Practising Giftwork: A Great Place to Work Institute Series
Almost all senior managers seem to agree that developing line managers as good people managers is a challenge
The year was 1991. I was a management trainee in a well-known organization in the electrical engineering industry in India. The scene: Gate meeting of the worker’s union in response to a strike declared by the union and subsequent lockout declared by the management. Over 500 workers were listening with rapt attention to fiery speeches of a few union leaders on a makeshift stage near the factory gate. I and a few other “rookie” management trainees were seated on the ground along with the rest of the workmen. We were considered insignificant enough to be ignored by the striking workmen, many of whom were getting more agitated by the minute - thanks to the rabble rousing by the leaders on stage.
Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw our maintenance supervisor come to the gate and gesture with his fingers towards two of the union leaders on stage. The two sheepishly came off stage and had an animated conversation with him. Only later was I told that some very expensive imported equipment had arrived. It had to be unloaded and kept in the factory regardless of the strike and lockout. The factory management knew that taking the equipment inside was virtually impossible in the prevailing highly charged atmosphere without lengthy “negotiations” with the union. The maintenance supervisor did in a few minutes, what the management could not have done. What makes him and many others so powerful in so many organizations?
Meet the people manager
People managers are the ones who manage people in organizations; not HR managers or the top management. Anyone who has an individual or a team to lead is a people manager. A vast majority of them are line managers with little or no expertise in how to manage people in organizations. Almost all senior managers seem to agree that developing line managers as good people managers is one of the top three people related challenges for an organization, yet only few have tackled this challenge successfully. Instead, the bulk of our attention is on HR and senior leaders – sections perceived to be more open and amenable to new ideas and experiments. The bulk of the people managers have been left in the “clutches” of numerous “self- improvement” books and tools with very little tangible change. How can Bobby, the people manager, help himself and his team? Surely, not by reading one more “self- improvement” book! Over 1,000 points have been added to the “to-do” list of people managers over the last three decades - not one point has been reduced from the list. What can people managers do without increasing their list of things to do?
They can change the quality of their interactions rather than the quantity.
Consider the following scenarios:
Scenario 1: A team leader of a cross functional team calls a meeting to celebrate the launch of a new company website by the team. He orders pizza for everyone and follows it up with emails to the team members thanking them for their role.
Most people would say that this is a good organization. Now consider scenario 2.
Scenario 2: The team leader invites all his team members, including the external partners who helped in the development of the website. There is a celebratory cake which is cut. The team leader fills each person’s glass with a mocktail and briefly talks about the unique role played by the person in making the project successful. He invites each person to speak about his/her experience and learning from the project. Just as everyone thought the party was about to end, the Director - Marketing walks in. The director talks about the importance of the new website, thanks the team and hands over a ‘survivor’ certificate to each team member. The certificate is humorous and personalized for each individual, highlighting their role in the project. After the party, the team leader sends a group photograph along with a paragraph news about the team to the company newsletter. Most people feel that the scenario 2 is more like a great workplace. Many enthusiastically narrate of similar experiences they have had in their work life indicating that this scenario is not impractical. In fact, the only difference between scenario 1 and 2 is not in the intent of the team leader, but in the quality of the experience. It is clear that in the second scenario, the manager invested more time, effort, thought and concern for the team. He did not do something new, he did it differently.
We call this Giftwork®
Giftwork is an interaction in the workplace, where an employee or manager gives more than is expected or required, for the sake of the organization or the relationship. When you do more giftwork, you increase the level of trust, which is the foundation of creating a great workplace.
Giftwork is different from ordinary work, which is a transaction in a market economy – selling your labor/skills for money. Both operate in the same organization.
Giftwork is sometimes easy to recognize. You remember the work, not the price you pay. When you go to a concert of your favorite musician and the musician is immersed in his music, you know it is giftwork. He is not counting the value he is providing for the money that people have paid. Nor are you thinking about the price of the ticket.
How can you recognize giftwork in your team? A gift is often unique, personalized, generous, involves people whom you care about, and always fits the context. One of the characteristics of a gift is that it can be acknowledged or rejected. Think of the last 7 days in your life. Did you get a gift from anyone? What about the colleague who sent you the final budget projections working over the weekend? Was it a gift? What about the new employee who keeps on making suggestions on how to improve things? Is she giving a gift? The uniqueness about gifts is that the receiver has the power to acknowledge the gift or not. If you are not able to see the giftwork in your team, giftwork dies, to be replaced with work most economists recognize – a commodity with a value. The new employee slowly stops giving suggestions.
What happens if you do recognize giftwork by your team members? This is the most powerful implication of giftwork. Acceptance of a gift obligates the recipient to certain implied duties. Indeed, gift economy predates not just money, but even the barter economy. In the Mahabharata, there is a moving story of poor Sudama, the childhood friend of Lord Krishna, who comes to meet him with a fist full of rice as a gift. Krishna is morally forced to reciprocate and how! He gifts Sudama a kingdom! This is the virtuous cycle of giftwork. It is infectious!
So, how do you plan to reciprocate the gifts you have received from your team members?