Icebreakers Are Terrible. They Also, Unfortunately, Work Really Well.

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Photo: Tom Merton/Getty Images/Caiaimage

It’s back-to-school season, which means it’s time for fresh starts, pumpkin-spice overload, inappropriately themed sale displays, and — if you’re actually going back to school — racking your brain for suitably fun facts to share with a classroom full of strangers, or gearing up for endless rounds of two-truths-and-a-lie in a dorm lounge. Truth: Here’s a thing I did this summer. Truth: Here’s something about, I don’t know, a family pet. Lie: This is fun.

To all but the most enthusiastic few, icebreakers are just a necessary evil — even though they’re supposed to dispel the awkwardness, forced getting-to-know-you games often feel like they’re just making an awkward event even more so, whether you’re at freshman orientation or a corporate retreat. So why do we insist on beginning so many situations by suffering through trust walks and elaborate name games? Is there any value to making a roomful of people miserable with false cheer?

Psychologist Anton Villado is adamant that the answer is yes, and that icebreakers don’t have to be pleasant to be effective. Formerly a professor at Rice University, Villado now consults for restaurant owners on how to improve company culture — a job, he says, that involves plenty of icebreakers. (His favorite is a game he calls “pick-a-penny”: everyone grabs a coin out of a bag and explains what they were up to the year it was minted.)

A well-done icebreaker, he says, will accomplish three things. The first is calming any nerves people may have about being in a new situation. “Everyone has this anxiety about speaking up in a group for the first time in a new setting. Icebreakers force people to speak up when the content of the response doesn’t really matter, so that eliminates or reduces that anxiety,” he explains. “There’s no right or wrong answers. You can tell me what your number-one thing to take on a desert island would be, and I’m not going to critique you on it.”

The second purpose is modeling behavior: The icebreaker sets the tone for how the rest of the session is going to go. Is the facilitator cool with interrupting and shouting things out? Then both are probably fine in the main event, too. Are they rigid about taking turns and waiting to be called on? It’ll probably be a more structured afternoon. If the icebreaker is being led by someone you’ll be interacting with over the long term — say, an RA — it may be a good indicator of what you’re in for. (They’re also a good way to model your own behavior, so to speak: Do you want to be seen as the funny one? Use your intro to tell a joke. Want to come off as smart or accomplished? Share a fact that reflects that. It’s an opportunity to control the first impression.)

And the third and most important purpose is encouraging people to talk about themselves. “That’s the foundation of relationships: self-disclosure,” he says. In new relationships, “we engage in self-disclosure over some period of time — typically lots of time — and icebreakers are simply meant to hasten that. They’re this opportunity to take what might happen naturally over several days or several hours and compress it into a few minutes.” Research backs this up: In one 1997 study, researchers were able to spark feelings of closeness between two volunteers by asking them to share things about themselves. At the end of the experiment, the pairs who engaged in self-disclosure described themselves as significantly closer than the pairs that engaged in small talk.

Susan Mohammed, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Penn State, says that the key to getting something out of an icebreaker is managing your expectations: At most, it’s just a start. It’s more like an ice-thawer. No one expects you to become best friends based on the two minutes you spend interviewing the person sitting to your left. No one expects you to trust someone with real, important things just because they caught you in a trust fall. “Icebreakers are generally a first step and they can be valuable in … getting people to know each other,” she says. “But in terms of group cohesion or deep levels of trust or psychological safety or an open climate, it’s just not going to be enough.”

Still, something has to get the ball rolling. “One of our theories of group formation, it starts with forming — that members have to get to know one another,” she says. That theory, known as Tuckman’s model, breaks group development into four stages: forming, in which group members begin to build trust, create a team identity, and start setting collective goals; storming, in which individual differences and conflicts emerge; norming, in which the group figures out how to resolve those conflicts and creates a greater sense of cohesion; and performing, in which everyone works together toward a common purpose. (There’s also a fifth, not-quite-rhyming phase, alternately known as mourning or adjourning, for when a group disbands.) Especially in a professional setting, she adds, “forming” can also be a way of building a transactive memory system — getting a sense of who knows what, so you know whom to rely on for different scenarios or parts of a project.

And even when the bonds it creates are superficial and temporary, both Villado and Mohammed say that an icebreaker can help to foster a sense of “psychological safety,” or an atmosphere in which people feel free to speak up — to question, criticize, say something out-there — without fear of being ostracized. “Having people do weird and crazy stuff, or step out and do something wild — having people feel kind of uncomfortable, basically — would begin to help foster that,” Mohammed says. You may hate every second of it, but you’re not the only one undergoing humiliation. If everyone in the room has to tell their life story in a silly voice, or mime their favorite thing to do on weekends, at least you all look stupid together.

Even the lowest, most cringe-inducing depths of silliness can still have a point, in other words. But the primary reason people hate icebreakers, Villado offers, is that most of them lack that sense of purpose. “I think part of it is people perceive that they’re not well thought out,” he says. “And nobody likes to sit through a meeting, a training, whatever it is, where it’s not purposeful, where someone hasn’t put time and effort into it.” At work, that’s time that could be used to cross more pressing things off your to-do list; in class, well, it’s hard to listen to the 15th person drone through name/major/hometown and not think those minutes would be better spent on sleeping in.

Another reason, Villado says, “is that we see what you’re trying to do. If I put you in a room with someone and say, ‘Get to know this person,’ it seems contrived and planned.”

“And of course it is. It is planned,” he adds. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.” He compares it to students’ reviews of their teachers, which have been shown to have little bearing on how much the students actually learned in the class. Similarly, “even if people don’t really enjoy the relationship-building that we’re trying to stimulate, trying to enhance here, it still works,” he says.

And one way to make people a little more engaged, Mohammed says, is to outline right off the bat what they’ll be doing, explain the goal of the icebreaker — are they there to build trust? learn something new about a person? figure out roles for a team? — and to reiterate those same points again once it’s all done.

“People want to know why this isn’t just a waste of time, or some goofy activity with no purpose,” she says. “Sometimes you do these and there’s no feedback [about] what happened here, what was the use of this, why was this worth investing in … to kind of debrief a little bit about where this went, and why it was valuable, can make a big difference.” You still don’t have to like it. But knowing why you’re stuck in this room with these strangers may make the whole thing just a little less painful. And anyway, if you do it right, at least you only have to do it once.