There I was: going through orientation during my first week in college. I was scared, confused and more than a little stressed. But then again, so were the rest of the 100 or so students who were with me. I noticed on my in-processing checklist that an icebreaker was scheduled for 2:00 in the afternoon and attendance was mandatory.
The next thing I knew, the group I was in was subdivided into smaller groups of 20 individuals; and within minutes it seemed, we were all in a circle - alternating boy, girl, boy, girl, and trying to pass a balloon from one to the other! And it had to be done below the waist! Hey if college was going to be this fun, I had it made! I'm not sure at that tender enough age that I understood for sure what an icebreaker was, but I sure knew I enjoyed being sandwiched in between 2 attractive females!
Now maybe that's an icebreaker taken to the extreme. An icebreaker at the corporate level is a little more mundane. In fact many a corporate icebreaker I've attended and participated in have stressed leadership and teamwork and the icebreaker included blocks of icebreaker questions and other elements that weren't nearly as fun as that icebreaker I'd had in college nearly 6 years earlier!
This brings to mind the first corporate icebreaker I participated in. It took place on a weekend as to not interfere with the work schedule. We met up - a group of 15 employees - and we were told we were going on a 10 kilometer hike! This wasn't a suggestion. It was an order from the boss! So we went on a hike and each one of us had to carry a 5 pound brick. During the course of this hike we got thirsty, angry, tired and calloused! I'm not sure how this particular get-together created a spirit of camaraderie, but it was an icebreaker in every sense of the word!
Now you may chuckle reading about all this icebreaker nonsense, but there is a method to all it's madness that actually makes quite a bit of sense. In short, people in new situations keep their defenses up. A person's "personal space" is generally about 2 feet all around and in a new situation that's an area strictly adhered to. Try it sometime. Go into a bar or even a store and see how close you can get to another person while talking. Get into that personal space and it's like entering into "no man's land". A person will automatically back up or cross their arms - anything to keep their distance.
The beauty of the icebreaker is that it forces people to give up their personal space. An icebreaker makes individuals get close! It challenges people to ask ice breaker questions. Anything that makes their defense crumble. Now this may or may not be an enjoyable activity for some people! I personally like cutting right to the chase without all the meandering commentary that is normally used to "feel out" the person next to me.
An icebreaker also works on several different levels.
Depending on the activity, the icebreaker creates opportunities for natural leaders to rise to the top. You can literally see who your "hunters" and your "wood gatherers" are. And that's not a bad thing to know when you're working in a corporate environment!