Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ice Breakers

Ah, greetings, beloved readers!  Today, I am going to write about ice breakers.  But I'm going to do it in a round about way, with many digressions and clever twistings and turnings and timey-wimey nonsense, so please relax while I meander a bit.

The topic of ice breakers came up when one of my wonderful friends posted a request for suggestions for good ones for some sort of workshop she was organizing.  Or running.  Or afflicting upon her colleagues.  Now, if you have ever been employed by a Big Corporation or by a Small Corporation that wants to Play Big, then you have probably been coerced into attending such a workshop.  It undoubtedly had a title with the word development in it, and the memo about it may well have contained the words mandatory for all employees.

Let's be honest, if you could get out of these workshops, you would.  They take up time better spent on almost anything else.  So why are you here?

Why You Are Attending a Developmental / Employer-Sponsored Workshop Instead of Getting Actual Work Done:
  • You are a new employee and have been fooled by the enthusiastic presentation of your boss into thinking that you will learn something new and important that will make you a better employee and possibly even a better person.  It will take approximately 18 minutes for you to discover your error.
  • Your apartment is being fumigated today, and your attempt to hide in your office failed.
  • You have been paid to be here, possibly even given transportation and hotel money to show up if the workshop is in Another City.  You will spend the morning plotting to get a bout of food poisoning so that you can go explore Another City.
  • You need to kiss your boss's posterier because she suspects that you're the one responsible for the Incident with the stapler last week.  And she's right.
  • All employees were required to come, and your spouse refused to run over your foot with the car this time.  You will spend most of the workshop contemplating getting a new spouse.
  • You heard there would be free lunch. 
Fortunately for me, my current employer, Wofford College*, has never forced me to attend a workshop or a seminar or a lock-in or any other hours-to-days-long event at which I have been lectured and power-pointed at by a marginally effective motivational speaker.  This is one of many reasons why I intend to chain myself to my desk rather than leave Wofford for any other job.  I have attended such workshops, however, primarily, of course, for the free lunch.**

I'm sure everyone's forgotten about the stapler incident.

Now, if you've found yourself subjected to such workshops, then you know that there are several approaches one can take towards enduring the experience.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to go up to the speaker and ask for a bibliography of published work on the workshop topic, so that you can head off to the library to read and then take the afternoon off.  You know, as if you're literate.  That would be rude.

So you have to stay and be power-pointed at for several hours and / or days.  Generally, you will find yourself surrounded by a predictable cast of characters, and all you need to do is decide which role you will assume.

The Cast of Characters at a Developmental Workshop

Ms. Sincerity:  she is a True Believer and will spend the workshop making enthusiastic cooing noises whenever the speaker pauses.  Her eyes will widen at the insights she receives, and she will nod so enthusiastically that you will wonder if she is a live bobblehead doll.  Ms. Sincerity is generally the same person who gives you the side-eye for carrying an unauthorized cup of coffee out of the employee dining room.

Curmudgeon:  pays strict attention to the speaker, and repeatedly demands to know the source of any statistics.  Remembers, in detail, the information conveyed at the last twenty workshops and is willing to challenge the current speaker to explain any inconsistencies.   Often capable of expressing him- or herself with remarkably mobile eyebrows.

Doodler:  says little, draws much.  The doodler has probably taken something before the event, like a benadryl or a shot of whiskey, and is content to let the workshop flow around him or her while quietly writing up lecture notes or a grocery list.  If asked for an opinion, will probably answer, "I really need to think about that for a while," before going back to doodling.

Hostile Whisperer:  refuses to engage with the speaker, but keeps up a steady stream of rage-filled commentary audible only to his nearest colleagues.  Likely to snap pen in half at some point.

Smart Ass:  responds to the speaker and fellow workshop participants with witticisms and, if given the opportunity, completely irrelevant stories.  Prone to sudden bursts of logic that confuse the speaker mightily.

Social Butterfly:  does not care about the workshop, but does care about hanging with colleagues, and will turn any break out session into an opportunity to "catch up" on everyone's lives outside of work.  Can be persuaded to fetch coffee for the group.

I have played all of these roles at various times, my wonderful readers, except Ms. Sincerity which is clearly too much of a stretch for an untrained thespian such as myself.

This brings us, at long last, to the subject of this post, and, incidentally, the audience participation portion.  Many of these workshops, in addition to being tedious tests of endurance, begin with the dreaded ice breaker activity.  Under the misguided assumption that workshop participants want to get to know one another better before the workshop proper begins, you will often be asked to do an exercise designed to make the audience relax and engage with one another.

Note:  the fact that serving a tray of mimosas and doughnuts before starting would have the same effect as an ice breaker is apparently an unreasonable suggestion and evidence of not being team player.

Traditional ice breaker activities range from interviewing one of your fellow workshop victims and introducing him or her to the group, to watching the speaker do a memory trick to memorize everyone's first name and some embarrassing personal characteristic that you would rather they not mention, thank you very much.  Even worse versions involve trust exercises and inappropriate gazing into one another's bloodshot eyes.

Frankly, everyone except Ms. Sincerity hates ice breaker activities, and would rather just get on with things, but every workshop seems to be required to start with one, so here are my suggestions for improving this painful and embarrassing part of a workshop.  Feel free to use these in your next mandatory workshop / seminar.

New and Better Ice Breaker Activities
  • The Literal Ice Breaker:  Bring out a sheet of ice in a plastic children's swimming pool.  Give everyone three small bean bags, and let them hurl the bags at the ice until someone shatters it.  That person is permitted to leave the workshop immediately.
  • The Morale Booster:  Divide into groups of three or four and have each group make a guess at the difference in salary between the lowest and the highest paid employee.  
  • Office Chair Test:  Divide into teams of five and issue each team an office chair.  The kind that spins around. Force the most junior employee into the chair and spin it until that employee vomits.  Last to vomit gets an extra brownie at lunch.
  • Getting to Know You:  Draw five names from a hat, and have the company's tech guy project their facebook, twitter or instagram pages onto a large screen.   Conduct subsequent breakout sessions on the professional use of social media and our friend the comma.
  • Aerodynamic Bonding:  Divide into pairs and issue each pair five pieces of construction paper, twenty paper clips, and six rubber bands.  Give everyone twenty minutes to construct five paper airplanes and launch them at coworkers.  The team with the most hits gets an end-of-year bonus.
 Alright, these are my suggestions, and I'm certain that they will enliven any workshop or seminar into which you wander.  But you, precious readers, are far more creative than you give yourselves credit for.  Send me more suggestions for New and Better Ice Breaker Activities, and I will add the best of them to this blog!
*I do not normally name Wofford on this blog, as it is a real institution of higher learning that deserves the right to treat my ramblings with plausible deniability.
**I should also point out that I have attended productive and interesting workshops, led not by paid speakers, but by my colleagues on topics directly relevant to my job wherein I have actually learned things.  These workshops are not the subject of this blog post.


  1. Office Bingo: Distribute bingo cards with common motivational phrases such as "lean in" in the squares; each time the speaker utters the phrase, place a duly requisitioned Post-It™ on the square. The first one to BINGO jumps to the top of the queue for an office with a window. If the person already has a window office (yeah, right), s/he may bestow the prize on whichever colleague s/he chooses, providing another avenue whereby employee relationships may be enhanced (see also The Morale Booster, above).

  2. Participants are given blank nametags, then spin a Wheel of Fortune with descriptors, and write whatever they come up with on their turn. Examples: Annoyed; Keep Your Distance; Couldn't Get Conveniently Sick or Disabled; Just Here for the Free Lunch; You Can Check Out, But You Can Never Leave; Ich Bin Der Geist Der Stets Verneint; If You Don't Know My Name By Now, Fuck Off. Participants are allowed to trade tags to get one most appropriate to their state of mind.