Employee engagement with Emma Bridger

Emma Bridger explains what employee engagement means in today’s world, how to design an engagement plan and how to measure its success.

Written by Rachel Salaman
Published 12 July 2018
Employee engagement with Emma Bridger

Award-winning employee engagement specialist, Emma Bridger, originally wrote “Employee Engagement” as a practical guide for understanding, measuring and building engagement within the workplace.

The book, which became an instant hit among several big businesses, is shortly due to be republished. The new edition will focus on how technology can be used to boost engagement, as well as the relationship between employee experience and engagement levels.

In this podcast, Emma Bridger talks us through the five enablers which she believes are intrinsic to engagement: leadership, strategic narrative, employee voice, integrity, and involvement.

Listen to or read the full 30-minute interview, below, to learn more. Then tell us your reaction in the comments, below. What did you learn from Emma Bridger’s “Employee Engagement?” Has it changed how you perceive employee engagement? And, will you do anything differently from now on? Join the discussion below!

Listen now - Click here to download the podcast

Interview transcript With Emma Bridger

Rachel Salaman: Welcome to this edition of L&D Insights from Mind Tools with me, Rachel Salaman.

We hear a lot about employee engagement these days, but what does that actually mean? How much does it matter? And how do you achieve it in your organization? To explore these ideas I went to see Emma Bridger, an award-winning employee engagement specialist and the director of People Lab, an employee engagement consultancy working with clients worldwide. She’s written a book called simply “Employee Engagement,” and it’s a very useful and practical guide to the subject. I met Emma Bridger in London, and we began by talking about the term itself and why it’s so hard to define.

Emma Bridger: Employee engagement is often seen as a kind of very abstract concept, and it’s a small word – or two words – even for a very big area and idea and concept. And I guess you can draw parallels with words like happiness, love, communication. They mean different things to different people, and actually they kind of defy a single universal definition, which in some ways is great, because it creates an opportunity to really establish what it means to us as individuals, or in a work context, as teams or as a business. But I think that’s the reason it’s eluded a single definition for so long. In terms of its origin, actually the term was first coined by academics talking about something called “work engagement.” So if you read any academic literature in this area you’ll come across work engagement a lot more than employee engagement. But, from an organizational point of view, employee engagement is the term that we talk about a lot within the organization, so two slightly different ways of looking at the same thing.

Rachel Salaman: What’s your definition?

Emma Bridger: Obviously I work in employee engagement – I need a definition, and the definition I use which actually I stole with pride from a fantastic guy called John Smythe. A plug for John, he’s written a great book called “The Chief Engagement Officer.”

I took his definition and I did change it slightly, so my definition is the extent to which people are personally involved in the success of a business. So, for me, it’s almost about coming to work and really caring – really giving a damn about the job that you – almost as you would if it was your own business. So that’s the definition that I use: it works for me, but there are 50-plus definitions and counting out there, so I ask organizations to figure out what it means for them and come up with a definition that works for them.

Rachel Salaman: At what point do you think an organization’s commitment to creating engagement ends and the employee’s responsibility to be engaged begins?

Emma Bridger: I think that’s a great question, and I’m not sure it’s that one ends and one begins. I think it always has to be a two-way thing. So, when I’m talking to companies about engagement, I talk about this idea of employees have to personally choose to volunteer themselves to be engaged. You can’t put in someone’s performance appraisal: “By the end of Q4 2014 you will be engaged.” It doesn’t work like that, they have to be up for it, and I think one of the main factors in looking at that is ensuring that the values of the organization align with the employees’ values. And when I say values, I don’t mean the words around the room on posters saying, “We are transparent. We are open,” I mean what the organization is all about – or at least they can’t be in conflict. So I think absolutely the employee has a big responsibility to themselves to be engaged, and equally the employer has a responsibility to create an environment in which that can happen. So I think it’s absolutely a two-way thing.

Rachel Salaman: In your book you point out that there’s a difference between transactional engagement and transformational engagement. So, could you talk us through that difference?

Emma Bridger: Yes, so this distinction was first coined by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke in their original “Engaging for Success” report to government back in 2009. And it’s a great report, but for me it’s probably the single most useful idea to come out of that report, and it’s something that I had been thinking about for a while but I hadn’t articulated it nearly as clearly as David and Nita had.

So, transactional engagement is kind of where an organization often does a survey, and they do the survey and they get some results; they feed back the results to their employees; they often pick the bottom three things, the bottom five things from the survey; they ask employees to action plan around those bottom five things.

Often those actions get put in a spreadsheet, and usually some poor soul from HR has the wonderful development opportunity to collate all of those actions and to make sure that teams deliver on those actions, and then at some point those actions are complete, the box is ticked, and everybody says, “Thank goodness for that, we’ve finished with engagement until the survey comes round again.” And when I explain that to companies I work with and people I work with, you often see lots of heads nodding around the room, and a lot of people saying, “Yes that’s exactly where we are.”

So, at the opposite end of the scale is transformational engagement, and transformational engagement is where engagement is just part of the culture and DNA of the organization. Unlike transactional engagement which is very reactive, transformational engagement is all about saying, “What do we need our people to think, feel, believe and do, and how can we engage them in this to help them deliver our strategy?” So it’s forward-thinking, it’s proactive.

I think the other key difference is with transformational engagement employee insight is regularly sought, harnessed, and acted upon. So companies don’t wait for the yearly survey to tell them how their people are feeling, they are continually asking those sorts of questions, speaking to their people, they have their finger on the pulse of how their people are feeling. They don’t wait for a survey to tell them what’s not working, they’re already thinking about “how can we engage our people, and what are our engaged people going to do and deliver for our business.” And I think those are two opposite ends of the scale.

In my experience most companies tend to start in the transactional side of things. So they start with a survey, they go round the survey cycle for a couple of years, and they might have some wins from that and make some progress, but it all feels very difficult, like a lot of work for not perhaps a lot of gain, and they start to then make that journey towards transformational engagement. So you tend to find companies are at some point on that scale that some are a lot further along than others, but most tend to start in the area of transactional engagement.

Rachel Salaman: Why should they do any of this? Why is employee engagement important?

Emma Bridger: The first piece of evidence that scientifically demonstrated that how your employees feel impacts your business was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1998, and it was the Sears employee-customer profit chain – Sears obviously the big U.S. retailer – and this piece of research found a correlation between the scores on the survey, which correlated positively with customer satisfaction and advocacy scores, which then correlated positively with increase in profit. And it was the first time anyone had been able to see that link between how employees feel, how customers feel, and bottom line essentially, which is really exciting because I think intuitively everybody knows that is probably the case, but to have the science is great, particularly when talking to the C-Suite.

Since 1998 there has been an absolute overwhelming body of evidence which has grown, which demonstrates time and time again that how you treat your people and how engaged they are impacts a whole range of business outcomes. So, for example, we see companies who are in the top quartile for engagement experience more profit, greater turnover, lower employee attrition, lower absenteeism, but also business outcomes such as health and safety are positively impacted, even innovation and creativity. So pretty much every business outcome that you’re looking for there’s evidence out there that says engagement can contribute towards those business outcomes. So a massive body of evidence out there now.

Rachel Salaman: In your book you pose a chicken-and-egg question, which is, “Which comes first, engagement or high performance?” What’s your answer to that question?

Emma Bridger: When I’m speaking to senior leaders and the C-Suite about engagement, quite often the challenge they’ll throw back is, “Well of course high-performing organizations are going to have a more highly engaged workforce, because everybody feels good about working for a company that’s doing really well.” But there is some really good evidence out there that shows that engagement is a lead indicator of subsequent performance rather than a lag indicator.

The first piece of evidence that I came across that showed this was a piece of research done by what is now Towers Watson (I think they were Towers Perrin at the time) and they found a much greater correlation between engagement and subsequent performance rather than engagement and previous financial performance, basically showing that engagement is a lead indicator. So engagement comes first is what we’re saying.

Rachel Salaman: And your book helps people develop an engagement strategy?

Emma Bridger: Yes.

Rachel Salaman: And implement it. And you say that the engagement strategy needs to be aligned to the company strategy, and this goes back to what you were saying earlier about values, I expect.

Emma Bridger: Yes.

Rachel Salaman: How does that alignment actually work?

Emma Bridger: I’m always intrigued by companies that I speak to or people that I chat to generally who haven’t really asked themselves the question “For what purpose?” So why do we want or need an engaged workforce? And intuitively they feel it’s a good thing to focus on – it’s the right thing to do – but, for me, it’s all about ensuring that your engagement objectives are aligned to your business strategy or business outcomes.

If I give you an example: lots of companies will talk about the objectives of their engagement strategy being achieving Investors In People Gold, or making The Times Top 100 List, which is great and they are perfectly valid objectives. But what I try to do is ask people to go one step further. So, why do you want Investors in People Gold? What will it give your business? How will it help you achieve your strategy? Why do you want to be in The Times Top 100?

And once we get into that, people really start to look at their business strategy. So it might be that they want to become an employer of choice – they can attract the best talent in the industry – so reputation is really important. Or it might be that actually they’re focusing on customer advocacy and they want their engaged workforce to effectively do a better job with their customers, improve customer experience. Or it might be they’re in the area of creativity and innovation, and they get that, by focusing on their people, they can create more innovation, more ideas and more creativity. For some organizations it’s about health and safety, and reducing the numbers of accidents per year.

But for me it’s really challenging companies to think about linking their engagement objectives to their business strategy and their business objectives, and it gives the whole area of engagement a lot more gravitas when we can do that, and it really helps to get the C-Suite to sit up and take notice of what we’re doing within engagement and understand that it really is a value-add to the business.

Rachel Salaman: In your book you identify five enablers of engagement, which are, briefly, leadership, strategic narrative, employee voice, integrity, and involvement. Let’s talk a bit about each of those, starting with leadership. So how specifically can leaders enable engagement?

Emma Bridger: I think anyone that’s ever worked for a bad boss – or, at the opposite end of the scale, a great boss – knows how important your manager is to your engagement at work. There’s a saying that often people don’t leave companies, they leave their managers or their bosses, and I think that’s really true. So there is no doubt that focusing on leadership is a core enabler of engagement.

There are many different ways that you can approach that, and I think for me one of the starting points is to think of leaders and managers firstly not as leaders and managers but as employees. So, very often we forget that they are actually employees of the company as well, and they need to be engaged themselves to have any hope of engaging their teams. So a lot of the work I do focuses on getting that community to take a step back and say, “Actually, let’s just focus on your engagement first and figure out what’s working for you and what’s missing for you, and how you’re going to work on your own engagement. And then let’s look at how you can engage your team.” So I think that is a starting point really.

The second thing is that so many managers and leaders are promoted because they are technically good at their job and not necessarily because they’re good at managing and leading a team. So the whole area of leadership development, whether you integrate employee engagement, training development, into the overall leadership development program – that’s great – or you run a standalone engagement training course or development course, that is great also. And I do a lot of work in that area demystifying engagement for leaders because I think it’s shrouded in a lot of mystery, and it feels quite difficult. So really helping me firstly to understand their own engagement, and secondly saying, “Here are some practical tools and techniques that you can use as a manager to engage your teams,” which is good for everybody.

Rachel Salaman: The second enabler you mentioned is strategic narrative. So what do you mean by that?

Emma Bridger: Strategic narrative is really about the direction and purpose of the company. It’s not necessarily important for every employee, but many employees want to know, “What’s the point of all this? Why am I here?” And I’m sure everyone has heard the story about JFK touring round NASA in the ’60s and asking the guy sweeping the floor, “What do you do?” and he says, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

So a bit of an old example – we’ve all heard that one – but essentially that’s what we’re trying to achieve with strategic narrative, so people absolutely have a line of sight between the job they do day-to-day and the whole purpose and direction of the company. So it’s like, “Why am I here? What’s the difference I make? Does it matter? Does anyone actually care?” So it’s really about communicating that to employees, and giving them that sense of purpose that what they do matters and is valued by the organization as well.

Rachel Salaman: In practical terms, how can that be communicated effectively throughout the organization?

Emma Bridger: There are 101 different ways you can do this. Something that I talk about in the book actually is the idea of using things like learning maps or mats – visuals. I think a picture paints a thousand words, and you can put your vision and your direction on the intranet; send out an email. It’s not hugely engaging, but to involve employees in coming up with a visual that describes where you’re heading can be quite exciting for people, and they can buy in to that a lot easier than they can do with a load of bullets or words on an email.

So I think that’s something that works really well. Making films, using more creative techniques is useful for strategic narrative, rather than sticking to the tried and tested PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of the year.

Rachel Salaman: So looking at employee voice now: what is that, and how does it enable engagement?

Emma Bridger: Employee voice is really about employees having a sense that their opinions matter; that they genuinely feel listened to, and, quite simply, they have a voice in the organization. And there are the more formal aspects of employee voice, which are things like works councils, union membership, the formal set-up. But I think the informal voice is just as important, so people feel that they’ve got the opportunity to have their say and make their voice heard, and that someone actually listens and cares about what they’ve said.

Rachel Salaman: What are some of your tips for establishing an employee voice?

Emma Bridger: I think you can’t beat going out and asking people. It’s a great symbolic demonstration of the fact that you are genuinely wanting to establish employee voice if you say to people, “How can we give you a voice?” and they will tell you. It might be for some people just a conversation regularly with their managers. For other people it might be something a little more formal. Obviously with the advent of social media in the organization, what we call enterprise social networks are getting more and more popular. It really helps to facilitate employee voice, so people that are located in far-off places around the world, working from home, potentially have a lot more opportunity to get involved in conversations. But equally, for those employees that aren’t online, it doesn’t have to be some big complicated bells-and-whistles solution. As I said, it’s very fundamental: it’s about having conversations and people genuinely listening.

Rachel Salaman: The next enabler is integrity. So – integrity on the part of whom?

Emma Bridger: I think both actually. It starts with the organization. So, how many of us have worked for companies, going back to values, where the values are pasted on posters around the walls of the office? And you look at those values and they often say things like “We’re transparent, we’re open, we’re honest,” and you might think, “I wish. If only this company was like that, it would be a great place to work.”

So really, integrity is about matching the words and actions of the company, and making sure what they say matches with what they do. And it sounds so obvious, it sounds so simple, but again I think we’ve all had experience of where that’s just not the case. And actually, when I’m working with companies on engagement, and we’re looking at how we sustain engagement, one of the areas we look at is what we call the “employee life cycle.” So we look at all the touch points for an employee – so even before they walk through the door, what’s the recruitment process like? What’s the interview process like? Onboarding induction, manager communication, performance management, all those touch points. And we really evaluate: so do they support engagement or do they sabotage engagement? So if you’re really serious about it, you are treating people well: you’re not, for example, communicating big changes to terms and conditions via an email. Or you’re not saying, “Come and work for us, we’re a really great place to work” and then the first couple of weeks somebody is in their new job they’re sat on their own, twiddling their thumbs, because the IT is not ready. So it’s about looking at all those different aspects.

Rachel Salaman: And the fifth enabler is involvement, which some people might think is a bit of a synonym for engagement. So what do you mean by involvement?

Emma Bridger: The first four enablers again were coined by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke in the “Engaging for Success” report that I mentioned earlier. I put in involvement because I think involvement goes one step further than employee voice. So, if employee voice is about feeling that you’ve got a voice and you’re listened to, involvement is really about saying, “Have I got the opportunity to get involved in the organization?”

And I often find that companies are very wary about this. This is challenged back to me: “Well, if we involve people, we won’t be managing expectations,” and they’re worried that if your employees are involved then chaos will occur, and actually involvement very much links back to some of the academic theory that sits behind this: something called self-determination theory that Daniel Pink has made very popular in his book “Drive.” And I’m sure lots of people have seen his great RSA Animates YouTube clip – which if you haven’t seen it, go and have a look – which is called “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” And in that clip he talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose, which really comes from this thing called self-determination theory.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose, in my experience, are the three themes that pretty much run across every company I’ve worked with to figure out what’s going to engage their workforce. So there are always lots of individual differences, so we all have different needs when it comes to engagement, but those three are pretty much universal. And autonomy is really what I’m talking about when I talk about involvement. So it’s that piece around, “Let me have a go. Give me the opportunity to figure this out. Let me think for myself. Don’t just treat me as a production unit and tell me what to do, because it’s not very engaging.”

It can be something as simple as working in a call center, giving teams the autonomy, the involvement, to work out their own shift patterns for the coming week or month. So actually you figure it out, you work out which shift patterns you want. Or, in an office move, allowing people to choose the paint color.

And that might seem like it’s not very deep and not very meaningful, but actually any opportunity to give employees that involvement and contribute to engagement. And I think it’s something that once you allow people the opportunity to get involved in the business, and they start to trust that it’s genuine and you mean it, they will start to come up with bigger, better and brighter ideas, and as they become more engaged you see the payback in terms of their engagement.

Rachel Salaman: In the book you advocate taking a strength-based approach to employee engagement. How does that work?

Emma Bridger: I think this is probably one of the most important takeaways from the book. So, in 10 to 15 years of working in this field – and I myself spent 10 years in-house in a corporate environment – and 12 years ago was very much in a transactional place when it came to engagement. I started thinking, “There’s got to be a different way, there’s got to be a better way.” And I have a background in psychology anyway, so I’ve always been very interested in this, and I came across this movement in psychology called positive psychology, which has been around for about 20 years, and really it’s not a new discipline, it’s just a new lens to look at various elements of psychology. And what positive psychology says is that whilst there’s absolutely use and validity in looking at what’s wrong with people – how can we fix them? – and in an organizational setting I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look at problems and how to fix them, but what we very rarely do is look at what works and how we can get more of that.

So I started thinking actually this could work with engagement, because engagement is all about creating a great place to work, and it’s very positive and it’s focused, and yet we always do a survey and look at all the stuff that’s not working. And the conversation we have around engagement doesn’t really fit where we’re trying to go with it; it feels quite negative and quite depressing often. So I starting thinking about how we could use positive psychology and engagement, and I came across a tool called appreciative inquiry, which is a very simple tool for having conversations with people in a slightly different way.

Appreciative inquiry talks about starting with focusing on what has worked now and what has worked previously. So from an engagement perspective you might ask people to tell stories about the time when they were highly engaged and what was going on, and from that take out the themes: what was happening? How were they feeling? What were the conditions that made it possible?

And then you move round appreciate inquiry to look at what could the future be like, so, “What could it be like here if we create a great place to work and achieve our engagement objectives?” And then you start to focus on the gap analysis: “What should it be like? What should we do?” which is where you could start to bring in, perhaps, some of the pieces that aren’t working.

And then really the last element of appreciative inquiry is all about personal accountability and ownership, so, “What’s the difference that I can make?”

So I developed a whole tool kit, and a lot of that is in the book, that uses that model to focus on engagement. And the first time I did this was when I was working at Royal and Sun Alliance in the mid 2000s, and I was given permission by the customer services director to have a go at this, and the results absolutely blew us away. In the 12 months, we’d reduced attrition significantly. We reduced absenteeism. But something we weren’t expecting was that sales had gone through the roof. And the analysts were all over this and said, “Actually it’s in no small part down to the engagement program.”

So that experience really opened my eyes to taking a strength-based approach. It’s such a small change, but has such a significant impact on engagement that it’s the real takeaway from the book in my opinion.

Rachel Salaman: And how do you actually do it? Do you sit down with employees and go through that process you described, or is it sometimes done using forms or not face-to-face?

Emma Bridger: It’s done in a whole variety of different ways – whatever works for your organization. But I think there has to be some face-to-face. We are human beings, we like conversation, and what I advocate very often is using a viral change approach. So, selecting a group of, whether you call them representatives or champions, but a group of people who are the right people to role model and drive change in the business. And quite often I work with that small group of people to take them through this process first of all, figure out their own engagement, and then upskill them on the tools and techniques, and then set them to work to go out into the organization and run similar sessions with leaders, and then leaders run them with their teams.

That I guess is a blueprint for how it works, but the principles can be used in a variety of different ways. It can be used ongoing in team meetings or a big conference. You can use this kind of approach online if you can’t get to people, offline. Whatever works for your organization really.

Rachel Salaman: You very helpfully offer some tips on designing an engagement plan. What should that look like? Is it possible to even generalize about it?

Emma Bridger: Again, it’s what works for your organization, and I’m not a fan of 50-page documents for the sake of it, but I do think it starts back with those objectives. So, for what purpose? What are the objectives of the engagement plan? And how do they align with the objectives of the company or organization?

Then obviously you get into the actions you’re going to take itself, whatever that might look like. Equally important is, at the objective-setting point of pulling together your plan, you should also be thinking about measurement. I don’t necessarily mean measuring engagement scores, I mean measuring the impact of your plan. It’s quite simple: if one of your objectives is to achieve Investors in People Gold, then your measurement will be we’ve achieved it or we haven’t, so that can be quite straightforward. But sometimes it’s less straightforward. If you’re talking about creating a great place to work, what does that look like? How will you measure it? And actually, when I’m training people, I often say, “I think you know when you’ve landed on a really good smart objective when it’s pretty obvious how you’ll measure it.” I think if you’re struggling to think about how you’ll measure your objective and how you’ll demonstrate you’ve achieved it, then it’s probably not quite the right objective.

Rachel Salaman: You make the distinction there between measuring engagement and measuring the impact of engagement. Could you talk a little bit more about that, and perhaps mention some of the ways of measuring those two things?

Emma Bridger: Yes. So most companies run an engagement survey, and I’m not anti-surveys, but I think there’s far too much importance placed on a survey. The way I see it is your engagement survey is probably one piece of a 24-piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s not the be-all and end-all. So for me, if you have a survey that gives you, say, an engagement index score, and you say at the end of the next 12 months you want to increase that by five percentage points, that’s all very well but it comes back to the “so-what” factor – so what? What has that delivered for your business? How has that helped your business?

So I think that it’s easy for us to measure engagement scores because most people run surveys, but going back to the plan and looking at your objectives, how will you demonstrate at the end of 12 months, or whatever timescale you’re looking at, that you have delivered on those objectives?

One of the measures might be improving engagement scores, but there will also be a whole range of other measures. Some of them will be quantitative business outcomes – you might be looking at reducing absenteeism or reducing employee attrition. Some of them will be much more qualitative, and I think those measures are just as important. So you might be looking at the extent to which people engage on your enterprise social network. You might be looking at the amount of activity that’s happening at a local level. Are people taking actions to improve the way it feels to work here? Are they getting up off their behinds to do stuff? In which case that’s a great qualitative measure of engagement. It’s intangible sometimes: it can feel quite intangible, and you kind of know it when you see it, and you can walk into an office and just feel an energy and a buzz, and I think that’s just as important to observe those sorts of outputs as well as the more quantitative measures.

Rachel Salaman: You end the book with some thoughts about the future of employee engagement. Could you share some of those with us now?

Emma Bridger: I think it’s a really interesting time for engagement. I think people are really starting to question the value of the survey. Like I said, insight is great, but actually, is it enough to measure how your employees feel once a year? Probably not. And I think what we’re seeing are some really great apps and technology coming through that are going to enable companies to really keep their finger on the pulse day-to-day of how their people are feeling. So I think that’s going to change the landscape of engagement. So that’s one area, and some really great technology coming through that enables people to do that, and actually much more economic than using the big all-singing, all-dancing once-a-year survey.

Rachel Salaman: Emma Bridger talking to me in London. The name of Emma’s book again is “Employee Engagement,” and it’s a really useful manual on this topic for HR practitioners and managers. Thanks for listening and goodbye.

About the author

Rachel Salaman

Rachel Salaman

Freelance Podcast Producer
Rachel has been producing MindTools.com Book Insights and Expert Interviews, the latter of which she also hosts, for the past 14 years. She is also the Founder and Creative Director of a media production company, advising on all forms of online audio and video content, and offering full production and post-production services, as well as training and consultation.

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