Adam Grant Recommends The Best Holiday Gift Managers Can Give Employees

It's an act of gratitude that costs nothing, and benefits all parties.

It’s December, which means a dreaded decision awaits many of us: what kind of gift, if any, to give managers, employees, or colleagues.

From mixed messages to unwanted chotskies, the potential for gift failure is high. Still worse is receiving a present from your coworker, and having nothing to offer in return.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, the bestselling author and Wharton professor, says there’s one gift that’s a guaranteed success for managers and reports alike. It’s essentially an act of gratitude, the suggestion for which stems from an exercise Grant first encountered while working on his doctorate at the University of Michigan.

“In the fall of 2003, I started grad school. One of the more daunting assignments was to contact 15-20 friends, family, and colleagues who knew me well, and ask them to share a story about a time when I was at my best,” he writes in the December 2016 edition of Granted, his monthly newsletter. “My task was to create a portrait of my strengths based on the patterns. It was a powerful learning experience, but it felt unbalanced—what about my weaknesses? I started asking people to share times when I was at my worst. Vomit… but it was just as valuable.”

As the end of the year approached, Grant felt uncomfortable having received so much feedback without giving any in return. So, over Christmas break, he spent a week writing emails to the 100 people who mattered most in his life, explaining what he appreciated most about them.

“It’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done,” he writes. “And it taught me something about what I valued: the two most common themes were generosity and originality. Looking back, 100 in one week was a little intense. This holiday season, what if we each picked ten people and told them what we appreciate about them?”

It’s a challenge worth accepting, especially if you’re a manager. Ample research shows that feeling valued and supported by one’s supervisor is the top determinant of employee satisfaction and trust. Expressing even a small amount of gratitude also has a profound impact on your coworkers’ productivity. In one study led by Grant and Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School, when a single manager visited a call center to thank employees for their effort, the number of calls these employees made over the next week spiked more than 50%.

Yet, as Grant tells Quartz At Work, managers consistently underestimate how important it is to show their employees that they’re valued. One recent survey of nearly 8,000 managers found that 40% of leaders admit they never give their teams positive reinforcement.

A letter or card explaining a time when an employee was at their best has dual benefits, says Grant. It ensures the recipient feels valued and confident, and motivates them to continue capitalizing on the skills you describe. Says Grant, “Saying ‘thank you’ is nice; explaining the unique difference someone makes is meaningful and memorable.”