The Danger of Team-Building Activities and Ice-Breakers
This is a list of ice-breaker questions or activities I’d recommend avoiding and why.
Culture change is all the rage these days (which I am ALL for, don’t get me wrong), but the best of intentions can have unintended consequences.
One of the ways managers, teams, companies, organizations, etc. try to create team cohesion and increase morale are harmless-seeming activities and ice-breakers — most often found on lists online or recommended by a co-worker who “did that one once and had a great time!” But, so many of these exclude more of your employees than you likely realize.
This is a list of ice-breaker questions or activities I’d recommend avoiding and why. It is definitely not exhaustive, but is here to give you an idea of potential negative effects from these commonly used questions and activities.
- “What’s your favorite childhood memory?” / anything personal about childhood
So many people have childhood trauma. Maybe they no longer speak to their families, maybe their childhood home life was abusive or toxic. Some people work really hard to forget or process their childhood memories, so being asked to dig that up, make something up, or not answer altogether while hearing about others’ rose-colored childhoods is a tough position to put a person in. This can also be a tricky question for any trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming folks since their childhood memories could be very gendered and would put them in a situation where they might have to decide whether or not to out themselves to the larger group.
- “What was the first thing you purchased with your own money?” / ”What was the last thing you returned?” / any questions related to money
I saw these on a list of unique & creative ice-breaker questions recently and I wanted to scream “NO!” at my computer. Money and finances is an extremely personal topic. While you might think this is a safe topic on a team of employees that all make comparable salaries, for example, what people have to and choose to do with that income is personal and likely extremely varied. They could be going through a divorce, paying bills for family members in care, have an addiction problem, etc. None of which is the group’s business unless that person opts to share. If you add childhood to it (ex. first thing you purchased), that adds in the complications of the childhood questions above.
- “Who was your first/current/weirdest/most embarrassing celebrity crush?” / anything about attraction or love
Asking employees to share something about crushes raises about a million red flags for the LGBTQIA+ community. Sharing someone you are attracted to can require someone to out themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc. And, for employees who identify as asexual, they might not have an answer to this question at all. LGBTQIA+ folks should be able to come out if and when they want in any setting, including professional settings. Pro tip: Don’t assume you know the orientation of your employees or co-workers, even if you think you’re pretty sure.
- “Everyone bring in/send in a baby photo/photo of you in college and we’ll guess who is who!” / any “guess that person” photo game from various life stages
This one is my ultimate inclusivity nightmare when it comes to ice-breakers; it poses so many potential landmines. Baby photos can be hard to obtain for people who have lost parents, are estranged from their family, or were adopted as an older child. A younger photo can show a gender expression that doesn’t match the person’s actual gender in the case of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folks. Someone may not have attended college/high school at the “socially expected” age, or at all. The quality/coloring on a baby photo (grainy, sepia, black & white, etc.) can show the age of a person, which can be especially tough if there is an outlier or two in the group, either younger or older. And if there is only one person of a specific racial or ethnic group in the group, a baby photo reduces them to their race or ethnicity. (Or if there are only two, I’m sure it feels great to be mixed up.)
- Privilege Walks
I am guilty of this one. I thought this was a great idea for an upcoming allyship training I was helping to put together and a good friend of mine explained why these are the worst. (If you haven’t heard of this term before, here is an example to get the idea.) He told me that he once attended a privilege walk activity and was the only black person in the group. He ended up at the back, denoting he had the “least privilege” in the room. He didn’t get anything out of the activity — he already knew all of this. His role, it was painfully clear, was to be the lesson for all of the white people in the room. He told me he would never attend an activity like that ever again.
- Anything involving touching each other
When I write it like this, it probably seems obvious. But this includes trust falls, human knots, and other activities that (thankfully) seem to be falling out of favor. Touching others can be extremely triggering for people or just uncomfortable because of their personal space preferences. Either way, never put someone in a situation where they have to touch another person without clear consent. If you’re really set on doing something like this, get formal consent from all people involved ahead of time in a manner that they doesn’t make them feel pressured to agree (ex. group conversation, group email/chat, sharing they are the reason the activity isn’t happening).
Instead of potentially creating a non-inclusive, or even downright toxic, environment with a harmless-seeming question or activity, I’d recommend a couple things to try:
- Stay broad with your questions
Instead of picking a specific question that’s hard to avoid or navigate, try something like, “What’s your favorite book, movie, or TV show from the past year? And if you feel comfortable sharing, why?”
- Let people answer with professional context if they want
“What is one thing you are proud of this year?” is a question that lends itself nicely to either a personal or professional answer. Employees can share wins without disclosing any more of their personal lives than they’d like, but those who are comfortable sharing personal wins easily can.
- Make it clear that people only have to share what they are comfortable with
If you’re asking for something ahead of time, make sure to add that the activity is optional or provide an alternative. If you’re providing questions in the moment, let people opt out. Even better, send the questions out in advance and provide a way for people to anonymously veto beforehand.
- Give people an easy out
All of these situations can be tough for people for a variety of ways and there’s no way to know every possible way questions or activities will affect anyone. A great rule of thumb is to give everyone a way out. And a way out that doesn’t draw attention. Clarify that any person can opt out of any question/activity and that no one can be pressured to participate. Share out the activity ahead of time so if someone raises concerns, let them miss that portion of the day or meeting. They can run to the bathroom or take a call if they know what’s coming without raising too many eyebrows or feeling uncomfortable or called out.
A colleague of mine just set up an ice-breaker activity for our team by asking us each to send a photo that means something to us that we feel comfortable sharing and telling the story of. This is a great example of an activity that doesn’t force anyone to share something they don’t want to, doesn’t force any topics that could exclude people, and can still let people share, learn from each other, and grow closer.
These are recommendations from my experience. I know I’m missing many more, but I hope this list provides context when you’re searching for or brainstorming your next team-building activity. Consider how each person who will be involved in this activity might react to it. Then think through all the things you probably don’t know about these people and consider it again. Remember that personal experiences, trauma, disabilities, orientation, socioeconomic status, and more are often unseen.
Ice-breakers and team-building activities can be beneficial and positive, but make sure they are beneficial and positive to as many people involved as possible and that no one leaves feeling worse than they did when they came in.