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Buying a Gift for Your Boss or Your Staff? Read This First.

Who are you really buying that gift for?
Buying a Gift for Your Boss or Your Staff? Read This First.
Image credit: Illustration by Paul Sahre
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This story appears in the December 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Hey, everyone in my imaginary office. Gather round. I have some new holiday rules for you all to follow.

Here we go: General cheer is OK. Merriment will be considered on a case-by-case basis. The occasional burst of mirth will be tolerated. Kyle can wear his candy-­cane pants. And here comes the really important one: Gifts -- material and monetary -- are banned unless you think really, really hard before giving one.

Related: Reduce Stress in Your Office This Holiday Season

I recognize that some of you enjoy giving gifts. I recognize that gift giving is a behavior central to human connection. I get that gift giving helps define and strengthen relationships. But the problem is not in the giving. It’s in the receiving. Every instance of workplace gift giving involves a quid pro quo. You give the quid. The receiver wonders if you expect some quo. Or some pro. Or a GoPro. Look, I don’t know Latin. The point is: When you give a gift, you produce an inequity that the other person feels obligated to right -- be it an increase in productivity, a reciprocal present or an effusive enough “Thanks!”

So, I was doing some reading. And there are tons of studies on this stuff. A 2014 study by researchers from Yale, USC and NYU found that gift givers often focus on what they think the receivers would desire, while the receivers often prefer gifts that are practical. This means that what the receiver wants and what they receive are usually totally different things. In one survey, researchers asked people whether they’d rather give a really nice, heavy pen or a lighter, more traditional one. The respondents preferred to give the fancier pen -- but they’d rather receive the average pen. 

Related: The Etiquette of Exchanging Holiday Gifts in the Office

We try to make people happy by giving “fancy” gifts. But people tend not to want fancy gifts. They want ones that aren’t very expensive and have an obvious utility. The usefulness of a fancy gift is not always so clear, and the receiver likely wonders: Whaaat? What’s the intent? Who’s the gift really for -- the giver, who just gave themselves the gift of thinking they’ve made someone happy? Or the receiver, who receives both the gift and possibly a feeling that the gift should be reciprocated? 

And what kind of gift is that? 

Think about gift giving throughout history. The dowry. The potlatch. The donation that gets your name carved in limestone above the entrance to an opera house. You think such extreme giving is about the receiver? Nah; it’s about the giver. It’s about flaunting your status by showing how much you’re able to bestow to a person or an organization in need. Throughout human civilization, we think more highly of people who give the most, not necessarily people who have the most. 

Other recent gift-giving studies have shown that…

People want what they want. Going “off-registry” (for a wedding gift or, metaphorically, any gift) may involve a lot of thought, but the receivers would rather have something they already want than something you think will fit into their lives. 

The people most motivated by gifts are those who have the least job security: students and short-term employees especially. 

People don’t appreciate charitable donations as much as you’d think. They much prefer a physical gift. Or money. People love money! It’s even more appreciated than a requested item. 

The gift giver receives the most psychological benefits from the transaction. They should thank themselves.

The chimpanzee employs the giving of food and grooming in exchange for sex. (I really did a deep dive on this research. Fascinating!) 

You still want to give someone a holiday gift at work? Be smart about it. Give the average pen. And/or just tell them how great they’re doing. When your assistant brings his mom to the office, tell her he’s “killin’ it.” My boss once told my mom that. She still talks about it. “Do you remember the time your boss told me that you were killing everything and everyone?” “Yes, Mom.” “What a nice man.” That was a gift. It cost nothing. It lasted one second. Yet it made her feel like her son was valued and wasn’t going to be fired. 

Related: 14 Awesome Holiday Gifts Even Your Boss Will Love

Some of you have asked about doing a “Secret Santa,” anonymous gift-giving thing this year. Putting aside the fact that “Secret Santa” sounds like the street name of a particularly lethal strain of heroin, the process requires FedEx-level logistics to pull off successfully. That’s the first thing. Second thing: a monogrammed bottle stopper. That was by far the Secret Santa gift I was most excited about getting. And I’ve never once used it. And it wasn’t my monogram. So: Santa is OK, secrets are fine, but no more Secret Santa. 

Anyway, I think we should all go home early today. Like, now. Let’s take tomorrow off, too. Also, you’re all killin’ it. 

Edition: May 2017

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