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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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A new management fad has swept the business world, the latest in a string reaching back for at least as many years as capitalism itself. This latest hinges on a theory that businesses of the future will be team-driven affairs and the teams that perform best are made up of "givers" as opposed to "takers." Don't scoff, this one came from Adam Grant, a Wharton B-school professor.

"Takers" are those that, in their most grievous incarnation, take credit for work that others have done, thereby accelerating them to the top of an out-of-touch management totem. "Givers," on the other hand, recognize the team's efforts and share the credit and the recognition.

Of course, like any management theory birthed in the halls of academia rather than the cubicles of the real world, the author couldn't rationalize all behavior neatly into the two categories, so had to add "matchers," a category he thinks may have nearly as prosperous a future as "givers." The author is a bit more generous, but "Matchers" might better be called "brokers." These are the people that "give" but expect something in return, now or in the future. A "matcher" will do something generous for you, but have a "chit" that will someday be remitted. Sounds more like a politician or a mobster (the same, you say?).

Of course, all of this is as bogus as "…if you like your insurance you can keep your insurance…" because it idealizes basic human nature. Some people will always seek advancement at the expense of others, and aloof management will continue to unwittingly elevate these "Peter Principle" players until they are eventually "outed" as imposters… but unfortunately they will likely not be exposed before they have enjoyed promotions, success, and remuneration, mostly at the expense of others. Business is rarely "touchy-feely."

Woodworkers are different… as a "class" (caste?) of craftspeople and hobbyists, there seem to be a preponderance of "givers" and very few "takers" or "matchers" ("brokers"). When woodworkers give, generally they expect nothing in return and certainly do not keep a payback ledger.

Still, just coming off the holiday and busy gift-giving season I was curious what woodworkers most like in the way of a "thank you" for a handmade custom woodworking gift. Thus, I asked a number of woodworkers, "What kind of response do you expect when you give a gift of your woodworking craft to someone?"

The answers ranged from noncommittal shrugs to dismissive grunts. Not to say that woodworkers are not eloquent of speech, grunts are merely a substitute for uncomfortable silences. The uncomfortable silences, I believe, were because woodworkers just don't think in terms of what someone should say or do when they receive a gift. Instead, they think in terms of what gift they will make next. Woodworkers are pure "givers" that any business school professor would be curious to examine.

Discomfort, in fact, best describes the woodworkers' responses. They seemed embarrassed to even think about "something in return for a gift." "Matchers" they are not! Woodworkers are generally pretty quick learners, too, so I changed and softened my question.

"People always have such interesting reactions when they get a piece of custom woodworking as a gift… what are some of the reactions that you remember?"

The stories then started to flow. "I built a set of bunk beds for a couple of boys down the street. They were jumping up and down, climbing all over them, laughing and smiling… that was really something."

"I made an old-fashioned cradle for a new Mom and her baby. About a year later she was pregnant again and told me ‘I couldn't let that fantastic cradle go to waste.' That was pretty cool."

One crusty old woodworker told me he has a "wall of fame" in his shop, and it is covered with pictures of people using the gifts he has given them… sitting in a chair he made, standing by a handcrafted grandfather clock, around a beautiful dining table, opening the lovely jewelry box. You get the idea.

My female woodworking friend fondly remembered a thank you note… not your ordinary thank you note, though. This one came with a single pressed flower, grown in the window box she made and gave away to a friend. The handwritten thank you note seemed to stand out in everyone's memory. In our age of email and texting, woodworkers that take the time to build something by hand love it when someone takes the time to say "thank you" by hand.

Then there was the "hybrid" thank-you, a photograph with a note written on the face, or signed by those in the photo. Personally, one of the sweetest "thank you" gestures I ever got was for a little "cat house" I made for a stray feline living in, under, and around my porch. She stayed in the little house I built for her throughout the winter, and one fine spring morning she left a dead mouse by my doorstep. Her "thank you" for warm lodgings was particularly personal and heartfelt, since everyone knows of my fear and loathing of mice.

It seems safe to say, that for most hobbyist woodworkers… note I am graciously and correctly exempting professionals here… the "oohs" and "ahhs" and other appreciative sounds that gift recipients make are very rewarding. Photos of the item being used are very popular. Personal thank you notes are treasured. Other than that, we woodworkers seem to expect or want little else in return for a gift.

Remember, now, I did say I was exempting the professional woodworker from this discussion. If a professional woodworker gives a gift of his or her work, the "oohs" and "ahhs" are nice, but the highest compliment and most worthy "thank you" a gift recipient can give is a referral. To a pro, a referral is the lifeblood of the business, the Holy Grail, as it were.

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