When Gifts Say More

What's a gift mean? If you're like me, you probably focus on the giving and the getting.

But, have you thought of gifts as a medium, a channel, for communication? In a book called The Gift, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss argues that gifts are universally used to create and manage relationships.

For those of us interested in business communication, the idea of managing work relationships with gifts brings several interesting issues to our attention.

The most obvious notion is that in sending gifts, we communicate our appreciation for what someone did. It signals awareness that the recipient did something exemplary. Usually, the communication is implicit, perhaps even subtle, even though the gift may be tangible.

In a workplace context, bonuses are often seen as gifts, a discretionary act on the part of a manager to show appreciation. It is in the manager's power to reward or not reward, and hence the gifting effect.

Stock options, on the other hand, represent something different; there is no managerial discretion in their value, but there may be discretion involved in giving them.

And don't we all consider the type and value of a gift as an indicator of the strength of the relationship? I think we've all been through those debates about how much we should spend when a staff member gets married, has a baby, retires, or quits.

In each of these examples, it's not hard to see gifts as a tool for strategically managing relationships. We can also see gifts as a medium (like a newsletter) for exchanging messages.

What we've discussed so far assumes that a gift is an object or service that one purchases or makes and gives to another. But, in an organizational context, a gift might be mentorship, an unexpected promotion, or acceptance of another person's opinion.

Consider meetings where opinions fall into two clear camps. And, out of the blue, someone who previously opposed your position or stayed neutral now moves to support you. That person smiles at you, and says, "I think you've put your finger on the real issue here." Seems like a gift, doesn't it?

Or consider this one, "Jane, you've worked a lot of hours lately to make this presentation a big success. We appreciate what you've done, and want you to take the rest of the week off. Don't worry about your to-do list; we'll take care of everything." Another type of gift.

In the mass media, reporters and editors normally cannot accept gifts, or gifts beyond a threshhold value. It's a way of avoiding relationship obligations that might influence their coverage of events, people, and organizations. In this case we see the rejection of gifts as a way of avoiding relationships.

In summary, look at exchanges of gifts as potentially more than just an exchange between individuals; think of them as a strategic tools for developing and managing business relationships. That makes giving a strategic form of communication.

Robert F. Abbott writes and publishes Abbott's Communication Letter. Learn how you can use communication to help achieve your goals, by reading articles or subscribing to this ad-supported newsletter. An excellent resource for leaders and managers, at: http://www.communication-newsletter.com

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