We have all been invited to meetings that begin with an icebreaker. These icebreakers are used to quickly establish a social connection among participants and lower psychological barriers to working with each other. The Internet and the bookstores are full of examples of effective icebreakers, and I use them all the time – but I think something is amiss.
A few years ago I joined a company and my first day at work was actually at an executive retreat in the West Maryland mountains. The CEO had invited all executives for a 2-day session focused on strategy for the upcoming year. I barely knew just a couple of folks with whom I had spoken during the interview process, and was anxious to arrive and meet everyone else. It turned out, I was the last one to arrive on site, and the CEO was about to start the morning session. So I hurriedly joined the meeting, shook hands with everyone, and sat down.
The CEO proposed to start with an icebreaker. He explained it, and then asked for a volunteer. Since I was the new guy, I went first. I quickly put together a short story, and shared it with my peers. At the end of it, I expected a bit of feedback, maybe a laugh or a cheer… but nothing came. I realized everyone was just thinking about their own story, and the CEO himself wanted to ensure the exercise moved on quickly. So the next person started sharing her story, and so on.
I was already not listening anymore. I mean, I WAS listening, but my mind was wandering through my own thoughts and recollection of my story: “How did I perform?”, “Could I have said it better?”, “Whoaw! That guy’s story is way more interesting than mine!…”. When the exercise was over and everyone had shared their story, the CEO promptly introduced the next item in the agenda, and the meeting moved on.
Looking back, that exercise succeeded at warming up the crew and creating an environment where everyone felt less anxious to share their thoughts. But I realized it failed at creating a personal connection among the people. As a team, we didn’t know much about each other after the exercise than what we had known before. We had all shared a story, but in fact, five minutes into the following strategy session, the memory from the various stories was gone. The exercise didn’t provide for resiliency.
While icebreakers that involve everyone going around the room and sharing their favorite band, or the book they are currently reading, or the like, can be effective in bringing people closer together, they also have limitations. As in the story above, during those sessions my attention inevitably wanders to planning what I am going to say when it’s my turn. Then, after I have shared my story and others are talking, I keep thinking about what I just said, and how I could have delivered it better. When the exercise is over, I may have really listened to only a handful of stories, and five minutes later all memories are gone.
In my experience icebreakers are good exercises to wake up the crowd and lower anxiety in sharing thoughts and ideas, but are not effective at creating memories between people.
I have created a set of creative exercises for team building and I have found them more effective to create a social bond between people and spark creativity. I’ve published these exercises in the book The Spark Engine:
The Spark Engine