The Real Point of Gift-Giving
A few weeks ago was my birthday. I turned 43.
43 doesn’t mark a new decade. It’s not one of those birthdays people usually celebrate in a grand way, and mine was no exception. No one threw me a lavish surprise party. I had a few small dinners with close friends and family. I opened two presents.
And yet as I emerge from this birthday, I can’t imagine feeling any more appreciated, respected, and loved. Because on this particular not-a-big-deal birthday, in addition to those two presents, I received some other gifts — gifts that cost nothing, and that I have come to realize are, actually, a very big deal.
As we enter this holiday season, it makes sense to pause for a moment and think about gifts. What’s the point of them?
On a basic level, we give gifts because we’re supposed to. On certain occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, dinner parties, the end of the year — it’s customary.
Underlying that custom is an important purpose: appreciation. We give people gifts to show them that we are grateful for them and value the role they play in our lives.
But here’s a common misconception: the bigger, more valuable the gift, the more it expresses our appreciation. I know people who’ve received huge stock grants who feel severely under-appreciated.
Because gifts don’t express appreciation, people do. And when people don’t express it, neither do their gifts.
The gifts I received that meant so much to me on my forty-third birthday? My wife Eleanor asked a small group of my friends to write me a note of appreciation, “a thought or intention or poem,” she wrote to each friend, “that encourages him to accept himself just as he is.”
Just as he is. There is no more powerful way to acknowledge others than to be thankful for them just as they are.
And yet we almost never do this. Especially in a corporate setting where we often ask people to be change and where we value them for what they can do for us and for the company.
Think of our corporate end of the year rituals: performance reviews, holiday parties, and, sometimes, if we’re lucky, bonuses.
Performance reviews are supposed to identify our strengths, and the best reviewers spend most of their time dwelling on strengths. But it’s not a review unless we also look at weaknesses, areas “to develop,” places where we fall short. In other words, immediately after we tell people how great they are, we tell them how they aren’t good enough.
Holiday parties usually include a speech by the CEO or other leader thanking people for their hard work over the year and encouraging them to continue working hard over the next year. It’s an important ritual but it’s impersonal, given to the entire company or department at once. And it’s typically about what we’ve been able to accomplish, not about who we are. People don’t feel individually recognized.
And bonuses are a business deal, based not on appreciating us for who we are, but on compensating us for what we achieved, often delivered with no ceremony and no clearly expressed appreciation. The huge stock grants that left people under-appreciated? They were, literally, placed on people’s empty chairs overnight. No note. No conversation. Just a piece of paper on a chair.
I’m not suggesting these rituals aren’t important. People work together in organizations in order to accomplish things so it makes sense that our organizational rituals appreciate people for accomplishing things and for increasing their ability to accomplish more things in the future.
But I’d like to suggest an additional way to appreciate the people around us. A way that costs nothing and feels great to everyone involved: in a handwritten note, tell them why you appreciate them.
Not for what they do for you. Not for what they help you accomplish. Not even for what they accomplish themselves. Just for being who they are.
If you’re hesitant — maybe you think it’s too touchy-feely, too sappy — just think about what it would feel like to receive that type of note from the people around you.
Here’s the hard part: don’t be stingy.
You should do this even for people about whom you feel conflicted. Perhaps you don’t like everything about them. Maybe you don’t always appreciate who they are.
That’s OK. This isn’t a performance review. You don’t have to address everything about each person. This is a gift. There’s no reason to hoard your appreciation; it’s unlimited in supply. Just think about what you do appreciate about people and describe that part. Let them know what about them makes you smile. What you admire. What makes them special to you.
Then hand them your notes and thank them, individually, for working with you. Or, if you’re feeling bashful, just leave the notes on their chairs overnight; there’s no risk they’ll open them and feel under-appreciated.
I know, for me, it made my otherwise insignificant, mid-decade birthday the most significant one yet.
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds. To receive an email when he posts, click here.