Year-end holidays starting with Thanksgiving are the times for sending messages of gratitude, goodwill, wishes for happy holidays, happy and successful New Years, etc. to clients, customers, employees and various business partners and vendors. Mostly they are mass-produced and -printed, and in a business context are of dubious value.  For example, how many beautifully-designed holiday cards are sent to executives with scarcely a personal signature, to be opened by an assistant and then taped to a wall or door as decorations, with the recipients rarely noticing who sent what to whom?  Many costly “corporate” gifts end up in the same state of anonymity, evoking not even a mere “thank you” in response.  The motivating fear is that if these cards and gifts are not sent their absence may indeed be noticed, and that that will send the “wrong message.”  No one wants to be seen as the reincarnation of Scrooge or Marley from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

So what is the “right message?” That you will conform to time-worn, conventional practices, do what is “expected,” and offer prefabricated good-will in the most time efficient manner possible, like the perfunctory birthday card from your dentist? What kind of message is that if throughout the rest of the year you strive to convey creativity, innovation, customized service, and concern for your employees’ welfare?   Though Scrooge was a hard-hearted miser and misanthrope, he did exhibit the virtues of candor and sincerity.  No one ever accused Scrooge of being a hypocrite.

Just to avoid miscommunication to the reader, Christmas is very meaningful to me, with all its traditional ceremonies and celebrations, and I love seeing my Jewish friends celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights or Dedication.

But the danger in a business context is that we will offer good wishes and bonuses or gifts and be seen as not really having our heart in it and be left wondering why the recipients did not seem more grateful or impressed. So how do we avoid the dilemma of seeming to be either a Dr. Seuss’s Grinch that Stole Christmas on the one hand or hypocrite on the other?

The answer is consistency in your messages. The problem is not that some leaders who say, “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Hanukah” also say under their breath in the next moment, “Bah, Humbug!”  No, the problem is that as the leader of your organization you are sending messages all the time, even when you hide yourself in your office or private retreat in order to avoid sending any messages.  The problem is whether these “everyday” communications are consistent with the good will and sound values you want to convey at the holidays.

Here are some values you convey—or fail to convey—by your everyday messages, along with examples:

  • SERVICE AND ACCESIBILITY—Provide customers and clients a quick way to reach the right person who can handle any complaint or problem competently and cheerfully, however much time it takes.
  • TRUSTWORTHINESS —Be slow to make promises but adamant about keeping them.  Be on time for meetings.  Pay contractors and vendors on time.
  • RESPECT FOR INDIVIDUALS–Listen to your staff and trusted advisors before making decisions. How do you treat those with whom you disagree, and those whom you have to terminate?  With dignity and respect for their rights and sense of self-respect?
  • HUMILITY–Admit when you have more to learn or when you really blew it.
  • GRATITUDE–Give credit to those who provide the important information, insights, and solutions.
  • DISCERNMENT–Don’t give into the temptation to chase after every management fad that might bring value to Fortune 500s but not to your business or to hire on a whim.
  • EQUITY—Executive pay and bonuses keep rising in the U.S., while most mid-level wages remain relatively flat. Does this apply at your company?
  • ACCOUNTABILITY—If other people make a mistake, they may lose their jobs.   If you make a mistake, other people may still lose their jobs.  How are the responsibility and the pain shared?
  • SELF-REFLECTION—In a discipline of self-examination, observe the objections you raise to new ideas. Would you accept those same objections if someone made them in response to your favorite suggestions?
  • LEADING BY EXAMPLE—You want others to work hard. Do you still work hard?  If not and you say that you have earned an easier life, you may be right!  But might that not mean that it is time for you to make way for another leader who is willing to work hard and thus develop and secure the livelihood of all those you needed for your success?
  • BEING GENUINE—You took risks to create your dream job by starting a company that you could manage just as you want. Perhaps you honestly couldn’t care less about following textbook management principles such as honoring reporting lines, delegating sufficient authority along with responsibility, promoting team alignment, etc. Fine, but then don’t give them lip service.  Just say, “It’s my company, and this is how I choose to run it.”  Then be prepared to live with the consequences or your own behavior for which others should not be blamed.

When messages of respect, caring, generosity, integrity, and goodwill are sent all year, holiday greetings are received as a welcome affirmation of a valuable relationship and not just a way to retain a business arrangement. If you wish to convey these same sentiments in a way which rings with more sincerity during the year-end holidays, consider a customized letter or personalized, short hand-written note on your stationery instead of or in addition to a mass-produced card.  For both clients and employees, if you want to send a gift, make it personal as well and select it to appeal to the recipient’s expressed needs, tastes, preferences, or interests.

Final thought: all the virtues and generous thoughts that we honor at year-end are aspirational; none of us live up to all of them all the time. Think about which of them you will commit to demonstrating more consistently and earnestly in the year to come.  You could even mention that in your personalized note.