How to use Icebreakers to Create Psychological Safety
Most of us will be used to the idea of icebreakers that are used in meetings or group sessions where not all the participants know each other, and are a good way to increase the psychological safety of a team or space. There is, however, so much more to icebreakers than just getting to know new people.
Primarily, they create a “known” space – where we know who’s present in the “room” (virtual or otherwise), that helps to facilitate psychological safety.
Icebreakers also set the tone of the space – is it serious or light hearted, collaborative or broadcast, formal or informal? Icebreakers set the tone so that we know how to behave, and what to expect of the behaviour of others in the space.
Icebreakers aren’t just for groups who are unfamiliar with each other though. Even in a group who already work together and know each other, icebreakers increase psychological safety, engagement and contribution from all members of the team. Icebreakers can be imagined to help people and teams move through the Four Stages of Psychological Safety.
They can also function as “energisers” – which is particularly important when all teams are remote or when you need to raise the energy in a room if the team have been working for some time already.
Particularly in virtual and remote environments, icebreakers provides an opportunity to carry out a technical check so that everyone can hear and be heard.
Of particular note – evidence shows that if people don’t speak in the first few minutes, they are much less likely to speak at all. So icebreakers used in the first five minutes will increase the likelihood that people will speak up, present their ideas, or challenge the ideas of others, much later in the meeting.
Here are some icebreaker ideas:
I’m good, they’re good.
This is a great way of increasing the psychological safety and strength in an existing team who already know and work with each other. The leader starts, and you say one thing that you’re good at. For example, in my case, I might choose mountain biking, yoga, or public speaking. Once you’ve said that, you choose someone in the room and describe something they’re good at. For example, I might say “Chris – he’s an excellent graphic designer and I’m always impressed with his designs.” Then Chris would go next, and it continues around the table.
What I had for breakfast.
Easy, quick, inclusive and simple. Particularly good for early morning meetings, and for geographically distributed teams because what people have for breakfast in other countries is always interesting!
How tall am I?
If you’ve never met in person, and only see each other on video calls, we have no idea how tall our colleagues are. Set up a Jamboard or chat and try to guess how tall each person is before they announce it.
This sounds easy, but it really isn’t! Simply count from 1 and up sequentially – someone starts with “1”, and someone has to say “2”, and so on, but you’re not allowed to confer, plan or discuss. If two people collide, you start again. Our record is a measly 7.
Where do you want to go on holiday and why?
Everyone likes a good holiday. This is good if you’re trying to lighten the mood, but might not be as good to bring teams towards a highly focussed state! Be conscious that not everyone may be able to afford to go on holiday, or they may have responsibilities that prevent them from doing so, so use this one with discretion.
Childhood photos – guess who the child is.
This needs a little preparation beforehand, but is really fun and helps to build team cohesion and psychological safety. Simply find some old childhood or baby photos and share them on a virtual whiteboard or slide deck, or print them out and have them on the table. Pick one at a time and try to guess who it is.
[Edit: after discussion on the Psych Safety Community, we surfaced some concerns with the childhood photos practice that may be harmful or triggering for trans team members or for those who suffered childhood abuse (thanks for the insights Adrian Howard). I’m leaving the suggestion here because it’s still a valid use case, but it’s important to consider the potential impact of certain types of icebreaker questions.]
What’s the weather like?
Such a typical British question (and I can say this because I’m British and we talk about the weather all the time), but it’s low risk and easy to answer. This is useful for distributed teams, especially widely distributed across different countries.
What other icebreakers do you use with your team? Which ones do you find create more psychological safety?
For more resources on how to build psychological safety in your organisations, download the Psychological Safety Action Pack.