CG #46 – The Truth About Icebreakers, Part One

Icebreakers don’t build teams.  That’s why you can’t get enough of them. 

Word Count: 657

Reading Time: 2.5 mins

 “You can’t get enough of what you really want.”

–Author Unknown

“We want to do some team-building over our 3-day meeting. We’ve allowed 20 minutes for that. How about an icebreaker?”

I hear this a lot, and although I’m sympathetic about time constraints, I’m not encouraging.  The truth?  Using icebreakers as a team-building Hail-Mary Play doesn’t work.

Because icebreakers don’t build teams. They don’t break down silos. Icebreakers do not, in fact, break ice.

Asking an icebreaker to do any of these things is folly.   Even worse:  Planning a moment of group enlightenment that will finally, finally, finally make the team function as though they are a single unit is…how can I say this?  It’s mental.  Madness.  Utter lunacy.  This extends to the longer team-building activity that is expected to create intimate and resilient bonds amongst co-workers who may not even like each other.

This takes me back to an outdoor team-building activity I was in:  The log walk.  I topple off balance beams, even when they are lying on the ground, as this one was.  (Just typing the word “balance beam” makes me feel unsteady, and I’m sitting down.) When I looked like I was about to fall off the “log”and screw up the team score, one of the Directors reached out her hand to me and I grabbed on.  But it was our eye contact that steadied me.  And it changed our relationship completely, just like these intense team-building activities are supposed to do:  I’d have trusted her with my life after that, and smiled warmly at her when I saw her at work, which felt good.

So far, so good.  The problem?  It was impossible to translate that good feeling into workplace effectiveness.  There was too much in our way:

1. No one else on the team had that experience with her, so they continued to distrust her and talk badly about her behind her back.

2.  This isolated me from my peers, because, when I defended her, they started mistrusting me.

3. Eventually, our connection backfired, because this director needed to be seen as interacting with everyone equally.  Our bond became politically dangerous and awkward.  We’d spent 3 days at an offsite creating that.

Another problem with this just-add-water, instant-intimacy approach to team-building is one of calibration.  It’s hard to know how much togetherness a team can handle.  Artificial, intense experiences do not build resilient, enduring relationships.  It only feels like they do.   Some of your team may find a big slug of togetherness too much to assimilate, while others thrive on it and are profoundly affected.   Can your group build deep bonds out of this difference or will it splinter them?  It’s enough to make you ignore team-building altogether.

Which would be sad.  It’s better to remember the two cardinal rules of workplace intimacy:

1. Intimacy you can trust is intimacy that matches the context.

Teams exist to get work done, not to heal your childhood wounds.  So, what use can we make of icebreakers?  They are great warm-up exercises to help people arrive in the here and now, and learn about each other in tiny, bite-sized pieces.  Tiny pieces they can digest without choking.

Peak emotional experiences are hard to sustain for the same reason a boa constrictor can’t move after swallowing a pig:  Digesting takes center-stage, rather than chugging along in the background.

2. Intimacy is like sweat:  It’s the by-product of hard work, not its focus.

And, like building muscle, strengthening your team is happens in tiny increments over time, not in a single event.

You can build your team by the way you do you work, without adding any time or heavy loads of indigestible intimacy.  This works better than a 10 minute, lively and participatory icebreaker followed by 50 minutes of presentations that promote passivity and the lopsided involvement of open discussions.

I’ll list tips for how to do this in next week’s Collaboration Genius.


  1. Well said!

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