An “icebreaker” is a social mechanism deployed in group settings. It can be any event that is used to introduce people and help them get to know each other. They’re typically deployed in venues such as meetings, training classes, team-building exercises, retreats, or classrooms on their first day.
The point here is to help people to communicate, interact, and get comfortable with each other. Today’s society, as the media tells it (and social media concurs) tends to isolate people and stunt their social development. So we should keep this in mind when picking and icebreaker. We don’t want to make people feel shy, awkward, uncomfortable, or “put on the spot.”
For example, here's an icebreaker commonly used at meetings:
Introduction and a question – Everybody goes around the table and introduces themselves, then answers one question that’s like a mini-interview. Some good neutral questions for this exercise:
• What was your most significant career move?
• What is your ideal working environment?
• If you were “king or queen for a day” at your office, what improvement would you implement?
• What was the best boss you’ve ever had like and what made them your favorite?
• If you could appoint any animal as mascot of your company, which one would you pick and why?
Remember, it’s OK to have a silly answer or a shrug. The point is to reveal a little bit of people’s character, or at the very least give everybody a chance to mentally memorize your name while it’s your turn to talk.
Other, more involved icebreakers may have some setup and take the shape of a fun party game. There are many models for these in executive literature. When picking an icebreaker, try to avoid anything that would:
• Discriminate – You don’t want to disadvantage certain people
• Create conflict – Don’t make your icebreaker questions something controversial or antagonistic. We’re trying to make friends not enemies.
• Encourage herd behavior – You wouldn’t want to have a polarized group where 90% of the people take one side, and 10% are defiantly on the other.
• Be too demeaning – Your employees are not a circus. Don’t make them do tricks.
A good icebreaker should go for “pleasant, but not memorable.” If everybody’s smiling and having fun, congratulations on helping the group bond.