The Gift With No Wrapping Paper

We were sitting in the living room in the home of my brother’s family, 11 of us, coming together as a family on Christmas Day as we always do.  We had the fire going, the TV off, the mulled cider piping hot -- you couldn’t ask for a better afternoon.  Soon we would be exchanging gifts and having dinner.  But first, a surprise.

“We’re going to play a game,” my sister-in-law announced.  She passed around a cookie tin with slips of paper inside, and instructed us each to take one.  Each slip had one of our names written on it.  The game: Whoever’s name you drew, you had to tell that person at least one thing that you like or appreciate or admire about them.

I probably sighed at the thought of having to participate in such a public display of affection, but that stoic front dropped as soon as the first person turned to another and told them about one of their best qualities.     

As each of us spoke, heads nodded in agreement; we were all remarking on traits that we all recognized and valued, but probably never (or hardly ever) mentioned aloud, let alone directly to that person or in front of others.   The gratitude and admiration we expressed was heartfelt and sweet.  Some of it was hard to say and receive.  Eyes got a little watery and voices wavered a bit.  

The things we cited ran the gamut from small deeds to fundamental aspects of character.  No matter who was speaking, age nine to nine times that number, everyone said and heard something meaningful.  The specific qualities we spoke of were essential to the game but seemed less important than the giving and receiving, 

After everyone had taken a turn, we all exhaled a bit.  But when someone said, let’s go ‘round again, we all readily agreed.  We put the slips back into the bowl and drew again.  I didn’t think it would be possible, but the second round seemed even more emotional – and cathartic – than the first.  A sense that something special had just happened resonated around the room.

Later, I reflected on what a wonderful game that was – a pretext that made it OK to tell people how you feel about them.   Everyone in the room was able to give something very important – a compliment – and giving that felt wonderful.  Each person heard something good about himself or herself – how affirming.   And we all witnessed this exchange of gifts, a public recognition that further validated the exchange.

I thought of how easy it was to say all of these things and do all this good; and how easy it is to not do it, and leave things unsaid.  I resolved to do better on that score.

My nephew remarked that at first he thought the game was going to be one of the team-building exercises his mother does with her colleagues.  That got me thinking about whether there is indeed some relevance to the context of business. 

At work, we correctly focus on results, which we can measure, evaluate and strive to improve.  But do we adequately consider what produces those results?  The visible drivers of results are process and procedure; less visible but equally if not more important are the character traits we demonstrate in our work – the daily practice of our values.  

Looking at that through the lens of NYSE Euronext, for all employees we have a system of performance reviews that include an assessment of both how well the individual achieved agreed objectives and how well he or she demonstrated our corporate values.  Those reviews and the interim progress checks that accompany them are a formal process; what about the day to day?  As a PR guy, I compliment my colleagues on results, such as when they work on an article that turns out well.  But do I tell them about the things they do or say or demonstrate that lead to those positive results, or otherwise make a positive difference for our company and our community? 

On a day-to-day basis, do I acknowledge how well they identify and assemble a newsworthy story; how productively they work with others; how imaginatively they develop new ways to get a message across; how assertively they stand up for what they believe is right; how closely they keep other team members informed; how generously they make time to serve our community? 

If I ever tell them those things, it surely isn’t frequently enough.  Again, I resolve to do better at that.   I received a gift on Christmas afternoon, and I don’t want it to go to waste, either at home or in the office.

My, look at the resolutions springing forth.  Well, what better time for that?  Happy new year, everyone.