have a better chance to experience happiness at work.

I would also mention having a ‘growth mindset’ as opposed to a ‘fixed mindset’. At its basic it is about holding the belief that things do change and for the better rather than having a fatalistic view of people and situations.

Employees who are engaged at work tend to have a ‘growth mindset.’


This article originally appeared on simply-communicate