Relationships, both personal and professional, require conscious effort. At work, just like in our personal lives, we have to build trust with the people around us—our colleagues.
Managers have an important role to play, too. A TINYpulse report found that 93% of employees surveyed believed trust in their direct supervisor was the most important factor in workplace satisfaction. In other words, your team members need to get to know you too.
As a leader, your most important responsibility is building trust on your team. Without it, a team can't collaborate and can't achieve its goals.
“Building trust” may sound like a big and daunting mission—but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. There are small actions you can take with your team every day to prioritize connecting and building empathy with each other. One of my favorite ways to get to know teammates on a personal level is through team-building questions.
In this article, we’ll talk through what makes a productive team-building activity. I’ll share with you some of my favorite questions for team building, why I like them as a leader, and how each has helped me learn something new about my teammates. Before we get there, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about why team-building questions or icebreaker questions, as they’re often called, are so important.
The importance of team-building questions
Making time to grow together as a team
Big company events and virtual team-building activities—like learning how to make wood-fired pizza, a Zoom tarot reading, or the classic ropes course—are great ways to jumpstart or restart the team-building of a company, but these things alone won’t establish a foundation of trust. Believe it or not, icebreakers (those sometimes awkward questions you remember answering during conference breakout sessions, orientations, and onboardings) can help you and your team make great strides in establishing the sense of belonging that underlies all great teams.
These questions are powerful because they provide team members an opportunity to share small pieces of themselves. (This is how we begin to build trust.) Over time, these answers begin to paint a more complete picture of the unique individuals around us. And only by better understanding the people we work with can we hope to function as a healthy, high-performing team.
It’s been interesting to watch how something as simple as a question can morph into a powerful team bonding moment. They also seem to be most people’s favorite part of our meetings, perhaps because they also bring in more human moments of connection to the typical monotony of working from home. Icebreakers are especially important on a remote team because they can spark discussions that lead to deeper connections and more effective teamwork, even when in-person meetings aren’t an option.
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That’s why our team created Icebreaker—a free online tool with over 300 team-building questions designed to build trust, connectedness, and psychological safety. (It's also why we embedded automated team-building questions into Range.) We hope to share some of what’s been successful in strengthening our own team culture with others out there looking to do the same.
My favorite team-building questions
... and how they’ve brought me closer to my teammates
I tend to gravitate towards creative questions and ones that are good conversation starters.
In reflecting back, these are some of the favorites that really stand out for me.
Kids today will never understand the struggle of what?
What's the furthest away from home you've ever been?
When looking back at your youth, what was your silliest fear?
How do you recognize when you're stressed?
What's a passion of yours you've yet to act on?
Looking back, what do you admire most about your childhood self?
What's one misunderstanding that's happened on your team recently? How was it resolved?
The common thread running through each of these questions is that they all require a certain level of introspection. They ask you, as the team leader, and your teammates, to share a tiny bit of yourselves and your ideas—things you might not have considered sharing before or that you even thought relevant to the team and the work you're doing. It's this act of vulnerability that makes answering them so powerful.
Let’s unpack each of these a little further to understand why they work.
1. Kids today will never understand the struggle of what?
Why I like this team-building question: Talk about nostalgia. This is such a fun question, and it's a great one for bringing a little excitement and laughter to the start of a day or meeting. When I thought back into the time machine of my childhood history before Netflix, my family life, and my hobbies—dial-up internet, floppy disks, and trying to record mixtapes from the radio—the frustrations from my morning commute just disappeared.
What I learned about my teammates: I couldn't wait to see how my teammates answered this question, and I wasn't disappointed. I got a tiny glimpse into what my coworkers enjoyed or what they were like in their youth, and that told me a little about what they might enjoy today as adults. Someone who remembers waiting 30 minutes for a computer game to load, or waiting in line for hours for a movie or concert, or what their favorite book might be, might enjoy a nearby game story as a venue for our next one-on-one meeting. Like many team-building questions, it also leaves you with more potential conversation topics for the next time you come together.
2. What’s the furthest away from home you’ve ever been?
Why I like this team-building question: I went straight to a map to answer this question for myself, but this question isn't one that has to be answered literally (based on physical distance). It's up for interpretation—physical, psychological, or experiential distance and that's why I like this question so much.
What I learned about my teammates: “What is home?” someone asked. It sounds a bit flippant, but think about it. In the context of this question, how do you define home, and then how do you choose to interpret distance? Say San Francisco is home. Are you further away from home 6,000 miles away in Sydney (a place where you can easily navigate daily life thanks to a common language) or 3,000 miles away in a small village where communicating is a daily struggle?
3. When looking back at your youth, what was your silliest fear?
Why I like this team-building question: Some of my biggest fears as a kid are still going strong today well into adulthood. (I'm not afraid of the dark. You are!) Humans aren't designed to be rational. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that the people around us are human, too. That sameness between teammates is what this question begins to explore.
What I learned about my teammates: While I expected to read a response or two about ghosts, I was surprised to see that some of my colleagues took this team-building question as an opportunity to be vulnerable. Being different as a child is rarely a good thing. It's a very real fear many of us harbored. But as adults, being different is what makes us who we are and life interesting. I loved learning about my colleagues' personal growth here, and these responses were yet another point of commonality and connection we shared.
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4. How do you recognize when you’re stressed? Which activity will work to diminish it? Does a certain month trigger your anxiety? Which type of experience will make your mind and body react?
Why I like these team-building questions: The ways in which stress manifests with each of us and how we manage that stress has a direct impact on our team, our career, and our team's success. According to a Harvard Business Review article, stress makes us nearly 3 times as likely to leave our jobs, impairs our strategic thinking, and dulls our creativity. It is, of course, important for us as management, to be able to recognize when we are ourselves stressed, but sometimes we miss the signs. So imagine if your coworkers knew when your stress levels were beginning to rise and could help you prevent the impending hair pulling altogether.
What I learned about my teammates: When stress is on the horizon, some of us vigorously plan, some take a walk, and some make time to talk. This question helped me understand how I can best help my teammates during times of high stress. Maybe I'll suggest a walk-and-talk with one of my coworkers later this week.
5. What is a passion of yours you’ve yet to act on?
Why I like this team-building question: A seemingly simple question, this is an opportunity to share with your team some of the side projects you have (or wish you had) worked on over the years. If working to live wasn't a necessity, what else might you be doing with your time? At the very least, sharing your passions and dreams with your teammates will hopefully ensure you start receiving better gifts from them on special occasions.
What I learned about my teammates: A few people on your team are going to surprise you when you hear their answers to this question. I learned a lot about my teammates: what activities calm or center them; what issues or causes are important to them; and what they might be doing as an alternative career if they had the time. That last learning, in particular, made me think about how my coworkers might be able to tap into their passions through teamwork. How might we be able to make work even more interesting for them?
6. Looking back, what do you admire most about your childhood self? And what is your earliest childhood memory, as well as highlights?
Why I like these team-building questions: Get ready for even more introspection and vulnerability with this one. What I like about this question is that it prompted me to think about the person I once was, who I am today, and who I want to be. What qualities and/or values did I like about my younger self that I wish I exhibited today? And, if I could do it then, why not now? Perhaps my teammates might even see something in me I didn't realize was still there.
What I learned about my teammates: So many of our responses were so similar. That genuinely surprised me. As five-year-olds we were more confident, more fearless, and more carefree. But I thought the rest of my team charted much higher in these areas than me. Through this almost unconscious act of vulnerability, I learned that my teammates struggle with some of the same insecurities as me. We're all still growing, and through this question and ensuing chat I learned we're growing together as participants. For instance, a question like “What’s your favorite song, and why?” will often reveal not just music, but an event and significant memory someone holds along with it.
7. What’s one misunderstanding that’s happened on your team recently? How was it resolved?
Why I like these team-building questions: This one's a doozy, or at least it can be. In one response, honesty, vulnerability, and introspection were all being asked of me. And to top it off, I had to do all of that while talking about a misunderstanding (How do I even define that?) between myself and a team member (not just someone at my company). But that's the mark of a strong team: psychological safety, a foundation of trust and understanding that allows you to openly discuss and work through your misunderstandings, small or large.
What I learned about my teammates: I found the responses of my team ran the gamut when it came to the scale of the misunderstandings they described. In some instances, a review of someone's progress was enough to resolve a small misunderstanding about a product design element. In another, an intense and perhaps difficult conversation was required to work through roles in meetings, gender dynamics, and how teammates interacted with one another. In the end, working through these misunderstandings or conflicts helped us all show up more as a team. While building trust on a team does require intention, it doesn't have to mean huge behavioral shifts or expensive team off-sites. Instead, you can do small activities or chats with your team each day that builds teamwork and increases everyone’s level of trust over time.
While building trust on a team does require intention, it doesn't have to mean huge behavioral shifts or an expensive company event or off-site. Instead, you can do small activities with your team each day that build trust over time.
60 Team-Building Questions To Use Right Now
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Download these 60 team-building questions to share with your team.
Get to know your team
How was your weekend? What did you do?
What does your name mean?
You’re stranded on a desert island. What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without?
What’s the last dream that you remember?
What categories of trivia are you the best at?
Movies & TV
What have you read or watched recently and enjoyed?
What’s one of your all-time favorite movies?
If you could make a guest appearance in a TV show, which show would it be?
When was the last time someone spoiled a film or TV show for you?
What’s the last TV show that you binged on?
What’s for lunch today?
What should be M&M’s next new color or flavor?
What is your favorite meal?
What food do you hate the most?
What helps you wake up: coffee, tea, or something else?
Feelings and Fears
How are you feeling today?
How would you describe your personality to a new friend?
What did you get into the most trouble for as a kid?
Are you afraid of heights?
Have you ever taken a personality test? What did you learn?
Spotlight on vulnerability and gratitude
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When was the last time you asked a teammate for help? What happened?
If you had to move to a different country, where would you go? What would you miss?
What professional skills would you like to develop next?
What’s one skill that you’ve improved in the last year? How did you do it?
What seemingly tiny thing are you especially grateful for?
What’s a part of your job that you particularly enjoy?
Who has helped make your job easier recently? What did they do?
What’s one thing you enjoy about your home or neighborhood?
What’s a simple pleasure you enjoyed this week?
What are two ways in which you express your gratitude?
Think of the last meaningful “thank you” that you received. What was it?
What’s one moment of success you experienced this week?
What’s your favorite charitable or non-profit organization? Why?
What do you want to do more of in the new year?
Is there anything you want to do less of in the new year?
What does your ideal workday look like?
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
What’s your current state of mind?
In your own words, how would you describe what your team does?
Dealing with the sudden shift to virtual teams
If you could choose your own working hours, would you be a night owl, early bird, or something in-between?
Where, outside of work, do you get your best ideas?
What distractions prevent you from doing your best work?
When was the last time you were so into your work that time flew by?
Outside of work, what activity makes you lose track of time?
Resolving new culture challenges as a result of a merger or buyout
What song or artist have you been listening to lately?
What was a real-life situation where you stood up for someone or something?
What conditions help you feel comfortable when engaging in conflict?
What was the last team decision that felt like it took too long? Why did it take so long?
How do you feel about conflict? How do you react to conflict with others?
Balancing work, family, and a global health threat
What is your favorite walk, hike, or bike ride?
What are you excited about this week? What are you worried about?
When you’re feeling stressed, how do you deal with it?
How do you recognize when you’re stressed?
How much does your workload change from week to week? How do you feel about that?
Ironing out issues around new power structures and those learning how to become managers
What would you rather hear first, good news or bad news?
Think of a time when feedback felt like a gift. Why did it feel that way?
Think of a time when feedback was NOT helpful to you. What went wrong?
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would you say?
How do you ensure the feedback you give is candid, and not overly critical or overly polite?
Leadership tip: Get to know your team on a personal level.
"One thing that I've employed with my reports is setting aside time with them remote or in person that is not about work. We'll talk about random stuff in our lives, what we're up to. That kind of stuff helps to create first and foremost a trusting environment where we get to know each other on the human level.”
How people react to art is a great category of questions to explore. What’s your favorite quote from a movie? or What’s a current trend you find interesting? — these questions can offer a glimpse into what makes them work and can help you understand the way they think about challenges and new ideas.
Questions about personal and preferences can also be illuminating. Are you a cat person? A dog lover? A morning person or night person? What is your favorite food? Do you have a favorite sports team? What’s your favorite band or genre of music? Do you play a musical instrument? What’s your favorite board game? What’s your secret talent or hobbies? What are your favorite family traditions? Do you have a dream job? Is there a historical figure or artist who you admire, and why? Which cartoon character or fictional character embodies qualities that you admire? Compile a list of solid get-to-know-you questions that build knowledge and camaraderie on your team.
And, don't underestimate humor—funny team building questions are sure to bring memorable answers. What’s the weirdest food you've ever experienced? What was your worst haircut? What would be your ideal superpower? As an entertainer, what would be your entrance theme song? Embrace funny questions and let the good times roll.
It’s important to create a safe space around team-building questions too. Folks need to know that they’re not being graded or judged through these chats. There’s no smartest person or wrong answers. Questions shouldn’t put co-workers in competition with each other—they’re meant to build camaraderie. One thing is certain: regardless of the responses, teamwork builds when there is goodwill within the team members and participants.
The right questions can prompt very real and very powerful shifts in the ways we think and the dynamics of our teams. Team-building questions aren't all about posing deep philosophical questions; they're about being open and honest. They’re even about having fun. That's how you get to know your team. Even the silliest questions can help members of your team open up, share more of themselves, and bring everyone closer together.
How Range Elevates Your Work
Bring team-building questions into the flow of work
The best way to get past the awkwardness of icebreakers is to integrate them into your daily flow of work.