The Mermaid and the seashell bra…The tale of an icebreaker gone wrong.
Updated: Apr 15
Who does not love an ice breaker?
You know the exercises designed to open people up and get them ready to collaborate, learn and grow.
But what happens when they go wrong?
This is a tale of one that went so wrong that Amy Mauser and I still use it as a punch line over 5 years after it happened.
The Region Director in the organization we worked at had put together an all-chapter meeting. Teams came from all over to participate. Luckily, we just had to drive 45 minutes away. When everyone arrived, we were asked to sit with folks from other chapters we did not know.
The meeting started with an icebreaker…If you were an animal, what type would you be??
Now, discuss your answer with the person you are sitting next to and then together you will share your choices and why it describes you.
The presentations started well. I am a lion because I am brave, and my partner is a cheetah because they move fast. I am an Owl because I am smart-I am a Dolphin as I am friendly.
I think you have the picture.
About halfway through the presentations, one of Amy and my team members got up to speak. ) She was very new to our team, so we did not know what was coming!)
And she says…I want to be a mermaid (Yes, not a real animal) so I can wear a shell bra to work.
As my dad used to say-The silence was deafening!
You can only assume that at least half the room was now picturing their co-worker in a shell bra, and the other half were wondering exactly what her special trait was.
And just maybe both Amy and I spontaneously grew gray hair.
What to avoid to keep your ice breaker from going BAD (aka-how to avoid your own personal Mermaid)
1. Be clear on your goals (and instructions) for an icebreaker and design it to get the information you are looking to uncover
2. Don’t make people share anything too personal That ends up shutting people down, NOT opening them up
3. Don’t take too long: Your teams are smart- This may be fun-but if it takes too long, it becomes a time waster
4. Try not to put people on the spot- You may end up alienating shyer team members, embarrassing folks, causing division
5. Don’t do what everyone else does (in other words, don’t ask what animal they would be)- Do what will work for your team and have them feel good about participating (and have FUN)
What to do-
1. Ask simple questions that reveal interesting information about people but do not require anyone to share overly personal information.
2. Have people talk one-on-one. A common weakness of most icebreakers is that it tries to get everyone to get to know everyone else, which dilutes the interactions.
3. Introduce elements of friendly competition, especially in groups. Competing against other groups helps participants bond with their own group. And who does not like prizes!
4. Be interactive and active ... Think about having the group move around the space in some way; So, to quote the ring-tailed lemur in Madagascar the movie- You got to move it, move it---’
5. Make the questions/exercises fit the team…Don’t ask a group of Athletes what their favorite recipe is---not to say athletes can’t cook!
Remember that the icebreaker is there to set up something more important. And the goals are to include everyone and to make them feel part of a team.
A GREAT Ice-breaker Story-
I was on a board for a local organization. Every November, when there was a “board retreat.” This four-hour meeting was not so much a retreat and more of a get to know each other and share a meal meeting. The board included folks from 40-90 years old.
Here is how it went—
Write down on a small piece of paper something that no one knows about you and don’t include your name. The board chair then collected all the answers and put them in a fishbowl. She then read them, and you had to guess who it was.
· was a child prodigy. I played the violin at Carnegie Hall
·I am one of 10 children
·My grandfather invented the automatic transmission
·I was adopted and met my birth mother last year
·I was a Vice President of IBM in the 1970s
Why was this so good?
·Each participant got to share something they were comfortable with (and proud) sharing, no pressure
·It gave the entire board some really cool knowledge of the individuals on the board.
·It created a personal connection with a group who mostly did not know each other outside the commitment they all had to the nonprofit
·t was quick, simple, and successful
·I learned that the 90-year-old man, who we all found very grumpy, was a giant of industry and ought to be listened to despite his occasional sour presentation.
After this exercise, I often stayed after the meeting to chat with him after this session. He had so much he could teach me-and he did-Thank you, Walter!
What to spend some one-on-one time with Team Kat & Mouse discussing the best icebreaker for your team?
We are nonprofit consultants with a passion for making your team shine (and raise more funds!)