Did you spend first-days-of-school frantically coming up with the most perfectly cool way to describe yourself as an animal?

Welcome to the club.

However, I’d encourage you to reframe how you think about these exercises―after all, this information isn’t useless! It’s a way to get to know people, and while it can be uncomfortable and just plain awkward, it’s a first layer you’ll have to break through in order to form lasting relationships on your team.

At its core, this is what ice breakers are meant to do. ?

The research behind ice breakers

Jump straight to our list of ice breakers instead.

With how ubiquitous ice breakers can be at school, workplaces, and basically any situation where you meet a bunch of strangers at the same time—it’s natural to wonder, “okay, but do ice breakers actually break the ice?”

First off, let’s set some expectations. Ice breakers aren’t going to make everyone BFFs, and should just be considered a stepping stone to stronger relationships down the line.


You can trace this idea back to Tuckman’s Model, a theory that presents group formation as occurring in four stages:

  • Forming, where the group meets, share interests, and start identifying common goals
  • Storming, where problems and conflicts begin to arise
  • Norming, where the group is able to come up with solutions and become closer in the process
  • Performing, where the group efficiently and purposefully works toward a cohesive goal

The rhyming mechanism makes it especially easy to remember. ?

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on the Forming stage of Tuckman’s Model. It’s exactly what it sounds like—a group of people are meeting, sometimes for the first time, and it’s generally a space where individuals feel each other and possibly, their “roles” in subsequent meetings. Researchers in the organizational psychology space say that “icebreaker[s] 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.”

Now, it’s probably not the best idea to debate hot-button topics as an ice breaker. More commonly, establishing a psychologically-safe environment takes a much more low-stakes exercise: being silly together. Thus, the classic ice breaker is born.

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.
Cari Romm

Tip: recruit culture leaders


Have you ever looked around the room to see how other people react, before responding to a question?

I definitely have. ?

Even to the most obvious questions!

Truthfully, many people are too self-conscious to speak up first. All it takes is a few people to smooth the process, however, which is why it’s so important to pull aside some team members to guarantee their participation in your ice breaker.

Keep an eye out for and reach out to “culture leaders”—they may not be managers or supervisors, but they are often admired and well-liked within the company. They’ll be your culture evangelists. ?

These team members wield the “ice pick,” so to speak. Simply having an enthusiastic participant will go a long way in warming up the others and getting the interpersonal results you want. When you have your culture evangelists in place, it’s time to pick an activity!

10 activities to break the ice ?

1. Marshmallow challenge

There’s a reason why this classic challenge is so popular. Check out this enlightening TED Talk about the surprising insights this exercise can uncover: