Building an Incredible Company Culture with 3 Secret Ingredients


Is there still someone out there who has been spared from the company culture hype? It has been repeated on and on lately that vibrant company culture is the Great Creator of Success Stories. Optimizing for happiness and creativity, shucking traditional corporate values and building unique procedures has become the new black in the business world.

And rightly so… Who would not get excited about a culture where employees are coddled with ping pong tables around the house, an own office dog or two and free company Teslas?

While I don't really resist an idea of driving my own Model S to work every day, I’d like to suggest that the strongest cultures are about something else than just quirky perks. 

So then, before building another Las Vegas inside your office, maybe it could be useful to consider what culture is essentially all about. How does a company culture come into being and what separates the best from the rest?

"A company's culture is often buried so deeply inside rituals, assumptions, attitudes, and values that it becomes transparent to an organization's members only when, for some reason, it changes." (Rob Goffee)

The thing is many times that culture tends to be a foggy concept which we don’t really recognize or perceive. It is there all the time but exists often as a rather subconscious process - either doing good for the work environment or preventing people from giving their best. But - whether you put big stakes on building a functioning culture or not - it is there all the time, staring straight into your eyes from the corners of your office.

The general definition of organizational culture includes all the organization's vision, values, norms, systems, language, beliefs and habits. So company culture - as catchy as it sounds - is not about magic tricks or about something separate from our every-day-lives. Culture is essentially created by each one of us through our every-day choices and actions.

Who Shapes Your Company Culture?

It’s been shown that culture is shaped mostly by how the company's alphas - the most influential members of the work community - act. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the culture is a copy of the alphas’ character. Zappos, one of the largest online shoe and clothing companies is a wonderful example on how the basis for building the culture often starts from the leader but is essentially shaped by all the employees. Check out this short video about Zappos’ unique company culture:

So, it is obvious that the primary responsibility for creating a successful culture lies on the shoulders of those in leading positions. But shaping the final entity is, to a large extent, out of their hands. Practically everything you, I and we as single employees do every day at the work place affects and changes the culture. Culture is about all the small acts, mediocre acts and huge acts carried out by any member of the work community.

Whether you are working in a leading position or at some less influential tasks, you’re shaping the culture every day. The common culture is constructed by our daily deeds.

What Separates the Best from the Rest?

If building a happiness-creating and effective company culture doesn’t happen by offering free Teslas and chihuahuas, what should one do? How should a successful culture be formed then?

According to hundreds of recent psychological researches and so called self-determination theory (SDT), the preconditions for good work life consist essentially of three main ingredients: autonomy, competence and relatedness – in more simple terms freedom, flow and community. These are the basic psychological needs without fulfillment of which we cannot be satisfied, whether it is a question of work life or life in general.


  • Autonomy or freedom indicates that motivation comes naturally from inside and you have influence over your own work. (Even if driving a Tesla on a highway 200km/h can bring you a sense of freedom, it may be quite a temporary feeling compared to this one.)
  • Competence or flow means that as an employee you feel like you have sufficient talents do your job and that you get things done. Optimally this leads into working in a constant state of flow, completely absorbed into your tasks and developing your skills all the time. Check out this Ted talk about why flow is the secret to happiness.
  • Relatedness or community as a motivating factor relies on our natural need to be in touch with other human beings. When we can interact and communicate meaningfully, be a part of a positive, safe and inspiring team and work for a common purpose – that’s only when we can truly thrive. (Your team would probably not fit in any sports car...)

Building an incredible company culture is nothing more and nothing less than finding ways to combine these factors in practice - so that they're present in every employee's daily work life. The Great Place to Work Institute, specialized in researching the best work places in the world, points this out by framing that in the most successful company cultures employees trust the people they work for, take pride in what they do and enjoy the people they work with.

In essence, the best company cultures are neither about strict norms and processes nor about awesome perks. They are about guaranteeing that the basic psychological preconditions of happy and fulfilling life are taken into account in every individual employee’s work, as well as in the work community as a whole. Thus, creating cultural elements based on freedom, flow and sincere teamwork leads into mass flourishing.

In this way, incredible company culture is most vitally about sharing the same values. It is about sharing the common way of life. But what shouldn't be forgotten: The best company cultures do not happen - they are created.

Our Picks for the Most Incredible Company Cultures:

1. Pixar

  • Collaboration, creativity and risk taking are emphasized.
  • Strong trust between people - honesty is fostered and genuine feedback given about everything.
  • "In order for greatness to emerge, there must phases of not-so-greatness." There's a supportive atmosphere for succeeding but especially for failure. When there is no fear of failure, the result is an inspired creative team with a constant flow of ideas.
  • No strict hierarchies. Everyone is considered to be absolutely on the same line and able to talk to anybody.

2. Buffer

  • Like many companies today, Buffer applies a start with why –culture. Every project or new task starts with this one simple question – why are we doing this?
  • Has established 10 main values. These include things like “always choose positivity and happiness”, “be a no ego –doer”, “show gratitude” and “listen first, then listen more”.
  • One of the most interesting values “default to transparency” is applied in the practice strongly. Employees know everything about everyone else and you can, for example, go and check each one's salary online.
  • Values like “have a focus on self improvement” and “work smarter, not harder” show in practice as a daily personal improvement program and providing technology for all employees to track one’s sleep, daily steps, nutrition, and more.

3. Vincit

  • The basis of the culture is professionalism, community and enjoying one’s work.
  • Everyone is responsible about one’s own and others' good work vibes, and openness and discussive atmosphere are the cornerstones.
  • Self-determined leadership. Employees can decide who leads them and in which way. There are only two leaders for one hundred employees. Any of the employees can start leading a new project.
  • “Monthly mallet”: Every month an employee can use the mallet and make a decision which is accepted automatically. No rules, no budget. The only precondition is that Vincit will become an even better work place for as many employees as possible.

4. ZEF

Well, we don’t want to sound cocky here, but if we couldn’t put ourselves on this list, we would have to change something and fast, right..? :)

  • All the actions are based on three values – love, passion and bravery. We start every meeting by going through how these values have been applied lately.
  • We believe that individual’s wellbeing and development is the basis for the success of the company and concentrate on everyone’s personal development. Every week starts with “Fightclub” where all our employees are present via Skype, sharing the highlights of the last week and telling what sports they’ve been doing.
  • Dreaming, dreaming and more dreaming - our mission is visualized as a common dream on the office walls. Everyone at ZEF has also written a "Warrior's Oath", one page about one's own dreams and values, and how they match with our common mission. (The dreaming obsession shows also up as a constant stream of new ideas about gigantic trampolines, greenhouses on the rooftop, zen gardens, zeppelins, matt black hot air balloons, office sea lions and recreational days in the space…)


Oh, but seriously! Take a look at this piece of beauty! I kind of wanna deny all that foregoing messed-up yada yada yada. Let's just go for Tesla and forget everything I've said.


Photo Credit: Devil.Bunny