“Today is all about getting to know each other, building relationships, and finding out even more about the people you already know. It’s icebreaker time!”
As my colleague announced the aims for the day to our newly hired team, the atmosphere in the room turned suddenly frosty. People shuffled in their seats and looked at their shoes. Our team was made up of mostly younger staff, working in an industry that’s not known for its extraversion. At the word “icebreaker”, they visibly melted.
Several years earlier, I was a member of a team tasked with onboarding around 25 people, brand new to the company, and who would all be working closely together. As a training team, we knew we needed to help everyone get to know each other.
Our solution was to run an entire day of icebreaking activities. This included a ‘speed dating’ session that took nearly two exhausting hours to complete, as participants moved around the room to find out surprising facts about each other. It also featured a ‘paper chain’ exercise, where people had to come up with an alliterative name for themselves (e.g., “Awesome Andy”), justify that name to the group, write it on a paper chain link, and then link all the pieces together to underscore the importance of a connected team.
That day was grueling for everyone involved. Staff members had to come up with facts about themselves, learn (and remember) facts about others, and handle presenting all of this back to a large group. All were brought well outside of their comfort zones, some so much so that the day wasn’t enjoyable. Others grumbled that they’d rather just get working.
It’s said that you learn more from your failures than from your successes, and that day was one of the most potent learning experiences of my career.
While an entire day of icebreakers is extreme, most people will have experienced kissing their professionalism goodbye for at least a short while as they share personal details with a group of strangers on command. Whether by naming a spirit animal, playing two truths and a lie, or creating a personalized haiku, icebreaker exercises are used by training teams the world over to try and bridge gaps between co-workers. But since that day, I’ve realized that there’s a whole host of reasons why this type of training activity isn’t an effective way to get to know your coworkers.
Whether by naming a spirit animal, playing two truths and a lie, or creating a personalized haiku, icebreaker exercises are used by training teams the world over to try and bridge gaps between co-workers.
Here’s my beef with icebreakers:
Icebreakers don’t mirror the real world
When was the last time you introduced yourself with something like: “Hi, my name is Kaye, and an interesting fact about me is that I can put both my feet behind my head”?
The wonderful thing about relationship-building is it happens organically, and in response to what’s shared with you by other people. In a real-world situation, you have the choice to share things with other people, or you can choose not to. And you can share knowing that with the benefit of context, you’re not going to stand out or be perceived as strange.
This means that coming out of the gates with a wacky fact about yourself is like putting the cart before the horse. It’s outside of the usual norms that we all tend to comply with when we meet new people, norms that help us feel comfortable and encourage us to begin to open up.
Icebreakers are distracting
What do you think when you hear: “Tell me an interesting fact about yourself”? If you’re someone like me, it’s likely along the lines of:
Oh wow. What can I share that’s actually interesting?
I’ve done a skydive? No, so have loads of other people. Not interesting enough.
I’ve lived in three countries? But England and Wales are similar so that isn’t very interesting.
I play bongo drums? No, people will assume I’m a weird hippy.
I once baked a cake shaped like a butt? Absolutely not—that’s far too NSFW.
Oh wow. What can I share that’s actually interesting?
By the time I’ve decided on what to share, I’ve been so deep in my own thoughts that I haven’t been truly listening to anyone else’s contributions.
And if I don’t decide on something good in time, the likelihood is I’ll choose a completely uninteresting fact (e.g., “I really like bread”) or will even make something up—like the ‘fact’ about putting my feet behind my head. (Is there really anyone over 30 who can still manage that?)
Icebreakers are socially risky
While we’d all love to live in a world where we accept each other’s differences and celebrate the things that make us individuals, that’s not what the world is like. While I’m not suggesting that the world is full of people out to stab you in the back, people can and will judge on first impressions.
I did a skydive? You might think I’m a daredevil, but really I hate heights and was quaking in my boots. I play the bongo drums? Yeah, I’ve played in a few drum circles in my time, but I hate incense, don’t dabble in psychedelics, and wash regularly. And the butt cake? It was part of an elaborate inside joke for a very close friend—not a general statement of love for butts.
It’s not often clear what connotations people might form from something you share. Instead of getting closer, you open yourself up to the possibility that people will judge you negatively. In work environments, that can be politically charged and risky.
It’s not often clear what connotations people might form from something you share. Instead of getting closer, you open yourself up to the possibility that people will judge you negatively.
Icebreakers encourage training teams to call the shots, often at the expense of employees
People can assume a lot of things in the name of business, and training teams are no exception. One of these assumptions is that if a member of staff doesn’t want to take part in a training activity, they’re not committed to the team.
In business we preach the benefits of diverse teams, people with different opinions speaking up and sharing their point of view to aid better collective decision-making. But in the training room, trainers are often firmly in charge and expect staff to fall in line, regardless of how they feel about an activity. Those who don’t react positively fall prey to that assumption, that they’re not dedicated to the success of the business.
It takes a lot of guts for a new starter to say that they don’t agree with something that’s happening in the workplace. Many will simply stay quiet for fear of being labeled as difficult. That creates a suppressive situation that flies in the face of any training program looking to embody openness and transparency. Instead, we should encourage staff to speak up about business practices that don’t sit right with them. Even if we disagree, we should be giving each other the opportunity to make our thoughts heard.
So, what are the alternatives?
At this point, I’m not going to justify using any wacky icebreaker with a group you don’t know well. I believe that when a participant in your training feels unnecessarily uncomfortable, that’s a huge failure—and one that cancels out any potential benefits of the activity.
Negativity bias causes people to remember negative experiences more vividly and acutely than they remember positive ones. So if your training activities make people feel uneasy or anxious, you’re going to need to move mountains to turn that perception around and ensure that any further learnings are perceived as positive and effective.
People learn by taking themselves out of their comfort zone, but new staff are likely already well outside of their comfort zones.
Of course, people do learn by taking themselves out of their comfort zone. But, it’s also helpful to recognize that in the first few days on the job, or working as part of a newly-formed team, staff are already well outside of their comfort zones. Your job as a training facilitator—not to mention, the often-forgotten job of an icebreaker—is to get people past that discomfort so that they can start doing great work.
Here are some alternatives for you to consider when planning your ice-breaking sessions.
1. Just get people working together.
All of us are extremely capable at getting to know each other in the course of our everyday work, and we can discover things about each other that are more relevant than the ‘fun facts’ we learn about each other in the training room.
If a member of my team has exceptional attention to detail, I’ll see that more acutely in their project planning than from knowing that they’re capable of knitting a huge, complex blanket without dropping any stitches. Or, if a colleague is a great cook, it’s the creativity they bring to their work that matters most to me, not their ability to make the best curry this side of Bengal.
Through the course of working together, you will discover what matters most about your colleagues. Those who want to share more about themselves can then do so on their own terms, not because they’re being forced to.
That doesn't mean you should throw new hires straight into on-the-job training. Instead, get people working together as a group on a work-related task. This reinforces team cohesion. Switch up your working groups regularly to give everyone a chance to get to know each other.
2. Select activities carefully.
If you’re determined to do something in place of an icebreaker, choose a team-building activity that hits a few important criteria:
- It doesn’t require participants to reveal too much personal information
- It allows quieter group members to contribute in smaller ways (for example, by sharing with a smaller subgroup instead of standing in front of a crowd)
- It doesn’t require physical contact
- It is obviously relevant to workplace activity—not requiring the use of cheesy, tangential metaphors to justify the activity (like the paper chain activity previously mentioned)
While getting out of your comfort zone can be a potent driver of personal growth, it’s not your place to force that on others. Give people the opportunity to push the envelope and surprise themselves instead of forcing a surprise on them.
3. Go down to the pub.
I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out! Socializing is the ultimate icebreaker. While I’m not endorsing an open bar and sobriety-smashing drinking games, recognize that some of the moments we learn most about our coworkers are away from a workplace setting. Watercooler chats, trips out for lunch, and post-work catch-ups are a fantastic way to get to know your teammates. What these settings have in common is that they’re low-pressure and not imbued with the expectations of business or management.
Speaking as a British person, pubs are a huge part of our culture, whether you’re there to drink or just to relax. But, unfortunately, one of the best bonding opportunities is also one of the most maligned. Many businesses just don’t trust their employees to act responsibly outside of the workplace, and will outright forbid any work-sanctioned activities that involve any possibility of drinking.
Trust your staff to be adults who value their employment, and who can keep themselves in check. If you can’t, you may need to evaluate your hiring practices.
4. Make the world a better place.
If the pub isn’t an option for you, there are a thousand other opportunities to get your staff out of the office together. Try helping the homeless, planting some trees, or cleaning up graffiti. Your local community is full of organizations crying out for help from organizations like yours.
Picking a team activity which changes the world in a positive way allows you to demonstrate a commitment to socially responsible values at the same time your staff gets to know each other. Volunteering activities also help your staff feel good about themselves, your training, and your business.
Your local community is full of organizations crying out for help from organizations like yours.
The end of the icebreaker?
The next time you feel yourself reaching for your Big Book of 101 Awesome Icebreakers, think again about what you’re trying to achieve. Are you happy to risk embarrassing your staff, taking away their agency, and wasting time in the name of “proper” training practices?
If so, keep that book. But if you want to break away from training practices that make your staff cringe, throw it away and treat them instead like thinking and feeling adults. Your job is to facilitate relationship-building, not to force and enforce it. When your team can break the ice comfortably, and on their own terms, they’ll be sure to thank you for it.
Kaye is an internationally-experienced writer and trainer, and an MA student at University College London, the world’s #1 center for Education and Social Science. Kaye has worked with Fortune 500, governmental and private firms across the world to advance customer service operations and embed leading learning and development strategy. As a specialist in contact centers, Kaye is passionate about using technology and training to improve experiences for customers and employees alike. For more, visit www.kayejchapman.com.