Workplace Culture is Everything: 20 Ideas For Building a Thriving Team

Paul Jun | March 24, 2015

“Culture,” said Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, “is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.”

There is nothing more invigorating to the human spirit than working towards a common goal with like-minded friends who are equally dogged and passionate. It doesn’t just give us meaning and fulfillment; it inspires us to create those same feelings for others.

This is an oversimplification, but often workplace culture fits in one of two boxes.

The first story is something out of the show Mad Men, where employees are burned out, bosses exercise their power ruthlessly, and everything is pandering to faster and cheaper. In short, everyone hates his job. This type of culture still exists, even in small businesses, and it confuses me why people put up with it.

The second story is one that emerged from the ashes of the first story because of technology and a growing understanding of meaningful work—teams embarking on a unique mission by doing things differently, where each person is a linchpin, the environment champions growth, and values act as both a foundation and a compass.

Building this workplace culture takes precision and vision, as well as wise guidance from leaders who toiled through the trials and tribulations of building great organizations.

Here are 20 resources from a variety of thinkers, leaders, and entrepreneurs. Let these perspectives act as building blocks to help you build a foundation and mindset for a culture that thrives regardless of time or technology.

1. Don’t F&*% Up the Culture

After receiving $150M from Peter Thiel, Brian Chesky was given one piece of advice: Don’t f&*% up the culture. Chesky told his team: “The thing that will endure for 100 years, the way it has for most 100 year companies, is the culture. The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.”

2. Building Businesses That Last

Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup, interviews Jason Fried from Basecamp. They talk about how businesses last, why culture is important, and what we can learn from mom-and-pop shops that have remained resilient against time.

3. Your Manifesto, Your Culture

As always, Seth Godin hits us right in the gut by making us focus on (and answer) the difficult questions. “It's so easy to string together a bunch of platitudes and call them a mission statement. But what happens if you actually have a specific mission, a culture in mind, a manifesto for your actions?”

4. The Power of Vulnerability

This talk by researcher Brené Brown is worthy of revisiting every few months to remind us that nothing fruitful comes without vulnerability—especially when it comes to building a team, forming bonds, and understanding how to work with one another.

5. You Don’t Create a Culture

In this short essay, Jason Fried explains the difference between a real and an artificial culture. “Real cultures are built over time. They’re the result of action, reaction, and truth. They are nuanced, beautiful, and authentic. Real culture is patina.”

6. The Culture of Netflix

This is a game-changer by Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix. He said, “Actual company values are the behavior and skills that are valued in fellow employees.” Gone are the days of gold-plated plaques with the words “Integrity, Communication, Honesty.” Actions are more vibrant than words.

7. Culture Code

This is a sneak peak into how Hubspot works and what they believe.

8. Ben Chestnut on Creative Mornings

Ben Chestnut, founder of Mailchimp, talks about quitting your job to do what you love and what he learned as a manager in building Mailchimp’s culture.

9. The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

This animated film narrated by Dan Pink is based off his book, Drive. As leaders responsible for weaving the fabrics of differing personalities and expertise, it’s vital to understand motivation and how to sustain it.

10. Moz and Core Values

Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz, talks about how core values determine how they hire and grow their company.

11. How Diversity Can Drive Innovation

“Leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights, and employees in a “speak up” culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential.”

12. The 6 Characteristics of Truly Creative People

Author and Stanford professor Tina Seelig defines the six characteristics of creative people and why the best organizations foster environments which allow creativity to flourish.

13. Working Across Multiple Time Zones

How does culture affect remote work? Buffer shares the tools they use that build interpersonal relationships across 11 time zones.

14. Growing Your Future Perfect Team

Growth mindset + nurturing environment = unlimited potential. When building your team and culture, hire for “the person they’ll become” rather than innate talent.

15. Give Your Employees an Identity of Ownership

When companies provide an identity worthy of ownership, it inspires meaningful contributions, ideas, and growth.

16. Overachiever Culture

From our CEO, Nick Francis: “All successful businesses start as overachieving founders. A few people take on the roles and responsibilities of about ten people, punching above their weight day after day to create something meaningful. Early hires also have to wear several hats and overachieve mightily to help the business meet their goals.”

17. If You Don’t Understand People, You Don’t Understand Business

This talk from Simon Sinek is worthy of revisiting to fortify the understanding that the company you want to become is determined by the people who help you build it.

18. How to Run a Company with (Almost) No Rules

Ricardo Semler rethinks board meetings, corporate democracy, and how employees report their vacation days.

19. When Contempt Masquerades as Feedback, Nobody Wins

“Feedback is instructive language that positively influences behavior. It has an assumed intrinsic benefit: it provides knowledge on how to improve what we do and how we do it. It helps us grow and become better.”

20. What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?

“What motivates us to work? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn't just money. But it's not exactly joy either. It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.”


Let these not be a prescription to building your workplace culture, but well versed perspectives to hone your vision and to ask yourself difficult questions.

There are common threads that connect within these 20 ideas: the importance of values and the kinds of behaviors that reflect them, understanding that productivity isn’t defined as a lack of sleep or 80-hour weeks, what makes creativity thrive, and what makes people motivated and happy.

Putting these into practice will meet resistance because these things take time as the team and company grows; you figure it out as you go. Sometimes you hire the wrong person and need to adapt. Sometimes you have to revisit your values to ensure that you’re fulfilling them.

Building a workplace culture, like the foundation of a home, mustn’t be rushed or else the whole thing collapses from within.

As Cyrus the Great reflected on a discussion he had with his father on leadership, he reminisced, “We discussed how wonderful it would be if a man could train himself to be both ethical and brave, and to earn all he needed for his house-hold and himself. That kind of man, we agreed, would be appreciated by the whole world. But if a man went further still, if he had the wisdom and the skill to be the guide and governor of other men, supplying their needs and making them all they ought to be, that would be the greatest thing of all.”

You owe it not only to yourself, your customers, and your dreams, but to your team that grows alongside with you. Providing that place of security, freedom, motivation, and meaningful work—what greater honor is there than to help others live well and inspire them to actualize their potential? I can’t think of any.


About the author: Paul Jun is an author, writer, and Content Manager at CreativeMornings.