When should you – and should you not – use an icebreaker in a meeting?

Colleagues in business meeting

Icebreakers are tried and tested little psychological ‘games’ designed to ‘break the ice’, encouraging a team of people who don’t know each other (well) to start interacting with each other. Whether you’re attending a training event at a corporate venue, taking part in a team building day or creative brainstorming session, there’s a wide range of ice breaker activities and team exercises that can be used to help set the scene for the day, and determine the likely success for the rest of the event.

But is an icebreaker always appropriate?

YES – here are some typical scenarios in which an icebreaker activity is a good idea.

  • You are bringing together colleagues who sort of know each other but not really. Even if they work in the same company division, office or department, they may recognise each other or have had some sort of contact via phone or email. Clearly, some kind of personal introduction is helpful.
  • Team members are geographically distant; they may be working in different cities or even countries and don’t know each other at all. In fact, if you’re in the habit of convening via webinars, video conferences or telephone meetings, they may never actually meet. Ice breakers may be a useful way to establish a more normal day-to-day office setting.
  • Your delegates come from different cultural backgrounds or countries, possibly speaking various native languages and with varying degrees of English competence. If you’re bringing together a team that diverse in one meeting room, starting with an icebreaker is crucial.
  • Combining two or more established teams means reconciling different team cultures. An icebreaker can help to establish personal connections among individual team members, helping to fuse the two team cultures.
  • In a workshop situation, where high levels of participation are required, an introduction is always needed. Using icebreaker techniques helps to loosen everyone up in readiness for the mental work ahead, and make it more fun.

NO – Don’t expect an icebreaker to solve all your problems. There are situations where they simply won’t work or, worse, be downright counterproductive.

  • New client meetings are no time to be informal and jokey. Trying to impose an icebreaker activity on a first meeting with a client may badly backfire on you. Knowing nothing about your client’s preferred way of doing business or anything about how they tick, you run the risk of coming across as flippant and unprofessional.
  • A team of close co-workers, where everyone already knows each other well, they’re all Facebook friends or go for regular Friday beers, has no need for a structured activity to get to know each other. The ice was probably broken a long time ago.
  • Choose your icebreaker questions and activities well to avoid the risk of offending anyone. ‘Tell us something that nobody here knows?’ may be a fun question to ask in the context of dating, but may be seen as inappropriate in a business context. Likewise, questions that can be interpreted as culturally insensitive – including anything relating towards nationality, gender, religion or sexuality – should be avoided like the proverbial plague.