Breaking the ice with a new group of coworkers is awkward by nature, but some bosses make it even worse than it has to be.
Recently, u/ivyslayer took to Reddit to share what happened when their manager's idea of an icebreaker crossed basically every line there is. They wrote, "Manager asked us to share something difficult about our childhoods for 'team bonding.' What ensued was deeply uncomfortable."
They went on to share that one coworker wept during the meeting and described experiencing childhood sexual abuse. "Another shared that her mother died of cancer. It's one thing to gradually learn more about someone over time. It's another thing to force trauma bonding. I don't need to know the depths of someone's past experiences to work well with them. It's a workplace. Not a 'family.' Worst. Icebreaker. Ever."
The post has been upvoted more than 25,000 times, and there are 1.8k comments talking about this walking red flag of a work activity.
Some people pointed out exactly why asking these kinds of questions at work is simply not okay.
"There are so many ways this is a terrible idea. Also, what happens if someone has severe (C)PTSD and gets triggered by someone else’s story and has a dissociative event? Work would potentially no longer be a safe space for them. WTAF?!?! What’s wrong with sharing positive things to break the ice? I’m a big fan of 'what is your favorite condiment' or 'the coolest place you’ve ever been.' This is not okay."
You don't know what your employees have been through, and it's frankly not your business.
"Some peoples' 'difficult childhoods' are way different than others. Don't ask your employees intrusive questions!!"
Some pointed out that while trauma-informed leadership has been on the rise, this "icebreaker" is certainly NOT that.
"I’m a grant writer at a community college. I wrote a Dept. of Ed grant to make our campus trauma-informed. Trauma-informed practices was the subject of my final Master’s degree research project. I may not be a true 'expert,' but I did a good bit of research into trauma-informed practices, so I feel qualified enough to say that — holy SHIT — forcing employees to disclose trauma with their colleagues is a very trauma-UNinformed thing to do."
Other managers chimed in to say that they've been explicitly told NOT to say or do things like this.
"As a manager, I had training to NOT do anything remotely like this: no ‘most embarrassing moment’ or ‘past experience’ stories. Exactly for this reason. You guys have an actionable complaint."
And one person shared the first and only icebreaker that actually appeals to me.
"My new favorite icebreaker is: 'Forget fun facts, everyone share a boring fact about themselves.'
It takes the pressure off, and can only turn out well. When you ask for 'fun' facts, there's an expectation that they come up with something exciting. If their thing isn't interesting enough, they feel bad.
If they fuck up a boring fact and give a fact that actually is interesting, they feel good about themselves."
Others shared how they would handle this absolutely bonkers situation.
"When I was young, I used to have this friend named Adam. We were really close. He lived only two houses down. We rode bikes across town together and played lots of video games. We both obsessed over this game 1080° Snowboarding on the N64. We spent an entire summer beating each other's high scores. Then, one day his family moved away, and I never saw or spoke to him again. That was my first time learning about people coming into and leaving your life.
That whole thing was made up. Complete lie. It would be my answer."
And some people shared how they would professionally set a boundary around this weird and invasive question.
"I honestly wouldn’t even lie. I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not comfortable discussing this with my work colleagues’ and stand my ground. They don’t get this sort of information from me without my enthusiastic consent."
One person offered a creative, AI-powered solution.
"Get ChatGPT to knock out something heartwarming yet traumatic. Sniff believably and look somber."
Quite a few people pointed out that this icebreaker question feels a bit like something that a cult might do — and they're not wrong.
"This sounds like when a cult, at your initiation, gets dirt on you to hold over your head later and manipulate you."
Last year, I interviewed former NXIVM cult member Debora Giannone, who reached out to me after I ran a post about cult-like workplaces. Debora shared that seeing others in NXIVM being super open about their lives and experiences made her open up faster than she typically would — and looking back, she sees how this was used to manipulate her. She told me, "You feel like, 'They love me, they understand me,' but at the same time, they push your limits. It's a very subtle thing."
And sadly, quite a few people shared that something similar has happened to them at work.
"Ugh. I’m a teacher, and I’ve experienced this, too. Like, I love that schools are becoming trauma-informed and helping kids with emotional regulation, but the professional development time used to teach us about this stuff should not include making us talk about our personal family trauma. Just tell me what I need to know for my job, and I’ll talk about my trauma with my therapist."
Like, what are these companies thinking???
"I work for a large company that did this. They said we wouldn’t be able to trust and connect with each other if we didn’t share something vulnerable. Some people did, and I feel bad for them, but a lot of us just went very superficial. We had toxic management with a vile leader."
And this story... my blood pressure is skyrocketing.
"My old manager did this at the beginning of COVID lockdowns to try to get the team 'more engaged' while working virtually. I don’t like 'ice breakers' to start with because there’s almost always going to be someone who feels 'othered' based on the question. When she got into the trauma bonding shit, I said I didn’t like being called out to share publicly, and she wrote me up for bullying. Still can’t figure that nonsense out."