Why Instagram gives one employee the 'axe' every week

Kevin Systrom, co‑founder of Instagram
Emmanuel Dunand | Getty Images

Workplace culture can have a huge impact on employee happiness. That's why Instagram's co-founder and CTO Mike Krieger says his company uses a unique exercise to boost morale.

In a recent interview with The Player's Tribune, Krieger explains why his company gives one employee "the axe" every week. It doesn't mean they are getting fired, he quickly clarifies. Quite the opposite: Handing out an actual, literal axe at their weekly staff meetings has become a way of recognizing top performers.

Krieger tells Dallas Mavericks star player Harrison Barnes that the axe idea came in 2011 when GQ asked him and Instagram's CEO Kevin Systrom for gift-giving ideas for men.

"One of the ones we were interested in was this company out in Brooklyn called Best Made and they make axes and hatches and camping stuff," says Krieger. "But they have a really good design aesthetic. Basically, if Instagram made axes and hatchets and stuff, it would look like this."

After adding this item to GQ's gift guide, Krieger says they received a package from one of their investors who had gifted them with a huge axe.

People are silhouetted against the Instagram logo at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"So now we have this axe, what are we gonna do with it?" explains Krieger. "And we decided to get the whole company together over coffee and donuts on Fridays, and we give the axe to whoever had just a crazy impact that week — they did something that was totally unexpected of them."

The creative team-building strategy is more than just good fun. Research shows that a positive workplace environment can improve employee productivity. In fact, Glassdoor Chief Economist Andrew Chaplain says that one of the top predictors of workplace satisfaction is not linked to a worker's pay, but rather to the culture and values of an organization.

He writes for Harvard Business Review that "while pay can help get new talent in the door, [Glassdoor's] research shows it's not likely to keep them there without real investments in workplace culture: making a commitment to positive culture and values, improving the quality of senior management, and creating career pathways that elevate workers through a career arc in the organization."

Instead of focusing on money or fancy perks, Google's leadership development advisor Fred Kofman says more companies should focus on inspiring and motivating their people.

"We're talking about better colleagues, better work culture, more autonomy, more camaraderie around the office, not just a cool recreational room or free snacks," Kofman says on CNBC's "Squawk Box." "At some point, even great material benefits will get to the point of satiation, but the desire to grow professionally, find meaning in your life and feel happier can be limitless."

Don't miss: Google leadership coach: The best way to attract high-performing employees doesn't cost a dime

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