This is a post about values, support, obligation, empathy, and improving your leadership.

The awkward, unwanted gift

You know when someone gives you a gift they just know you'd love but you don't?

It's awkward. We've all experienced it.

You know the thought is what counts, but how do you respond?

For example, I don't like owning books, which I've written about. Reducing possessions keeps my life simple, which, by my values, improves it. I've told everyone close to me that I will sell them rather than keep them.

For years after, my father continued to buy me books, putting me in the awkward position of selling for $5 something he paid $25 for.

Simply thanking them isn't so simple

You could simply thank the giver, but then he or she might get you a similar gift again.

Others may hear your gratitude, think you like the gift, and give you more. For example, say you're trying to avoid sugar and a coworker buys you chocolate. If you simply thank him or her, other coworkers may buy you more candy.

Plus, if you've made it known that you don't like this thing, it doesn't feel good to feel your interests ignored or misunderstood.

Explaining yourself is complicated

So you could use the occasion to explain yourself more fully, saying something like

Thank you for the gift. I appreciate the sentiment, but, for future reference, as much as I value the sentiment, I'm avoiding sugar.

It's hard. You have to wordsmith the appreciation part to keep from offending or sounding too awkward while still expressing yourself.

You're still stuck with the gift. Returning it can increase the awkwardness.

Not thanking is rude

I'm no anthropologist, but I doubt a culture in the world supports people accepting gifts without showing appreciation. Someone giving you a gift obliges you to show appreciation or suffer unwanted social consequences.

Who wants to accept an unwanted obligation toward the person obliging you?

The root of the problem

The extreme case of the unwanted gift is a puppy.

You may consider puppies adorable, but only the least sensitive, most self-centered person would think that just because he or she loves puppies that everyone else would--enough to care for it daily for fifteen years.

Even if you know someone wants one, tastes in dogs are personal. Imposing your values on someone for fifteen years is crazy.

If you and your family have talked it over and you know what everyone wants, you might get away with buying one unilaterally, but most of the time, excluding them from the process imposes an unwanted, unasked for burden on them.

Buying a puppy leads a relationship to resentment and awkwardness.

The giver's perspective

Anyone who gives a puppy does it intending to improve your life. He or she thinks something like

Wow, that went well! I did a great job with that gift. I bet he or she loves me for that adorable puppy.

Anyone else sees the insensitivity and lack of empathy in assuming that because he or she loves puppies then anyone else would the same amount, or even enough to make up for all the obligation.

The problem is the giver's imposing his or her values on you, as well as his or her insensitivity and excluding you from the process.

Stop giving people puppies!

I've framed the issue around the awkwardness of receiving unwanted gifts. That's the symptom.

The problem is the person giving the gift without learning your values first. The giver is imposing his or her values on you, insensitive to your interests, and excluding you from a process the affects you.

We see it clearly with puppies because it's extreme, but it happens in all relationships that have any give and take.

Do you think you're a good boss? A good spouse? A good friend?

If you think you're a good boss, spouse, or friend, you've probably finished many interactions with people thinking,

Wow, that went well! I did a great job in that interaction. I bet he or she loves working with me.

Is it possible you gave them a puppy?

Does the person giving a puppy consider him- or her-self a great friend?

The leadership lessons

Leadership is about their motivations, not yours. The leadership lesson are, when you think you're helping others,

  1. Not to assume they share your values, no matter how universal they feel to you
  2. To learn their values--what they consider gifts versus obligations
  3. To involve them in processes that affect them

But you say: "They report to me and I pay them. It's our jobs for me to delegate and them to do."

That's the perspective of an authoritarian manager. Leadership overlaps with management, but they aren't the same, and even management alone doesn't have to rely on authority. Your reports may comply, but that doesn't mean you led them.

Besides, you interact with reports in countless ways besides formally assigning work--how you communicate, how much time you give them, what opportunities you create for them, how you support them, and so on.

Also, leadership happens in all relationships, not just at work. Leadership appears with friends, spouses, family, and everyone.

So avoid giving puppies. Or if you do, make sure

  1. The receiver likes puppies
  2. Values having a puppy, in particular the one you'll give
  3. You involve them in the process
Published on: Jul 3, 2017
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