Tom Brind, Curriculum Director at Common Purpose / 05 July 2023

Are icebreakers cringe or character building? The surprising truth about the infamous workplace exercise

Some may dismiss them as cringe-worthy or trivial, others swear by them. Here's what actually happens when you bring them into the workplace.


Imagine a frozen lake teeming with skaters, gracefully gliding across its sturdy surface. The thick layer of ice allows them moments of simple pleasure. However, hidden below that frozen sheet lies the true essence of the lake—a complex ecosystem of life and vitality. Yet, to the skaters above unaware of what lies beneath, it might as well be invisible.

When it comes to connecting with others, "breaking the ice" takes on various meanings. But in its essence, breaking the ice means moving beyond superficialities and delving deeper—whether it's making friends, getting closer to colleagues, or even addressing a challenging situation. It's about discovering the authentic aspects that make someone who they are; their passions, motivations, and past experiences. It's about understanding the person beneath that solid exterior and going below the surface to forge genuine connections. 

So, while some may dismiss them as cringe-worthy or trivial, icebreaker activities can play a crucial role in developing and leading an effective team. In our programmes, we often work with leaders who are grappling with the challenge of fostering deeper connections between and across teams. And as they have open, frank and often surprising conversations with fellow participants, forming supportive peer group in the process, the role icebreakers have played in helping them connect so quickly becomes apparent.

What are the benefits of ice breakers? 

  • Icebreakers can empower individuals to drop their guard and be vulnerable with each other. This in turn fosters authentic connections and creates a safe space for individuals to share their true selves.
  • Ice breakers can spark curiosity between colleagues, which can ultimately inspire more constructive and purposeful questions across a team.
  • This leads to a better sense of trust and a deeper sense of understanding between colleagues, as well as more meaningful relationships and peer-to-peer learning.
  • They can also help to create a cohesive environment within teams in order to produce creative and innovative work.

How should I prepare an ice breaker exercise for my team?  

  • It’s important to take time to craft your ice breaker questions. They should be pitched to your team at a level that invites some vulnerability, but not so much that it might feel uncomfortable to answer.  
  • Expecting individuals to open up quickly can be very confronting without first ensuring elements of psychological safety. Humour helps, as does showing your own vulnerability.
  • In the same vein, prepare your own answers so you can role model the vulnerability that you’re asking of others, but do this succinctly.  You still want to leave as much space as possible for others to share.
  • As a manager or facilitator, it’s also important to be fully committed to, and immersed in, the exercise yourself. 

What are some productive ice breaker question examples?  

  • What brings you joy? 
  • What difference do you bring? (i.e. how some key moments in your life have shaped you, or made you unique) 
  • When have you been at your most creative? What happened? 
  • Whose leadership has made a difference in your life? How? 
  • What are 3 of your gifts or strengths? 
  • What is the story of your name? 
  • What have you appreciated this week / today? Why? 
  • Show a partner one photo from your phone and tell them about it 
  • Finish the sentence “If you really knew me, you’d know…” 

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to ice-breakers. Depending on your field of work, there might be some questions you’ll find to be more relevant and beneficial to your team. Others may surprise you.

But however you make it work for you and your team, embracing an icebreaker exercise can lead to a deeper understanding of the people you lead, which enables them to function better, and to deliver with purpose.





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