Icebreakers are dumb, and everybody hates them!
-Hi everybody! I'm Sarah and have been with the company for 12 years as a............ and I am
super excited to spend the day with you to learn about ...
I thought to myself; Well, Sarah, you are the only excited person here I can tell you that. But before I finished, the thought there it was. The dreaded icebreaker! I was measuring up my location in the training room in relation to the door so I can sneak out to the toilet, but that seemed too far. There was no escape.
-Alright, everybody, I give you five minutes for you to have a quick chat with everybody and find at least 3 common things.
Her (my partner): Do you have dogs?
Me: Sure (I don't but I wanna get on with this) Her: Great me too! What type?
Me: Just a mongrel I rescued
Her: Me too I rescued my …. (whatever the name was). So now we have two things in common yay
Me: I guess
Her: Is yours a girl or a boy? Me: It's a she
Her: Mine too!
Me: I think we found the 3 common things
Kill me now! Why why why, do I have to lose brain cells over such things? I came here to learn something that will hopefully be useful at work. I am not remotely interested in what's the name of her dogs or for that matter in anybody else's story. Can I just learn and go Sarah?
Icebreakers are dumb, and everybody hates it!
As a trainer and as a trainee, you are quickly taught or conditioned to believe that activities such as icebreakers, team buildings, energisers, and other games are necessary to learn and keep adults engaged. But in fact, you don't need any of these because what keeps adults engaged is for them to hear something interesting, something they can relate to, learn from, and apply in their daily work or life. Anything else is just corporate fluff and/or a waste of time. We are conditioned so well that another day I run an onboarding session with 28 people who have been working together for a week. After the session, one of the Directors came to me asking:
- I was just wondering why there was no team introduction at the beginning of the session?
- Because I believe that adults can introduce themselves as and when they feel appropriate without any assistance. Also, you guys have been working together in this office for a week now. If you still don't know who these people are, we might need another conversation.
- Oh I see ….. (confusion and realisation at the same time)
- So have you introduced yourself to everybody?
- Well, to most of the people, yes.
- Great, go and get to know the rest.
I couldn't really decide what's happened there. Has the 30 something years old guy, a grown-up adult, needed help introducing himself or was it just conditioning of "We must have ice breaker and introduction before the training". Whatever that was, he went away from the conversation to realise that I am not the typical corporate Learning & Development professional, and I will be treating them as adults.
Not one person I have ever spoken to likes icebreakers. It seems that the very same activity that intends to ease tension and bring participants together actually drives most people's anxiety or boredom level through the roof. I am sure that when the last time you attended a corporate event you said "oh no" to yourself - or out loud as I normally do - when you realised that the icebreaker is about to kick off. The worst ice breakers for me are the ones that resemble to an AA meeting. People sit around taking turn in introducing themselves, spirits are low, nobody remembers anybody's name nor care.
Forcing fake conversation & bonding upon people in the name of "easing participants into the learning environment" doesn't work. What's wrong with allowing it to happen on its own during the course of the day so it can be genuine? Why have we happily swallowed the pill of forced socialisation? And why are we treating adults like children? And before you say, "no, it is not like treating people as children" I suggest you run a quick Google search on corporate icebreakers. Here are some examples that I found:
"I actually wasted 20 minutes of my time the other day, sharing bullshit info based on the colour of M&M's candy I took out of the bag."
"Just like in kindergarten the activity was "please explain what colour you would like to be and why" or "if you could be any animal what you would be?"
"We had to answer the question: If you were a fruit, what fruit would you be?"
"One time we had to throw a ball around in a circle to get to know each other. When it was my turn, I yelled, "I'm and I don't want this ball" before proceeding to throw it into the face of the person to my right. They laughed, the trainer didn't."
"Okay, to start we're going to go around the classroom and introduce ourselves and say one interesting thing about ourselves." Yeah this kinda stuff is the stuff that makes me slightly peeved for a while."
From a teacher: "First staff day back and they have us rubbing the shoulders of the person in front of us and playing Simon says."
"For a volunteer group we had an icebreaker where we had to invent an overcomplicated handshake for each person we met and learn weird facts about them like what superpower they would have."
"I just want to know, WHO LIKES THIS? WHO TOLD YOU IT WAS A GOOD IDEA? Is there some nonsense book that everyone keeps getting these ideas from? Is it just a "this is how we always did it" kind of thing going on?"
Of course, there is a book! In fact, there are hundreds of books, blogs, articles, and YouTube videos out there with the "Best Icebreakers" which people have fallen for without thinking because whatever is written and, on the net, must be true. Don't get me wrong, there are great activities that don't reduce adults to nursery age kids and actually trigger people's interest in a topic or in others. We come back to this later in the Alternative section.
Now let's look at Educational Psychology's take on the whole icebreaker situation without going deep into academic data. Psychologists acknowledge the awkwardness of icebreakers and say that they don't have to be pleasant for them to be effective. A well-executed icebreaker must accomplish three things. The first is to put people at ease and calm their anxiety about public speaking. Apparently, the only way to do that is to get people talking (exposure therapy if you ask me). Once they say few sentences, anxiety eases. It makes sense, right? However, what about those of us who have no anxiety about speaking in public? We just don't want to engage in meaningless conversations. What about introverts (the latest data indicates that there is a roughly equal distribution of introverts and extroverts within the population of 50:50) who, despite their personality trait, are being forced to engage in a situation that doesn't come naturally to them?
The second purpose is something I can get on board with. Icebreaker activity can set a tone for the rest of the session as it lays the foundation for others to model behaviour. If the facilitator interrupts and shouts out things randomly, it will be ok to do so for participants during the session. If the activity requires people to wait for their turn to speak, they will likely behave the same structured way later on. Icebreakers are also great opportunities for people to manage their first impressions. If someone tells a joke, he/she wants to come across as funny or just really don't know what to say. If someone presents a fact or data, the impression of that person will be smart or accomplished. As a facilitator, you should consider these when planning and conducting activities. During the planning phase, establish the desired dynamic of your session. Do you want a fun and unstructured or a more rigid, structured, straight to the point atmosphere? Once you know, you can design the icebreaker accordingly if you really must! For example, when I facilitate compliance trainings i.e. GDPR I never do any activity but make it very clear at the beginning that it won't be fun and it is not a nice to know session but something they must know and comply with. This indicates the importance of the topic, and quickly we can get down to business not wasting valuable time. However, I am not one that sucks the joy out of a GDPR session! I mean, how exciting it can really be???? I designed the course with many interactions and quizzes throughout that ends with a test. That way, people are cognitively challenged and engaged without any silly game.
The third purpose is my greatest nightmare. Encourage people to talk about themselves to build relationships that foster psychological safety, an environment in which people feel free to speak up, ask questions, or challenge ideas without the fear of being ostracised. Relationships are all about self-disclosure over a long period of time. Icebreakers intend to accelerate this process, which would likely occur naturally over several days or weeks. I do not question the correlation between self-disclosure and relationships because anecdotal and academic evidence and my own experience support that. What I question is the fact that we don't establish relationships with everybody. Nature selects, and we instinctively know who our matches are. When a trainer gives the task of self-disclosure or just to get to know the person who I (or nature) haven't chosen, it is likely to result in a superficial uninteresting conversation that defeats the purpose of the whole idea of the icebreaker. The good news is that Organizational Psychologists agree that a 5 – 10 min of such activity is not sufficient for team cohesion in terms of trust and a deeper level of relationship, but it can be a starting point. "IT CAN BE" is the key phrase here. So, trainers and education specialists are running activities based on a vague "it can be" that translates from academic language to plain English as; we have an almost equal number of opposing evidence to prove and discredit this theory.
Yet, they argue that even the most cringe-worthy experience you hate every second of forces you to undergo humiliation sometimes with silly age-inappropriate games so we can all look stupid together can have a point. And that is important. HAVE A POINT! Not get to know each other (because we do that naturally if we want to and if we don't, please don't force socialise us) but have an actual point of the activity.
One of the main reasons people hate icebreakers or any type of activity for that matter is because they lack purpose. It is hard to sit around and listen to 20 people's name/role/organisation/favourite hobby etc… and not think that this time could have been spent better by sleeping in, getting through my daily task list, or actually learning something.
Let's summarise why icebreakers don't work and based on that we later look at what could be done about it.
They create anxiety in order to ease anxiety (wow what a genius idea that is!).
They totally ignore participants' feelings about the activity and is forced upon us all. Not once have I heard the question "would you guys like to do a quick activity before we start?" or have been given the opportunity to opt out.
They undermine our natural ability to; make connections, speak when we want to speak, and to socialise spontaneously. Remember my story of a 30+ year old director who relied on an icebreaker to introduce himself? Should we have never had this game people would not have developed reliance on it to practice basic social behaviour.
They create an age-inappropriate environment where adults are stripped of their power of self-governance by being forced to engage in activities that are often undesired and downright silly. Yes, age-inappropriate! Do you know when the last time I was forced to say "hi" and to introduce myself was? Between the age of 3-6 when my grandmother used to budge me when we met somebody on the street, and I hid behind her. She pushed me to the front and said, "Say hi nicely and introduce yourself". Grown-ups shouldn't go through this experience.
Most often than not, there is no point or purpose to icebreakers.
Yes, some people might be timid and shy but eager to make connections and speak up but are too nervous about doing so. Those would probably benefit from activities, but there are not many around, so please don't punish the rest of us "just in case" you have a timid person in your session. Encourage interaction differently without involving even the kitchen sink into your game plan.
If you do it, at least do it right!
So, what corporate trainers and educators could do instead? Well, maybe doing nothing is the best course of action. Ask yourself the question; is there really a need for an icebreaker? If people know each other, it really is a useless exercise. Get down to business so people can get back to work finish their day, and go home to their families. Remember, every unproductive minute at work can add to the stress level. Don't be that guy who wastes people's time. However, you want to frame the mind around the topic, so why not start with a simple exercise of finishing the sentence of; "the memory that comes to mind in regards to the topic is …….. and one thing I learned from this experience is ……….". This will get them to share experiences; the trainer can assess the level of their understanding or experience related to the topic. The activity has a clear purpose, which brings me to my next point.
If you do need an icebreaker (sometimes we do), make sure it has a purpose. No, not the let's get to know each other but a fundamental objective that is linked to the training topic. That allows you to introduce the topic, get participants to think about their experiences related to it, get them talking with and get to know one another. Sorted!
I have two examples that I even enjoyed and may help you. The first one was at a Gallup Strengths workshop. First of all, the facilitator invited everybody for an 8am start. Before the training, we were instructed to complete the strengths assessment and send the results to her. When we arrived, she waited for us at the foyer in front of the locked event room. She personally gave us our top 5 strengths printed on a small card, including the first name hanging on a lanyard and asked us to grab a coffee and start finding people with the same strengths. It may sound like the perfect nightmare of approaching people and chatting them up, but it was super easy. Names were easy to use as you had them in front of you, along with people's strengths. All you had to say is, "oh, that is also one of my strengths" and the conversations were flowing. We got to know people and something about them that is personal. The facilitator opened the door at 8:30 and we proceeded in. She cracked on with the topic and said "Now that you guys have learned a little bit about each other…..". Only then I realised what she did. That was the icebreaker! And the reason for locking the door was so we could not isolate ourselves in the room and be busy on our phones. Love it!
The second story is from an event where I went to learn about personality types (The Big 5). A very upbeat, larger-than-life type of guy (facilitator) welcomed us and said, "Since none of you knows anybody here, we need to address this. I know that most of you hate icebreakers, especially introverts; therefore, I will split you up into two groups. Extroverts, please move to this coffee area and spend 10 minutes with each other. Introverts, you move to that coffee area and spend 10 minutes as you want." So, we all went, me obviously with the introverts. Around 5 minutes into the activity, the facilitator came up to us and quietly said, "Can you see how this group dynamic is different to the extroverts? They all are laughing in a big circle, everybody is conversing with almost everybody whilst you guys are having a quiet conversation with 1-2 people in smaller circles?" He did that with the other group as well, very subtly. He was so on the point. Our group dynamic and behaviour were different, and his probing question provided us with a point of conversation about personality traits and group behaviour. He moved the topic from our unconscious mind to the conscious mind, and by doing that, he not only triggered the learning process he also allowed us to be who we are. I remember that I actually felt respected and understood for not wanting to do the icebreaker. This understanding resulted in greater participation as I didn't have to exert energy to push back and put my point across that "I hate icebreakers".
Icebreakers don't have to be long, complicated, or present at all. A few good questions around personal experiences related to the training can be just the perfect icebreaker. So take the time and invest in creating a meaningful icebreaker. The bottom line is, make sure it has a purpose other than the "let's get to know each other" because, believe it or not, people can figure each other out. They don't need a nanny.