It's your first day at a new job and you're ready to make a solid impression. You walk into the office and you're handed a card with an animal on it, you're instructed to take off one shoe and you're told to put on a funny hat.
You've walked into an office icebreaker, and you can kiss your dreams of a professional first impression goodbye.
In the spirit of fighting fire with fire, corporate icebreakers fight awkward with more awkward. Not surprisingly, this tactic often fails. Icebreakers are games intended to encourage strangers to connect. Although they are most commonly used in teen groups or religious retreats, businesses have begun to adopt them to get their employees to interact and to increase teamwork. But many people feel meeting co-workers for the first time is hard enough without being forced to play a ridiculous game concocted by over exuberant group leaders.
All too often, icebreakers backfire. The triviality of the games easily insults people's intelligence and insinuates that these professional adults lack the social skills to meet each other on their own. Worse still, they may further alienate shy folks who don't like the spotlight. On top of that, icebreakers are often time-consuming and just plain boring. Some icebreakers even border on offensive and invade participants' personal space.
Nevertheless, you can bet out-of-touch group leaders will continue to force uncomfortable icebreakers on unsuspecting victims. In the business world, it's difficult to walk the line between making people comfortable and keeping it professional. But the icebreakers we'll investigate in this article fail miserably on both accounts.
On the next few pages, we'll cover some of the worst. Here's hoping you don't have to endure one of them yourself.
The Shoe Pile
When meeting new co-workers, most people would be mortified to accidentally expose an embarrassing undergarment. But in this game, it's a requirement.
As each person enters the room, he or she must remove one shoe and place it in a pile. After the whole group has gathered, everyone must go to the pile and pick up a shoe that doesn't belong to them. Then, they must search the room for the person who is wearing its match and introduce themselves.
Aside from its obvious silliness, this game guarantees a few embarrassments. For instance, there are bound to be a few poor souls in the room who haven't done their laundry and chose that morning to reach into their reserve of old, holey socks. But perhaps most embarrassed are those who just unleashed unpleasant foot odor upon the whole group, which makes everyone suffer.
Another variation on this game is to have everyone take off both their shoes and, after tying the pairs together, put them into a single pile in middle of the circle. One by one, each member of the circle will then be instructed to pick a pair that doesn't belong to them. After inspecting the pair, the person will make a statement about what they imagine the owner's personality to be. For instance, for wacky shoes, they could say, "this is a fun, unconventional person" or for old, worn out shoes they might say, "this person doesn't like shopping," "is stuck in his ways" or "is very loyal."
In addition to the problems with the first shoe game, this game encourages judgment. Flying in the face of don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover logic, this exercise forces participants to make snap decisions based on one item of their co-worker's apparel. And among the group, each person will be remembered for the particular pair of shoes they chose to wear that day.
How else might an office icebreaker invade participants' personal space? Find out on the next page.
Americans value their personal space, as evidenced by strict workplace harassment laws and even the popular "Seinfeld" episode featuring the "close talker," who doesn't understand the rules of proper social distance. But this icebreaker throws those considerations out the window.
In the "human knot" game, co-workers gather in circles and must grab hold of the hands of the people who are across from them (right hands on right hands, and left on left).
Then, without letting go of any hands, the group must find a way to maneuver themselves out of the entanglement. Another more complicated variation incorporates ropes with loops that participants put their hands through, which results in just as much inappropriate touching.
Although it may sound like a game meant for adolescents, surprisingly, businesses have been known to use this game in office meetings.
Intimacy is tricky at the office. Guess who would relish the next icebreaker? Your favorite co-worker, Narcissus. Keeping reading to learn about the "I like me because..." game.
I Like Me Because ...
One of the hardest things about getting to know people in the workplace is that you don't get to see what they're like outside the office. So in an effort to learn more about others as well as improve everyone's self-esteem, some group leaders initiate the "I like me because..." game.
In this game, everyone breaks into pairs, and each person takes a turn to talk about himself or herself. But they don't get to talk about just anything -- for two minutes straight, each person must state reasons why they like themselves. Meanwhile, the listening partner is not allowed to say anything; instead the partner must practice using open and encouraging body language.
Two minutes could feel like two hours in this game, where discomfort is a practically a guarantee. Many people get extremely uneasy when they're called to talk themselves up. For others, two minutes is barely enough time to explain why they're so awesome. For one it's torture; for the other it's an excessive ego boost. Not only that, but whoever gets paired with these people must suffer through either painful stammering or droning self praise.
Other get-to-know-you icebreakers call for everyone to confess awkward personal information to the group. In an effort to loosen people up and get them laughing, some group leaders will ask each person to reveal his or her most embarrassing moments, or maybe even their greatest fears. But what if a participant's greatest fear is public speaking... about embarrassing moments?
On the next page, we'll learn how role-play can become a workplace car wreck -- literally.
Conferences are a great opportunity for networking. But this icebreaker will dash your hopes of a good first impression. If you fear looking silly in front of hundreds of unfamiliar colleagues, then this game might resemble your worst nightmare -- right next to the one where you show up to work naked.
This game, called "bumper collision," is meant for situations where large groups of unfamiliar people meet. When the leader starts playing music, the whole crowd is instructed to "drive" around in imaginary bumper cars throughout the room. When the leader blows the whistle, everyone must stop and "collide" into someone else. After the crash, the two drivers "exchange information" and introduce themselves until the whistle blows again and driving resumes.
As if driving around in a make-believe bumper car doesn't make you feel idiot enough, purposefully colliding into a business colleague doesn't exactly say, "I'm an intelligent professional." And, as many people in the room are sure to refrain from playing along, participants will have to choose between looking like a stuffy stick-in-the-mud or a childish goofball.
As bad as this icebreaker is, the next one overshadows them all.
Wordless Noise Games
In what is perhaps the pinnacle of ludicrous icebreakers, this game asks everyone to find their partner or group, not with words, but with noises. Many variations exist, including the following:
- Everyone is assigned an animal and must make its animal noise to find others assigned the same animal. In addition to monkeys and cats, the game suggests participants be assigned the kangaroo. How many of us know what sound the kangaroo makes?
- Every participant gets a card with a picture of a dog on it and must start making the noise of the dog on the card (e.g., yaps for small dogs, growls for mean-looking dogs and deep barks for big dogs) to find partners.
- Everyone gets a card with a vehicle on it, such as a sports car, truck or old jalopy. Using the noise they think that vehicle would make, they find others assigned the same cars.
Another variation is to blindfold the participants during the activity, requiring them to grope around while seeking out the right noises. Blindfolds and groping in the workplace -- an excellent recipe for a sexual harassment case.
Next, we're sending a shout out to an icebreaker that isn't quite the scream that its name implies.
Some icebreaker activities can be fun -- when you're a kid looking for a stress relief at school. Those same activities, though, might be intimidating or unpleasant when you're an adult trying to act professional. Screamer fits both of these categories.
In "screamer," everyone in the room gets in a large circle so they can see one another. Then, they put their heads down and close their eyes. When the activity leader shouts "heads up," everyone has to look immediately straight into the eyes of someone else in the room. If that same person is looking back, the pair is supposed to point at each other and scream loudly. Each new pair is "out," meaning that they leave the circle of play, and heads go down for the next round.
This is a creative way to pair off young students for classroom activities. The screams of kids playing is normal and happy, and often accompanied by laughter. For professional adults, though, Screamer can make a tense, uncomfortable situation worse. The screams of adults on the job are unsettling compared to kids at play.
In addition, as with "bumper collision," your attitude toward the activity could be misconstrued no matter which way you lean. You could be mistakenly branded as too stuffy if you're not playful enough, but your co-workers may think you're not serious about your job if you're too playful and laugh a lot.
If screaming wasn't bad enough, the next icebreaker will really reach out to grab you.
When you were a kid, if you had a playful uncle that said "pull my finger" at a family gathering, it was probably followed by anything from a silly facial expression to flatulence. Why would anyone ever want to do that in the boardroom? That's where the icebreaker known as "gotchya" comes in.
"Gotchya" starts with participants standing in a circle with their arms extended outward on either side. Each person assumes this hand position: left palm up and right index finger pointing down. Each right index finger should be touching the outstretched left palm of its neighbor, forming a circle of finger-to-palm connections. When the activity leader says "go," each person must try to grab the index finger of the person on his left while preventing his own index finger from being grabbed.
Like "human knot," this means stepping outside of your comfort zone to touch someone you might have little or no social association with. That alone can be a source of anxiety for many people, particularly if it draws attention to hand injuries or deformities. It can also bring up the question, "Do you know where that hand has been?" What kind of germs might be spreading around the room?
On top of these anxieties, pointing or grabbing an index finger, or touching hands at all, could elicit a response based on cultural connotations. On the negative side, this ranges from the playful "pull my finger" joke, a popular joke in Western culture, to the outright rudeness of touching something with your left hand, which is considered an insult in some cultures.
Next, we look at an icebreaker that's all about lies.
Two Truths and a Lie
Some icebreakers prompt us to ask, just how much do you want to know about your co-workers? The game "two truths and a lie" requires revealing at least two facts about yourself along with a false statement about you. Other players must then guess which of the three statements is the lie.
Players may experience some of the same challenges in this icebreaker as in the "I like me because ..." game. Private and shy people may contribute vague statements or general observations that don't reveal a lot about them. This makes for a boring and difficult guessing process. On the other hand, proud or expressive people might use the game as an opportunity to brag about their accomplishments or life experiences.
Besides the challenge in making these statements, players might be uncomfortable guessing personal things about someone they've just met. It's embarrassing enough to be wrong about something in a work setting. When that something has to do with a co-worker, it's doubly awkward. No one wants to hear, "Really? You thought I would do that?"
One variation on this might help soften the blow of awkwardness when it comes to the lie. The variation, called "two truths and a dream," replaces the lie with a wish of something you'd like to do in the future. Lie avoided? Yes, but this variation also reveals even more actual facts about you.
The next icebreaker steps beyond first impressions and digs a bit too deep into your co-workers' private lives.
Have You Ever?
Some icebreakers have their start in the world of slumber parties or drinking games. "Have you ever ... " is a popular game in both environments. It usually involves players taking turns in a circle asking one another personal, revealing and potentially embarrassing questions starting with "Have you ever..."
"Have you ever ... " is often unscripted. That means that each player who's asking a question makes up that question on the spot. The only way to make "have you ever ... " somewhat workable in a corporate setting is to have pre-written questions to choose from. This gives the activity leader some censorship before the game begins.
For the leader, the pre-game challenge is to select questions that won't lead to potentially embarrassing answers. It may be easy for most people to answer, "Have you ever jumped out of an airplane?" However, some questions could invite awkward moments among co-workers, such as, "Have you ever been arrested?"
Of course, you could just lie if the truth is too embarrassing. It's just an icebreaker, right? That could work, but what if your co-workers learn the truth later? Then, what started as a simple lie to protect your privacy turns into a reason to distrust you. Your co-workers, even your boss, might suspect you're a dishonest person who's willing to cover things up to protect yourself.
Our final icebreaker is the flipside of "have you ever ..." and it might risk even more permanent damage to your professional reputation.
Have you ever thumbed through an entertainment magazine or Web site and found a "guess who" game revealing little-known facts about a celebrity? It might have a childhood photo and some hints with the question, "Who is this person?" It might have a factual statement and a multiple choice list of celebrity names, and you have to choose the correct match.
This same "guess who" game is also a popular icebreaker activity in the business world. For this icebreaker, the activity leader asks you and your co-workers to complete a survey in advance for some random profile information. These are often simple things like where you were born and what sports you liked to play in high school. It might also include some more open-ended queries like, "List three things about you that people might be surprised to learn."
This icebreaker can be fun, especially in small companies where people are already developing friendships. However, in larger corporate settings where people rarely interact beyond their work responsibilities, it could stir up trouble.
To start with, "guess who" has the same challenges as "two truths and a lie" when it comes to balancing private and expressive participants. The difference is that the activity leader has control over what types of facts are revealed. The private people may not want strangers to know about their childhood, and expressive people may want to go far beyond what's asked in the survey.
Game day brings more "guess who" shortcomings to light. The leader selects interesting or challenging facts from the surveys received. Then, the leader becomes the emcee of a game with prizes for guessing the correct co-worker matching the fact. If it seems like an innocent game, think about who's getting the prizes: those who have socialized a lot with their co-workers, or those who are just nosey. Thus, this icebreaker might be like a silent punishment to private people who prefer keep to themselves.
Want to learn more about the quirks of office work? Take a look at the links and related articles on the next page.
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More Great Links
- First Steps Training & Development. "Screamer." 2012. (Jan. 18, 2012) http://www.firststepstraining.com/resources/activities/archive/activity_screamer.htm
- Group Games. "Two Truths and a Lie." Creative Commons. 2011. (Jan. 18, 2012) http://www.group-games.com/ice-breakers/two-truths-and-a-lie.html
- Neill, James. "Animal Sounds." Wilderdom.com. Nov. 15, 2005. (May 23, 2008) http://wilderdom.com/games/descriptions/AnimalSounds.html
- Neill, James. "Gotchya! (Grab the Finger)." Wilderdom.com. Nov. 13, 2004. (Jan. 18, 2012) http://wilderdom.com/games/descriptions/GrabTheFinger.html
- Newstrom, John, Edward Scannell. "The Big Book of Team Building Games." McGraw-Hill Professional, 1998.
- West, Edie. "The Big Book of Icebreakers." McGraw-Hill, 1999: New York.
- West, Edie. "201 Icebreakers: Group Mixers, Warm-ups, Energizers, and Playful Activites." McGraw-Hill Professional, 1996.