Company Culture: Is there a Secret Ingredient?

Company Culture: Is there a Secret Ingredient?Fun Work Environment

In 20 years of helping heal sick company cultures, we have learned that culture is like a great recipe – the final product can vary a great deal even if 20 people (companies) follow the same recipe.

We call this “grandma’s secret ingredient.”  What made her famous chocolate cake so great was what she never told you about.

You know the basics: Flour, eggs, high quality chocolate, sugar.  In business this is clear mission and goals, strong leadership, accountability, high trust and good marketing.

But what’s that “hint” of something in the cake you can’t quite name? The reason grandma’s cake was the first to disappear at picnics? Was it a hint of lemon zest … or nutmeg … or something completely unexpected like pureed pumpkin?

Like chocolate cake, you can detect a great corporate culture when you interact with a business … but it’s hard to name what makes it that way.  You don’t have to be a trained psychologist to detect a tightly run ship, consistency in processes, clear understanding of a mission, etc.

But what is that special ingredient?

In a culture it’s what has people lining up to work for a company – and it’s what companies like Zappos, Southwest Air, SAP and many others have added to their recipe. Their cakes are not just popular at picnics but are walking away with blue ribbon prizes – ie, top financial performance.

The ingredient is simple and obvious but rarely practiced well.

Drum roll please….


Great leaders know intuitively you can bake a perfectly functional cake without the FUN ingredient -but the way to attract and retain better talent than anyone else, is by ensuring that fun at work is part of the job. These leaders take fun very seriously – all the way to the bank actually – because they know:

Everyone likes to have fun. Even smart, talented people.

Fun is the pathway to creativity. Any of you need less creativity?

Fun begets laughter, which releases endorphins that make people happy. Happy people perform better.

Fun is the antidote for the depressing fact that out of 17 million workers surveyed by Gallup, 2/3 report being “disengaged” at work.

Fun makes it easy to work harder and get through the lean times – like when you have to perform the job of two people due to budget cuts.

Fun is the spirit of a business: Without it you might look good … but so does a corpse in a coffin. We have met too many corpses – the company may still be breathing but you might as well close the lid.

Fun is the secret ingredient in the recipe that makes you want more.  Anybody want more people wanting to be at work more?

Moment of truth: When was the last time you had rip-roaring, laugh-out-loud fun … that goodwill feeling swirling about in the air in your office or workplace? Last decade? Last year? Last month?

Before you get carried away with balloons and circulating You Tube videos, two notes of caution about the fun-factor:

1) Fun is not a substitute for accountability and goals.  Don’t eliminate the flour and eggs, people!

2) Fun is not a substitute for bad management and good judgment.  It’s not telling vulgar jokes or making fun of another department. It’s not bringing donuts to work and yelling later about pathetic performance. It’s not ordering pizza because you made them work late every night.

3) Are YOU fun? Fun is slippy-slide on the grass, dog-chasing-a-frisbee, beach-volleyball good times.  At work, the life philosophy “work hard, play hard” won’t stick if YOU THE LEADER aren’t much fun to be around.

If you don’t believe fun matters – or you’re afraid you’ll get fired for it – stop reading NOW and get back to your spreadsheets and email and boring meetings.

If you feel a spark of something awakening inside you that work can (and should) be fun, act on it. Start a “fun at work” contest and solicit people’s ideas about low-cost or no-cost ways to up the fun factor – in meetings, after work, during breaks.

The process of talking about it and figuring out which ideas to implement itself will be fun.  (and please only bother if you plan to take action – you don’t want to be a wet blanket on the hope of fun).

Life is short! Fun is not just for kids!

Neither is grandma’s  disappearing chocolate cake.


Want fun ideas? Try a few of these.

Lisa Jackson is a corporate culture expert and co-author of 2 books including the brand new “Culture Builder Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide for Assessing and Changing Corporate Culture.”  She specializes in teaching companies and leaders how to align and transform their corporate culture to maximize profitable growth, productivity, and innovation. 

For free tools and resources on culture change, visit or follow her on Twitter at


Comment ( 1 )

  • Ron Koller


    I was just thinking about culture change as a cookbook yesterday! You are so right on i your assessment.

    Every other change management guru out there is trying to say that they have THE recipe for chocolate cake. You obviously get it in a way that the Harvard expert do not.

    Way to go!!

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