At the Steople holiday lunch last week, the question was posed, “What is your favorite Christmas gift ever?”  Everyone’s face lit up as we talked about puppies, Grease albums, and tennis shoes…but even better was the next question, “What was the best gift you ever gave?”  That one sparked tears as we remembered loved ones and some of the meaningful moments through the years.  Of course, we are a team of deep thinkers, so we loved that discussion!

Now in thinking about the Holidays, one of the things that I love the most about the season is giving.  Of course, I love to receive great gifts too, but if you know me you know I am a gift-giver!  I love people opening a present with excitement and joy – it is like the kid in them comes out!  Now I do know that personality-wise there are people who are motivated by altruism and affiliation more than others, so it is not to generalize here, but isn’t that what we do this time of year?

Giving Has Great Benefits 
The holiday season is upon us and with it the hunt for the perfect gifts for family and friends. But what exactly happens in your brain when you give a gift? And is the old saying really true that “giving is better than receiving?” It turns out, gift-giving, particularly when the giftee is someone with whom we have a close relationship, activates key reward pathways in our brain, provided we don’t let stress take away the joy of the occasion.

In fact, several studies over the last decade have demonstrated that spending money on someone other than yourself promotes happiness. That’s because when we behave generously—be it donating money to charity or giving a loved one something they really want for a holiday—it creates more interaction between the parts of the brain associated with processing social information and feeling pleasure. In one example, researchers gave 50 people $100 and instructed half of them to spend it on themselves, and the other half to spend it on someone else over the next four weeks. Then, they performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure activity in the brain associated with generosity and pleasure during a social sharing task. They found that those who spent money on other people had more generous and fair interactions with other people and reported higher levels of happiness after the experiment was over.

“Oftentimes, people refer to it as the “warm glow,” this intrinsic delight in doing something for someone else,” said Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., who studies the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, and gratitude at Berkley. “But part of the uniqueness of the reward activation around gift-giving compared to something like receiving an award or winning money is that because it is social it also activates pathways in the brain that release oxytocin, which is a neuropeptide that signals trust, safety, and connection. It’s often referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone.’”

When oxytocin is part of the equation, the reward is slightly different in that it can be sustained longer, unlike the brief lifespan that a pure dopamine response has. These effects on the brain are even present during various steps leading up to the actual opening of the gift, such as shopping for the gift and wrapping it. The whole experience of figuring out what to get for someone you love and simply anticipating being in the room with them while they open it activates those same reward pathways and is all part of the joy of gift-giving.  Maybe that is why most of us, during this time of year, find joy in finding just the right gift.

Still, while gift-giving and gift-receiving can often lead to hopefulness and excitement, the lead-up to giving a gift can bring on other emotions, including stress and anxiety, said Scott Rick, Ph.D. at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Rick is known for developing the Tight Wad-Spend Thrift Scale which found that there are real brain and behavioral differences between tightwads and spendthrifts and that they’re related to an emotional experience called “the pain of paying.”  “When it goes right it can be a wonderful thing but can also come with a lot of anxiety over how much you’re spending or whether or not they will like the gift,” Rick said. There’s also the dreaded experience of being in a position where you receive a gift from someone you were not expecting to, and don’t have a gift of your own to reciprocate. This awkward scenario can cause patterns in the brain that mimic an actual pain response.  None of us love that moment because we all crave the moment of wonder when someone else says, “I absolutely love it – it is perfect!”

Giving In the Workplace
So, what does all of this have to do with organizations?  Well, during this time of year our society, including our workplaces, is very inclined toward gift-giving.  Whether it is a round of dirty Santa or a cookie exchange, or bonuses…this is the time of the year when all of these rewards and pitfalls come into play.  We want to give a gift, but we also want to make sure we are on the right track as we do.  So, as you close things out for the year, and hand out those last-minute gifts to your team members, keep all the above in mind, and consider these suggestions for giving in the workplace:

1. Keep it voluntary. It should never be mandatory for an employee to purchase gifts for co-workers.  Making it spontaneous and informal makes it much more natural.

2. Stay professional. Make sure you understand the company’s culture before you give a “gag” gift.  Ensure that you give something that is appropriate.  If you pause and wonder if you should give it, that is probably a clue to go a safer route.

3. Be fair.  Giving everyone the same gift is the preferred method of workplace gift-giving. If you plan to give gifts to only a few co-workers with whom you are particularly close, do so outside work. Showing favoritism, even accidentally, can be extremely counter-productive, and sometimes detrimental to your company’s culture.

4. Keep it simple. Try to tailor your gift to the taste and personality of your co-worker. And don’t overdo it – no one wants to be uncomfortable or caught off-guard when receiving a gift.

5. Avoid items that may be considered too personal. Steer clear of giving gifts that could be misinterpreted.  A token of your appreciation or a kind gesture at the end of the year can be derailed if a gift is too personal or inappropriate.  If you question it, ask for advice from someone you trust.

6. Baked goods are king. If you are unsure about what to give your co-workers, treat them with sweets. Baked goods are a great opportunity for employees to show their thoughtfulness without being viewed as going overboard.

The holidays are a time for celebration and appreciation. My guess is that you don’t know what a gift you are to us here at Steople.  We see the amazing work you are doing in your workplace.  Please stop for a moment and let that soak in – we appreciate you!  You are our colleagues, clients, and friends.  Thank you for doing all you do in the world of work…leading and influencing within an organization is not for the faint of heart.  From your Steople family we are hoping you have a wonderful holiday and a Happy New Year.