Cari Room has written an article this week for New York magazine titled, "Icebreakers Are Terrible. They Also, Unfortunately, Work Really Well." She interviews former Rice University Anton Villado in the article. Villado argues that icebreakers accomplish three important things for a group:
- They calm people's nerves about being in an unfamiliar or novel situation.
- They also provide an opportunity for the facilitator to model the behavior that people should expect throughout the session, and/or the behavior he or she would like to encourage. Team members also can model behavior, providing that all-important first impression about themselves.
- Most importantly, they provide an opportunity for self-disclosure. People grow closer to one another when they share about themselves. Research shows that self-disclosure proves more effective at building relationships than simple small talk.
Penn State Professor Susan Mohammed explains in the article that icebreakers can begin to build psychological safety within a group. Room writes,
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.
Mohammed stresses, however, that one should set the appropriate expectations for icebreakers. They can begin to build psychological safety, but much more work needs to be done to create a climate where people truly feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions, admitting mistakes, and expressing dissent. I agree wholeheartedly. Ultimately, psychological safety will be shaped by how people begin to engage with one another as they work to solve real problems. Moreover, if the team has a leader, that person will have a substantial impact on the climate of psychological safety. Icebreakers can be helpful, but you have to build upon that "risk-taking" atmosphere with concrete actions that make people comfortable speaking up on real issues.