I've been guiding my business through a growth spurt lately, acquiring companies and teams that are respected, established travel brands. With that comes opportunity for reinvention, for new relationships, for new revenue streams. It's an exciting time, for sure.

Key to this next chapter are the people who've chosen to come along for the journey; people who I hope will share our sense of purpose and belonging, and who will ultimately help us succeed in leveraging travel as a force for global good. So, I've been thinking a lot about company culture these last few weeks, and the secret sauce that goes in to binding and building an engaged, passionate team.

In reading up about this, I found a pair of widely-cited and sobering statistics. One: companies spent an estimated $720-million on employee engagement in 2012; today, that figure may be twice as large. Two: a recent Gallup study puts the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. at just 33 percent. Globally, it reports an abysmal 87 percent of employees admitting they feel disengaged on the job.

So where's the money going? And why isn't it working? More and more companies bring out free ice cream, install games, or hold potluck dinners in the lunch room. Some put beanbag chairs or beer fridges in the lounge.

That's all well and good, but if your company isn't paying attention to the all important aspects of engaging employees in the day-to-day operations, when it's shoulder-to-the-wheel time, then all the casseroles in the world won't motivate or retain your brightest.

Simply put: you can't potluck your way to a great company culture. Instead, I propose that there are three under-appreciated ingredients that excite people to come to work:

1. Recognition. Spotlighting the best and brightest in your company has enduring value, even when it's through what I call the aspirational style of management. When companies give out cars or cash bonuses to the best salespeople in front of the whole company, it creates an incentive, though it mostly works on just the top performers.

Yet, study after study shows that it's not money that gets people most fired up. A headline-making experiment conducted by Duke University professor Dan Ariely, and detailed in his latest book, explains how an Israeli company tested whether employees responded best to cash bonuses, pizza, or the boss saying, 'good job.' Pizza was a close second, but not to money. That came last.

People want to be recognized by their bosses and peers when they succeed, when they go above and beyond to support customers or colleagues, and when they bravely go out on a limb -- even if their efforts fall a bit short.

At G Adventures, we created a system of social badges that can be awarded for meeting certain goals, finishing education programs, or just being great team players. A few have cash prizes or other perks, but many exist only on our company intranet as a virtual high-five - where anyone can access them and gift them to colleagues. Some examples:

  • True Believer: this badge is awarded by our Talent Agency to culture ambassadors who've shown through word and action that they fully embrace the G Adventures lifestyle.
  • Ripple Effect: this incentive badge is given by managers to frontline brand ambassadors - our Chief Experience Officer tour guides - who help us earn the most repeat business from customers.
  • Take It To 11: this popular badge is awarded by any employee to any employee who goes above and beyond the call of duty in their role or assignment. On a scale from 1 to 10, they achieved an 11.

Even if you earn a badge for something that doesn't hit a specific target like a sales quota, everyone in the company notices and celebrates. That spirit of encouragement and appreciation goes a long way in building a strong team culture.

2. Freedom. These days, companies have access to so much more employee feedback than we used to. Despite greater insights, the empowerment of employees doesn't seem to be improving. Instead of trusting people to do the right thing, people are being micro managed. That's a mistake.

We've all been on the phone with a cell phone provider or an insurance company rep who has a script he or she must stick to, whether it makes any sense in the situation. But when you give that person the ability to make decisions that can help the customer, you not only enable them to turn someone into a fan of your brand, you give them a sense of accomplishment for having done it themselves.

Case in point: when I call hotels to make a reservation, I often ask whether they can give me free wifi, in spite of the customary charge. If the person believes it's a make-or-break factor in my decision to stay, they often throw in the wifi without making me hold on the line while they seek approval. It's a small example, but it's a pretty good sign that the customer service representatives have freedom in their roles. I'll bet they value it, too.

3. Purpose. People need to feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves. If you don't offer a clear sense of purpose, it's hard to truly motivate people to buy into your vision and deliver their best.

Consider Silicon Valley, where competition for talent is insane. You'd expect big tech companies to compete largely by throwing money at people. That's definitely a factor. But look at Elon Musk, the visionary behind Tesla and SpaceX. His companies are focused not only on profit, but on doing great things that benefit the whole world, like weaning drivers off fossil fuels and exploring outer space.

According to a study by career and salary information firm PayScale, the median pay for early career talent at Tesla is $81,400 and at SpaceX, it's $78,500 - thousands of dollars below Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple. So why do they still attract top talent? When asked "Does your job make your world a better place?", employees at SpaceX and Tesla said Yes 92 percent and 89 percent of the time respectively - making them the top-scorers in that category.

Is it really any wonder people choose to work at companies where they feel like their individual jobs contribute to a better world?

The lessons here are clear: a great work culture isn't just about throwing perks or money at people. If you offer them recognition, freedom and a strong sense of purpose, it makes the potluck dinners - and the ice cream - taste even sweeter.