Opening Gifts

Roger Schwarz

People on your team regularly offer you intangible gifts – not just at holidays, but all year. The gifts aren’t iPods, gift cards, or chocolates. And they’re not wrapped up in lovely boxes with beautiful bows.

These gifts are nicely wrapped in a compliment, or not-so-nicely wrapped in a criticism or complaint.

Effective leaders open any gift that is offered, regardless of the wrapping, to learn what they are doing that’s working or not working for others on their team.

For example, when a teammate says, “You did a great job on that presentation to the directors,” the compliment is the wrapping. You can go past the wrapping and open the box to learn more. You can say something like, “Thanks. I’m curious, what was it that I did that you thought was great? I’m asking because I want to make sure to keep on doing it.”Each-of-us-sees-things

When a gift is horribly wrapped – when it looks bad, sounds bad, or feels bad, many leaders judge the gift by its wrapping and don’t accept it. Yet these are some of the most valuable gifts you can receive. If you have trouble recognizing these gifts when they are offered, look for times when someone says something that bothers you, confuses you, or that you disagree with.

For example, if a teammate says, “I would have achieved all my goals this year if I had support from you,” the complaint is the wrapping. The gift is the opportunity to learn.
If you are like many ineffective leaders, you would reject the offered gift. You might ignore it, or you might say, “We’re here to talk about your performance, not mine.” When you reject the gift, when you don’t open it, are you thinking, “I understand, you don’t”? If so, you are using a unilateral control mindset. And that mindset can create the very outcomes you want to avoid.

But if you accepted the gift, you would open it by saying something like, “I thought I was supporting you. Tell me more; what was I was doing or not doing that you thought didn’t support you? What could I do to better support you?” When you respond with curiosity and compassion, you are using a mutual learning mindset. And that mindset creates better outcomes.

Giving Gifts in Return

When you accept a person’s gift – no matter how terribly wrapped – by responding with curiosity and compassion, you are giving a gift in return. You are creating the trust needed to talk about things that really matter. This type of gift is priceless.

Regardless of the how they’re wrapped, when you accept and open gifts to explore what’s inside, and you give gifts in return, you create opportunities to deepen mutual learning: you and the gift-giver better understand each other so that the two of you can figure out how to be more effective together.

During the holidays, and all year, be generous in accepting gifts and giving gifts in return. Open the gifts you receive, however they are wrapped, and respond in ways that create better working relationships.

Originally published December 2012