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The Power of Gift-Giving at Work



Gift-giving is a ubiquitous part of interpersonal relationships and social interactions. However, gift-giving in the workplace comes with unique opportunities as well as potential pitfalls, if not thoughtfully considered and applied.


Today we will explore how gift-giving among coworkers and with clients can strengthen relationships and enhance organizational culture when used intentionally and appropriately.


The Psychology of Gift-Giving


A growing body of research explores the psychological underpinnings of gift exchanges and their impact on social bonds. On a fundamental level, the act of gift-giving stimulates the brain's reward centers and activates feelings of goodwill between the gift-giver and recipient (Aknin et al., 2013). This occurs because gift-giving involves considering another person's interests and expending resources to demonstrate care and connection (Mauss, 1960). When gifts match a recipient's needs, values, or interests, they more effectively promote gratitude and strengthen the relationship (Collins et al., 2019; Flynn & Adams, 2009).


Gifts also hold symbolic meaning and social significance beyond their monetary value. They can communicate messages about status, care, alliance, or exchange expectations between individuals (Sherry, 1983). The type of gift, how it is presented and acknowledged, all influence perceptions of thoughtfulness, respect and relationship quality (Belk & Coon, 1993). Gift-giving is fundamentally a ritual of social bonding that bolsters trust and cooperation among exchange partners (Mauss, 1960; Otnes et al., 1993). As such, it can be a meaningful way to foster goodwill and build relationship capital in a professional environment when handled appropriately.


Appreciation and Recognition in the Workplace


The Power of Appreciation


Expressing gratitude and appreciation for employees' efforts is strongly linked to higher morale, motivation, and performance (Grant & Gino, 2010). Yet many organizations struggle to meaningfully recognize their workforce in an authentic, frequent manner (Gallup, 2017). Thoughtfully chosen gifts can be an impactful way for leaders to show appreciation when employees exceed expectations or milestones. When combined with a personal, heartfelt message, gifts reinforce the value that individuals bring and strengthen the psychological contract between employer and team members.


Tactics for Thoughtful Recognition


While monetary rewards are always appreciated, consideration gifts that demonstrate personal insight can have longer-lasting impact. For a salesperson who hits a big quarterly goal, a nice bottle of wine or gift card to their favorite restaurant says "we noticed your success." For an operations manager who worked overtime on a critical launch, a comfortable lounge outfit communicates "we see your dedication and want you to relax." Keeping recognition gifts modest but meaningful helps employees feel valued without creating entitlement or comparisons between team members. Pairing gifts with sincere gratitude also avoids potential issues around favoritism or perceived obligation.


Capital One's "Caught You Caring" Program


At financial services giant Capital One, the "Caught You Caring" employee recognition program leverages thoughtful gift-giving to boost morale. Team members can nominate coworkers for going above and beyond, with nominees receiving a $25 gift card and company-wide shout out. But nominations have increased involvement and connection across the large organization. By institutionalizing appreciation through small gifts, Capital One strengthens culture while inspiring others to recognize their peers' contributions.


Bonding Clients and Building Loyalty


The Impact of Client Gift-Giving


Developing strong, trusting relationships is especially crucial in client-facing roles and industries like sales, consulting, healthcare and financial services. Research shows that exchanging small tokens of appreciation with clients promotes loyalty through social bonding and perceptions of care (Palmatier et al., 2009). Thoughtful gifts matching a client's interests show relationship investment beyond just transactions. They humanize brands and enhance feelings of affinity critical to retaining customer business over the long term.


Guidelines for Ethical Client Gift-Giving


While gifts can positively influence clients when used judiciously, policies are needed to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest or obligations. Most professionals opt for nominal, non-cash tokens ideally relevant to a client's hobbies or experiences shared together. Gifts should complement – not substitute for – high quality service, expertise and rapport developed over time. Full disclosure and moderation are key to avoid appearing as transactional or seeking undue influence through lavish presents. Periodic, lesser value gifts spaced throughout the year likely have more impact than larger annual bonuses.


Service-Centered Client Gifts at a Law Firm


At a midsize law firm, partners might gift seasonal baked goods to clients thanking them for their ongoing trust and business. An estate planning attorney assists elderly clients with advance directives while presenting a book on philanthropy matching their interests. A corporate lawyer wraps up a major deal by sending each signature wine or local experiences cementing new bonds. These personalized, service-relevant gifts strengthen relationships without obligation or conflicts of interest.


Building Culture Through Team Celebrations


Events that Foster Morale and Belonging


Shared experiences are profoundly important for forming bonds within any organizational culture (Dutton et al., 2006). Team-building events and celebrations give colleagues opportunities to connect outside formal responsibilities and see each other's humanity. When combined with thoughtful gestures, these interactions bolster mutual understanding and morale (Giberson et al., 2009). Appreciation gifts distributed at team celebrations say "we value you as individuals and want to foster the relationships that drive our success."


Crafting Meaningful Celebration Experiences


Thoughtfully planned celebrations marking achievements and milestones need not be expensive or elaborate to make an impact. Distributing modest gifts like cookies baked for a project wrap party or personalized travel mugs at an annual kickoff instantly spark appreciation and smiles. Colleagues at every level should feel included through considerate planning and accessible activities promoting integration across roles, locations and teams. Opportunities for casual conversation and gratitude exchanges between distributed coworkers can cement culture virtually as well.


Annual "State of Slack" Celebrations


At workplace messaging platform Slack, yearly "State of Slack" events bring together far-flung teams. Leaders recognize top contributors while associates receive branded swag. But it is open-mic speakers and jam sessions that foster sharing, empathy and reinvigorated purpose across divisions. This well-crafted celebration balances appreciation gifts with memorable experiences building enterprise-wide goodwill and cohesion.


Conclusion


When thoughtfully chosen and applied, gift-giving holds untapped potential for strengthening relationships that power organizational success. Research consistently shows how gifts promote bonding through reciprocal care, consideration and gratitude between givers and receivers. Leaders in any industry or function can leverage gifts paired with sincere appreciation to boost employee engagement, client loyalty, and team morale. From thoughtfully recognizing milestones to crafting meaningful celebrations, gifts humanize professional interactions and cultivate the trust that drives performance. With moderation, full disclosure and ethics-focused intent, leaders have a meaningful tool for developing high-functioning cultures where individuals and the mission thrive. When optimized through strategic relationship-building, gift-giving offers a path for organizations to authentically value people in impactful ways.


References


  • Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., Sandstrom, G. M., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Does social connection turn good deeds into good feelings? On the value of putting the “social” in prosocial spending. The International Journal of Happiness and Development, 1(2), 155–171. https://doi.org/10.1504/IJHD.2013.055791

  • Belk, R. W., & Coon, G. S. (1993). Gift giving as agapic love: An alternative to the exchange paradigm based on dating experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(3), 393–417. https://doi.org/10.1086/209358

  • Collins, R. L., Gurung, R. A. R., Whitcomb, D., Song, H., Loken, E., & Kampman, M. (2019). Attitude matters: Matching gratitude induction methods to recipients’ gratitude attitudes. Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(4), 466–474. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1484935

  • Dutton, J. E., Roberts, L. M., & Bednar, J. (2006). Pathways for positive identity construction at work: Four types of positive identity and the building of social resources. Working Paper Series, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/44473/b5262801.0001.001.pdf?sequence=2

  • Flynn, F. J., & Adams, G. S. (2009). Money can’t buy love: Asymmetric beliefs about gift price and feelings of appreciation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 404–409. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2008.10.009

  • Giberson, T. R., Resick, C. J., Dickson, M. W., Mitchelson, J. K., Randall, K. R., & Clark, M. A. (2009). Leadership and organizational culture: Linking CEO characteristics to cultural values. Journal of Business and Psychology, 24(2), 123–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-009-9109-1

  • Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 946–955. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017935

  • Mauss, M. (1960). The gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. Cohen & West.

  • Otnes, C., Lowrey, T. M., & Kim, Y.-C. (1993). Gift selection for easy and difficult recipients: A social roles interpretation. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(2), 229–244. https://doi.org/10.1086/209351

  • Palmatier, R. W., Jarvis, C. B., Bechkoff, J. R., & Kardes, F. R. (2009). The role of customer gratitude in relationship marketing. Journal of Marketing, 73(5), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1509/jmkg.73.5.1

  • Sherry, J. F., Jr. (1983). Gift giving in anthropological perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 10(2), 157–168. https://doi.org/10.1086/208972

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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