The secret ingredient for great corporate culture

Corporate culture is like a great recipe – the final product can vary a great deal even if 20 people (companies) follow the same recipe. But then there’s “grandma’s secret ingredient” – what made her famous chocolate cake so great was the one thing she never told you about.

In business, a clear mission and goals, strong leadership, accountability, high trust and good marketing are like flour, eggs, high quality chocolate, sugar – you need the basics or the recipe won’t work.

But what IS that “hint” of something in the cake you can’t quite name? The reason grandma’s cake was the first to disappear at picnics? Like chocolate cake, you can detect a great corporate culture when you interact with a business … but it can be hard to name what makes it that way.

The good news is this ingredient is available anywhere with a leader willing to shake things up, and the recipe that uses it is proven by companies like Zappos and Southwest Air (whose cakes are winning blue ribbons of top financial performance in competitive markets). Drum roll please — the secret ingredient is:


You can bake a perfectly functional cake without FUN as an ingredient, but you will attract and retain better talent than anyone else by ensuring fun at work is embedded in the culture. Yep, we’re talking slippy-slide on the grass, dog-chasing-a-frisbee, beach-volleyball good times that you can take straight to the bank.

In that spirit, we offer our take on the fun factor:

Top Ten Reasons to Have More Fun at Work

10) Everyone likes to have fun. Even smart, talented people.
9) Fun is the pathway to creativity. Any of you need less creativity?
8) Fun usually means laughter, which releases endorphins that make people happy. Happy people perform better.
7) Fun is the antidote for the depressing fact that out of 17 million workers surveyed by Gallup, 2/3 report being “disengaged” at work.
6) 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.
5) Fun is the secret ingredient in the recipe that makes you want more. Anybody want more people wanting to be at work more?
4) Fun is not a substitute for accountability and goals. (Don’t eliminate the flour and eggs, people!). Fun is a way you get people to accept accountability.
3) 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 people work late. Fun is simply the authentic desire to play out the innate human desire for pleasure in your workplace.
2) Fun is contagious. Remember the last time you had rip-roaring, laugh-out-loud fun? Who else joined the party? Most importantly, are YOU fun? “Work hard, play hard” won’t stick if YOU THE LEADER aren’t fun to be around.
1) Fun is the spirit of a business. Without it you might look good … but so does a corpse in a coffin.

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 says “Work can (and should) be MORE fun than this – 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. You don’t have to be the CEO to make this work … and it will be a lot easier to get takers than your newest “Employee Engagement Initiative.” Guaranteed.

The process of talking about FUN and figuring out which FUN ideas to implement itself will be FUN. (Caution: Please only bother if you plan to lead by example and act on it – you don’t want to be a wet blanket on the hope of fun). Okay leaders, time to wake up and smell the sprinklers! Fun is not just for kids.

Neither is grandma’s disappearing chocolate cake.

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Lisa Jackson and Gerry Schmidt are corporate culture experts who help leaders build great workplaces that perform better and live longer. Visit them on the web at or follow them on Twitter at


Categories: Company Perspectives, Management & Leadership