Respect the ice
Wednesday, May 10, 2017 at 11:08 AM
Ann Timmons
How many times have you been in a group of people you kinda sorta know and you hear "ice-breaker!"? I am sure many of you, like me, feel a sinking feeling when you hear this phrase. "Great! Ten minutes wasted on glorified chit-chat. Why don't we all just take a break and gather 'round the coffee urn? It would be as productive." 

The fact is, ice-breakers can help people in a room coalesce into a team. That is, if the ice-breaker is well-thought out and properly designed. But too many meeting leaders just use it as a way to "creativity" start an otherwise boring, by-the-books meeting.

A good ice-breaker is aimed at a specific group, which is meeting for a specific purpose, with a specific goal in mind. Once the ice is broken, the meeting that follows purposefully leverages whatever connections have been made. But all too often the ice-breaker is a "check the box" exercise. And just as often, it fails.

Reccently I have experienced examples of ice-breakers that had the potential to horribly backfire. In the first instance the assumptions built into the ice-breaking questions came from a place of privilege. If you can be sure everyone in the room has an answer to the question "where will you summer this year?" it might be OK to ask. (BTW, this is only slightly more over-the-top than what I heard recently.) But an ice-breaker is used when you do not know people that well. And if even one person in the group doesn't understand, or does not have an answer, you are defeating the purpose: to foster connectivity, communication, and find things you have in common. Instead, you have made someone feel "other," quite possibly inferior, and definitely separate.

Gender, cultural and geographical differences can also play into the destructive potential of ice-breakers. Chatting with co-workers in the break room about sports can lead to informal bonding, but asking the assembled group to start by naming their favorite sports team can be disastrous--for any number of reasons: not all women (or men for that matter) follow sports; American sports are vastly different from sports worldwide; NFL fans will assert the superiority of their league; and God help you if you have Yankees fans and fans of any other team! You see how easily an ice-breaker can lead to a conference-room brawl? 

Of course I exaggerate. Most people, in these situations, will exercise proper professional decorum. And while you may never know that your senior manager feels like a poor relation because she doesn't "summer on the Vineyard," or that your new hire just had his feelings of being an outsider reinforced, you have cast a chill on their participation just the same. Which is the opposite of your intention when you try to break the ice. 

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