Ryan C. Davison-Reed
What makes gifting so special? 3 things you must know
I probably enjoy giving presents even more than receiving them, and I don’t think I’m alone. It provides all the joy of retail therapy, but without the guilt hangover of knowing that I could have bought myself something more practical. Of course, I also love receiving gifts. If anyone reading this is thinking about getting me a present, I really cannot stress this enough.
In fact, the two-way satisfaction of gift-giving is part of its magic. The same can’t be said of other asymmetrical social interactions: watching a middle school orchestra concert, for example, or attending a significant other’s office Christmas party. In this article, I’ll look at the practice of gift-giving and unpack just what makes it such a special and powerful tradition—with a particular view to how you can use gift-giving to maximum effect in a corporate setting.
1. Gifts Value the Invaluable
The first question to ask though is: why do we even give gifts? Instead of spending money on Call of Duty for my nephew, why not just give him money so that he can buy the video game that he wants? Or maybe he’s more interested in branded sneakers now, or short-selling emerging markets, and would prefer to spend his money on those things instead. The reason is that gifts combine the power of dollars and cents with that of human connection and emotion.
My nephew’s value to me is not financially calculable; you cannot put a price on human relationships. My connection to him is invaluable, and I can express my appreciation of that connection through a gesture that is worth more than the simple cost of buying a video game. When I buy Call of Duty, I’m taking time out of my daily routine to consider my nephew as a valuable human with interests and emotions. I know that he is interested in Call of Duty and that playing it makes him happy. The game has a value, but the gesture is invaluable.
Unlike my nephew, of course, your company’s employees are human capital, and their employment can seem like a simple trade. Your employee does work, and you pay them for doing work. But more effort goes into your employees’ work than the mental and physical effort that is measurable in their output. Whether your employees lay bricks or close sales, the worthy ones put their very selves into their work, and that emotional commitment is invisible on the bottom line.
The only way to fairly recognize the invaluable contribution your employees make to your business is to remunerate that contribution in kind. And the only way to remunerate your employees’ feelings is to make them feel emotionally remunerated—that is to say, recognized. The truly wonderful thing about a gift is that it combines the tangible with the intangible, making it the best of both worlds.
Whether it’s a branded thermos or a deluxe signet ring, any gift will appear as a line item on your budget. What makes the gift more valuable than a twenty dollar bill, or a thousand dollar bill, is the effort that your company makes to offer the gift. (For the record, that’s Grover Cleveland on the $1000.) If a gift is chosen with an eye to an employee’s individual personality, that’s extra value. If you’re a small business and the gift is a substantial one, that sacrifice is meaningful. If an employee has dozens of peers doing a similar job, then the gift shows thoughtfulness and close attention, enhancing the power of recognition.
When your company recognizes the invaluable contribution of its employees through giving, it’s a powerful way to demonstrate that they mean so much more than a line item on payroll. They are valuable members of your company’s family, but their commitment is invaluable. Another critical aspect of giving is that it actually strengthens the relationships within that family.
2. Gifts Build Relationships
If I give you an apple, the gift shows that I value your friendship. If you give me an orange a couple of days later, you have shown me that the feeling is mutual. Of course, apples and oranges are famously dissimilar items. Your orange acknowledges my apple, but it doesn’t exactly pay me back. Rather it exists on its own as a gift and, if I care about our relationship, then I’ll have that orange lodged somewhere in my consciousness as a gift that deserves reciprocation in its own right. One day, I’ll give you a pear. Or maybe a dragon fruit if I’m feeling spicy. In this way, you and I will forever bounce gifts back and forth and strengthen our relationship by maintaining regular, measurable benchmarks to reassure each other that our friendship remains active. This is, in a nutshell, how many scholars explain the most important reason for gift giving: It builds relationships.
Clearly, the relationship between two people is different from the relationship between a company and its employees. You as a boss may have an individual relationship with an employee, but the company itself is a corporate institution without feelings. But boy oh boy do employees have feelings. An employee who absolutely adores their boss might still despise the company; the institution is an entity unto itself. An institution can’t comfort you after a bad day, or give you a high-five after a professional triumph.
This is why corporate gifts are such an important tool in the recognition toolbox; they are one of the only ways in which the company on its own can do some of the emotional lifting in the employer-employee relationship. Of course, if your company gives an employee an apple, the employee can’t very well reciprocate with an orange. A corporate gift is valuable precisely because it recognizes the intangible and invaluable contributions of your employees—their emotional commitment.
When you recognize that commitment with a gift, the unrepayable gift debt can only be reciprocated with further emotional commitment. Importantly though, this commitment is reciprocated out of the same basic social drive that makes us want to give our nephews video games—rather than your employees feeling that they are projecting their commitment into a void, while accomplishing their expected work duties for a paycheck. When your company uses a gift to validate your employees’ efforts, this is also the perfect opportunity to be more specific about what the employee means to your company—and what you hope your company means to your employee.
3. Gifts Define Us
When you give to someone, you are not simply showing that person what they mean to you; you are telling them how you see them, and how you hope that they see you. Remember the Rainbow Loom? If I give my niece a Rainbow Loom, I’m telling her that handicrafts are a pastime that I encourage. Or how about the Furby? If that’s what I give her, then I’m telling her that I value her nurturing capacities—or alternatively, her interest in engineering.
A gift from a company to its employee provides similarly fertile ground for definition. A well-defined role is something that every employee craves—the knowledge of where you stand in relation to your employer. When an employee receives a plaque in recognition of an excellent quarter in sales, it underlines that their capacity to make sales is their most important contribution to the company. No matter how commendable their people skills or adherence to standard operating procedures, recognizing an employee’s sales acumen with a gift suggests that this is what you as an employer value most.
Of course, gifts define the giver as much as the recipient—providing the giver with a crucial edge, as the giver holds the power of definition. The first aspect of this definition comes simply from the act of giving a physical gift. Any gift that is considered and thoughtful defines your company as one that observes and recognizes achievement. This impression is lasting and worth investing in; knowing and really feeling that your company cares about you is an important motivation to cut through the obstacles that any employee encounters on his or her professional journey.
Finally, the occasion and nature of the gift are also important. When you recognize longevity of service to your company with a beautiful pin or deluxe signet ring, you project an image of your company as one that values commitment and loyalty. This is exactly the kind of company that you run, and corporate gifts are the perfect way to make sure that perception of your company lines up with virtuous reality.
Giving gifts is a fundamental part of how individuals relate to each other, and provides institutions with a unique access to an emotional language that is otherwise limited to the personal sphere. When your company recognizes achievement through gifts, it engages with your employees on a one-on-one, emotional level. Discover the world of recognition through gift giving, and open yourself up to new levels of employee appreciation. I have some ideas…