Diversity Icebreaker CSR project in the Middle East

Since 2011, Bjørn Z. Ekelund (Human Factors AS, Norway) and Lilach Sagiv (Hebrew University, Israel) have studied application of the Diversity Icebreaker at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It is a part of a larger project aimed at documenting that the DI workshops has similar effects in the communities in the Middle East, as they have in Norway and other regions. Furthermore, plans have been made for training consultants and facilitators in three conflict resolution milieus in Israel and one in Palestine. One of the objectives of this action would be to evaluate the potential, added value of the Diversity Icebreaker in supporting conflict resolution processes. The project is also related to the International Organizations Network (ION: http://www.ion-network.net/home).

Human Factors AS has defined its contribution in the project as a CSR activity for the years 2011 – 2012 with a budged of approximately NOK 400 thousand, of which 20% is financed externally via the SkatteFUNN scheme by the Research Council of Norway.

As a part of this project 26 DI seminars have been conducted at the Hebrew University for a total of approx. 650 participants, in the years 2011-12. The participants were students at the University, whereof about 10% were of Arabic background, 20% were immigrant Jews, and 70% were Jews born and raised in Israel. Simultaneously, a systematic validation and evaluation of the DI in relation to other psychological concepts, was conducted.

The research continues into 2013 – so far two-thirds of the collected material has been analysed and some significant results has been observed pointing to that a DI seminar:

  • builds trust;
  • creates positive affect and reduces negative emotions;
  • enhances creativity;
  • enhances awareness of oneself in connection with others;
  • and gives equally good results regardless of whether the consultant is a first-time user, conducting the seminar in Hebrew or an experienced, international user using English.

The results also indicate that:

  • The DI categories of Red, Blue and Green yielded a similar relation pattern to the personality traits (NEO-PI-R) in Israel, as they had had in Norway.
    • There seems to be a relation between the DI categories and personal values (Schwartz).

This allows assuming that both values and personality influence a person’s preferences for Red, Blue or Green significantly

Additionally, Bjørn Z. Ekelund conducted a DI seminar for approx. 100 Palestinian participants in Ramallah, West Bank in 2012; and has experienced similar results (insight and humour we are familiar with in Norway). However, no written account of that seminar has been procured.

THEORY and MODEL development

As aforementioned, the project’s objective was to document whether the Diversity Icebreaker would have similar effects in the Middle East as it was observed in the other parts of the world. In the learning processes with the Hebrew University, it emerged a shared understanding that DI in this context could be best described as trust-building intervention – and thereby using this (quickly established) trust in order to enter into good dialogs about conflict-filled issues. A model illustrating how the trust is developed in the DI-seminar was created based on the first evaluations of the results. The model was tested out in a written evaluation conducted within a conflict resolution process in Norway. The model has also been presented later in academic contexts (e.g. on the ION conference in Heilbronn, 2012). Furthermore, the model will be used as a starting point for the qualitative and quantitative evaluation of the abovementioned conflict resolution processes.


The project continues also this year, both in terms of research and practical application:  In august 2013 Bjørn Z. Ekelund applied the Diversity Icebreaker in a group of 60 teachers from Israel, Palestine and Jordan – teachers that in the next two years shall facilitate a non-violent conflict resolution in nine different schools and their local communities using tools like DI. The project was organised by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), together with local conflict resolution partners from each of the countries. Another trip to the Hebrew University is planned for the November 2013.

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Red, Blue and Green in change management – dialogue with Yngvar Sjoner (Key Learning)

“Red, Blue and Green in change management – dialogue with Yngvar Sjoner (Key Learning)

We have a tradition in Human Factors AS to arrange open breakfast meetings, where we invite the participants to share their experiences in using the Diversity Icebreaker.

During one of these meetings Yngvar Sjoner (from Key Learning), a psychologist and consultant experienced in organizational development and strategic HR management, mentioned that he had successfully applied the Diversity Icebreaker in change management. The reason the Red, Blue and Green model was successful, according to him, was because it was “much easier to involve people with this model, than with the Kotter’s 8 steps model [often used in these settings]”. In addition, when describing his use of the Diversity Icebreaker in change management, Yngvar referred to “Blue as being about Predictability, Red about Control and Green about Meaning”.

I did not agree with this at once: in my opinion it was primarily the Blue category that was related to Control. However, Yngvar Sjoner was clear about that “this was the way he had used this for many years”. I decided to talk more with him about this later. I wanted to explore the feeling of surprise I felt when an experienced consultant like Yngvar described this application of DI in change management; it was something I did not know – something I would like to know more about!

I have arranged a meeting with Yngvar two weeks after the breakfast meeting and asked him to tell me his story about managing the change and describe his way of using the Red, Blue and Green categories as a language tool facilitating change.

He replied to my question first by sharing his early experiences entering the professional life, when he as a student took interest in the area of stress.

In his first engagement as psychologist he worked with psychological health at workplace – an area where coping with change and stressful situations became an essential part. Recently he has worked with global, private business and has managed change in many ways: by leading it, taking part in the planning processes, as well as being a member of the change-steering committees.

From these experiences, Yngvar said, he could draw one key observation: that the certain perspective of change could be applied across contexts, because the change always referred to some generic qualities. In his love for simplicity, he said that a three-element model is enough to describe this overarching perspective on HOW to cope with change and stress:

Meaning: People need to understand the purpose, the overall picture, the WHY and find their role in it.

Predictability: If people know WHAT it is they are facing, they will cope with the challenges brought about by the change in a better way. Since change always brings some kind of uncertainty, clearly defining and informing about the change processes is one way of giving the employees the kind of predictability they need.

Control: This is the subjective control experienced by the individuals, the WHO. As a leader, the only way for you to know if your employees have the necessary sense of control, is to have a face to face contact with them and let them talk. When people have a possibility to voice their ideas, raise questions and concerns, be listened to and be treated with respect, they will be prepared much better to cope with change.

Below is a graphic illustration of the model Yngvar uses:

Yngvar Sjoner modellen_JGPWe also shared the associations we had to other literature that also employed a similar typology of three: Rikard Larsson’s research on mergers, work by Ghoshal & Bartlett, Antanovsky, Lazarus, and others.

Then I asked Yngvar to share what he thinks about the qualities and content of the Red, Blue and Green categories that is relevant for change viewed through the perspective of Meaning, Predictability and Control. Yngvar said that either of these areas of focus can be looked upon as either Blue (Predictability), Red (Control) or Green (Meaning).

He also gave examples of words relevant for change management and related to either of the DI colours: Blue (Facts, Focus, Logic, Structure, Plan); Red (Empathy, Care, Harmony, Inclusion, People); Green (Opportunity, Idea, Courage, Independence, Purpose).

I mentioned to him that the area of practice that was closest to this model, and which I had had experienced with, was an exercise we used to develop a complementary understanding of how to communicate change in organizations.

In this exercise, we have the participants working in the three colour groups and ask each of them: “how would you (as Red, Blue or Green) approach the communication challenge of communicating a radical change to the employees? The three types of groups always come up with highly differentiated results; at the same time they realise how these ideas about communication are complementary to each other, and not opposing each other.

Furthermore, I found it interesting how Yngvar Sjoner contrasted the perspective of Meaning, Predictability and Control (reflected in Red, Blue and Green) with Kotter’s 8 steps. He stated that Kotter’s model was to complex and that the people were not able to memorize it and use it in everyday practice. People remembered Red, Blue and Green easily and leading the change with this perspective also gave a possibility to share with all employees a model that could create a common language. From my point of view this is about leading change by offering a language for planning, role-taking and which emphasizes complementarity.

To summarize, Yngvar shared one of his favourite metaphors with me: Think of your car. What do you appreciate the most? The engine that gives you traction and makes you move forward (Blue)? Or the steering wheel that makes you able to steer in the right direction (Green)? Or maybe the breaks, that makes you able to stop when needed (Red)? I certainly like to have all three when travelling (or taking the journey of change – where cooperation between Red, Blue and Green is essential)!

It was a great pleasure and interesting to share different ideas about change management and Red, Blue and Green with Yngvar. You should try yourself (Yngvar is a member of the Diversity Icebreaker LinkedIn group)!

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Diversity Icebreaker and management teams


In our recent market research 95% of our customer’s indicate that they use the Diversity Icebreaker (DI) in team development. Historically DI categories and interaction between people with different colour preferences pull ideas from team role concepts like the Belbin and Margerison & McCann (TMP) models. For this reason it is no wonder that this has become the most prevalent user area for DI.

In this synopsis I will present some of the concept’s application forms, used by the consultants to improve teamwork.

Practical applications

Often, management teams consist of no more than 4-6 persons. Thus, the standard format of the DI workshop (where you divide the participants in small groups and ask them to create descriptions of Red, Blue and Green categories on flipcharts) can be difficult and not so relevant. In such situations, I often ask the participants to write their scores on a flip chart, let them read what is written about Red, Blue and Green in the Personal Workbook – and then I let each of them comment on “how do these descriptions fit you – and how do they not fit you”; and I ask them to give examples of situations or examples of their behaviour that do and do not fit the descriptions from the Workbook.

I highlight then the issues of highest and lowest scores in the team, and ask to share the positive and negative experiences on being / having such high scores; both from an individual as well as team perspective.

In the workshop, this has the effect of making people voice more their own perspectives on their own results. Then I let other comment on their presentation and they learn more about others and how others see their own potential contribution to the team.

Two important processes in team development are feedback and reflection. We observe that team members find it easier to give each other feedback in the seminars, using the terminology of Red, Blue and Green. The qualities of acknowledgment, the complementary and egalitarian character of the model, combined with the positive emotions linked to Red, Blue and Green –altogether reduce the risk that the people will start defending themselves. Reflecting upon processes seems much easier as well, when the team start saying for example “We need more Blue structure here – so why don’t we agree upon an agenda?”, to begin a discuss of whether their current modus operandi is well aligned with the requirements of the situation.

DI provides a team role model that is easy to understand. Some are more concerned about emotions and people, some about tasks and outcomes, and others about new ideas and change. People intuitively understand that if someone is working with tasks that are more aligned with his or her personal preferences; his or her motivation will probably be higher and more sustainable.

The Diversity Icebreaker does not map competences but preferences for how people treat information and solve problems when they work together. For this reason, it is quite natural to look upon Red, Blue and Green in relation to different stages of creative problem solving, with people with Green preferences more prone to divergent thinking; and people with Blue preference inclined more to converging processes. The Red preference is important for integration of the people in the team, which in turn is crucial for making real changes – not only coming up with creative ideas. 

If you have enough people, playing with diverging and converging processes in mono-coloured and multi-coloured groups, enhances creativity at group level to a higher degree, than what you can achieve individually. Even an entirely Blue group can be very creative if allowed to play by its own rules. It creates also a process where everyone can have important roles, as well as train on roles that are not in line with their main preferences. The integrative process invites people to take on dialogue qualities (DI is often used together with the Mapping, Bridging, Integrating model – MBI) as well as to execute analytical decision making skills.

If there are team leaders that have one strong preference, it might be relevant for others in the team to contribute either by assuming leader’s role in specific tasks or areas; or constitute a sounding board with a supervising function. The team assessment tool TPI and TeamReflector invites to this type of discussion with a more thorough mapping of team members’ perceptions of the team and the leader’s behaviour in relation to Red, Blue and Green.

“Team Flower” is a simple exercise that is used to highlight individual competencies/ Imageperspectives/ values of individuals constituting a team, as well as making a collective map of the team’s total resources. It functions often as a collective symbol for the whole team.


The DI seminars seem to have quite unique effects on work climate in teams: they introduce trust and openness. Such climate promotes dialogue, learning, reflection and innovation. The components that we think promote this climate are:

  1. The egalitarian balance between Red, Blue and Green: No category is more important than the other.
  2. Red, Blue and Green diversify, but at the same time in unify at a collective level: We all need each other
  3. People feel acknowledged as individuals and at the same time integrated in a group. Both these processes represent basic human needs that are satisfied in the process.
  4. The simplicity of the model gives everybody sense of mastery in approaching others that are different.
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Diversity Icebreaker and ‘Trialoguing’ – why this word?

NB: the Diversity Icebreaker® will be introduced in the UK and USA markets under a different brand name – Trialogue®. There are many reasons for that.  However, what is pertinent to this blog is that we want to strengthen the focus within our tool on developing communicative processes employing an interaction between three parts. It opens additional possibilities for training, learning and change.


From Dialogue to Trialogue

Dialogue – focuses on an open, respectful and integrative communication – but is taking place between two parties.

Trialogue – builds on the same communicative practice but with three entities involved.

Introducing trialoguing as a communication practice gives an increased potential for more systemic change and learning. One of the traditions we would like to integrate is systemic change models and the practice of reflecting teams, a process of change designed in North Norway by Tom Andersen and his colleagues around family therapeutic training groups during the mid-80’s (Andersen, 1987).

Introduction of an observer to the process of development of a relationship

The tree entities in communication practice give opportunities for another object of observation, moving away from describing the persons –to describing changes in the relationships between persons. With three parties it is possible for a person to observe from an outside perspective the communicative interaction between the two persons/groups. This outsider perspective on the relationship seems to give opportunities for adding perspectives to the communicative processes, a perspective that can when phrased in a helpful and non-threatening way function as the difference that makes a difference.

As actors themselves, the two involved parties in the communication cannot take such a perspective. Such comments, or sharing of observations from an outside perspective, seems to lead to a radical, and partly unpredictable, change in the communication between the two parts involved. In systemic therapy we often see that such introduced change is sustainable and it is impossible to continue process in the ‘old way’ afterwards. Such an observer position, and we know this from the attribution theory, has a perspective significantly different than one shared by the actors. The idea here is that the observer position can be applied creatively in order to destabilize a stuck situation in order to enhance change.

This perspective implies that we do not assume that there exists one and only one precise and objective description of human beings and the social interaction, but rather many stories to tell and perspectives to share. This is in line with the post-colonial perspectives and constructivistic perspectives on social systems.

In practice: communication training in seminars

In seminars it leads to a situation where you can utilize the observer position both as a tool for giving feedback, as well as to make a change; for example, in a stage training with a Red person dialoguing with a Green person and having the Blue as an observer. The Blue person can give valuable comments on the development of change in the communicative relationship by observing “what did A do /say that made the communicative relationship open up/close down, created energy or demotivation, reduced or increased defensive behavior, etc.”

In practice: for unlocking relationships between groups

The term “reflective team” was coined in 1984 to describe a group of persons that:

a)      after having observed an interaction between two other groups/parts,

b)      expresses different individual ideas upon the interaction – in a non-systematic, non-planned way – but simply by sharing of diversified perspectives. (The idea of “multiple voices” is seen as relevant for post-colonial perspective.)

c)       and where the two other groups/parts listen to the abovementioned expression of ideas –and where each of the person in the interaction choose ideas they themselves find relevant for unstucking their situation, and use this to move on.

This process is a systematic form of trialoguing, where the observer position is utilized for a creative purpose, and with a perspective on improving relationships, both in communication and actions.

How can this be played out in training? How can we work on this structure in order to build awareness and competence to see and manage larger systems?

In practice:  DI seminars.

In the instructions for group work (the third stage of the classic DI seminar):

  1. What are the great words that can be used to describe you?
  2. In what way will the other colors create a challenge/problem for you?

When presenting between the groups, one might start with each of the groups presenting their own self-image in the standard way, and then focus on the relationship between two other groups. For example:

1)      Red presents for Blue what is they experience as challenging in them

2)      Blue presents for Red what is they experience as challenging in them

3)      Then the groups engage in a dialogue in between themselves and anyone in the Red and Blue groups, with ideas about what could be the better ways of cooperating can take the floor

4)      Green observes both presentations and the dialogue between the groups, but after 10 – 15 min of dialoguing between Red and Blue, the Green group asks for time to perform the role of a “Reflecting Team with Multiple Voices”. They exchange views in between themselves; while the Red and Blue listen and scan for ideas that might throw light on the relationship development and which might change the systemic interaction. The questions that the Green can have in mind while observing might be in line with these examples:

“How did they approach each other in a way that increased openness and engagement? Are there alternative ways to be suggested for how they could behave or interact? (reinforcing and suggestion of alternative behavior);

“What questions or topics seemed to positively engage both groups? (appreciative inquiry-inspired);

“Which acts seemed to increase energy and openness in the interaction?” (appreciative inquiry-inspired);

“If the communication got stuck, what has been done/could have been done to open it again?” (problem-solving from observer perspectives, breaking vicious circles)

“What would be a Green idea for how they themselves could involve Red and Blue in a positive systemic perspective?” (including all three parties as actors).

5)      Then the Red and Blue starts dialoguing again – and the Green keep on observing.

6)      Colour groups are then separated to formulate learning points.

7)      Learning points shared in between groups – can be done in plenary or in small, three-person groups of Red, Blue and Green if one wants to focus more on personal involvement.

This structure can then be repeated twice, set up so that the Blue observe the Red-Green interaction and the Red observe the Green-Blue interaction. Such process is relatively time consuming – but it has qualities of training that are essential: observing, dialoguing with the other and focus on the relationship development, as well as on the ideas and behaviours that might facilitate more interactive processes. It also combines the possibility of self-awareness and self-understanding in relation to the two other colours – underlining the ideas of relational self. It also creates a transparent learning process that can inspire and build confidence across colours.

The time spent can also be reduced by reducing number of repetitions, taking out stages 6 and 7. In order to see the effect or comments from the observer, the stage 5 could also be skipped.

Closing comments

We have illustrated a trialoguing process where the observation position, relationships and multiple voices are all central. The process above will often lead to new perspectives and understanding of oneself and of the others. The change focus is on actors engaged in a relationship. We often observe that this perceptual reorganization taking place between the actors leads to a behavioural change.

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Diversity Icebreaker and two thinking styles

In the fall of 2011 we conducted a study investigating relation between Red, Blue and Green with two cognitive dimensions described by Jabri: the connective and sequential thinking styles (Jabri, 1991). The study was conducted in cooperation with Corrine Post from Lehigh University, who investigated the extent to which either of the styles predicts innovation on the team level (Post, 2011).

This study was conducted as part of the efforts to investigate the Diversity Icebreaker as a cognitive diversity model, following previous suggestions from researchers and practitioners (Ekelund, Rossi, & van Egmond, 2010; Matoba, 2011). A broader scope of these efforts is presented in my Dr.Philos. dissertation submitted to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology earlier this year.


The connective thinking style is a preference for considering many factors at once and linking previously unconnected ideas, whereas the sequential thinking style is a preference for following an existing set of logical, sequential routines to resolve a problem (Jabri, 1991). Drawing on the theory and previous research regarding Red, Blue and Green, we had expected positive correlations between Green and the connective, and Blue with the sequential thinking style; and – vice versa – a negative relation between Green and the sequential, and between Blue and the connective thinking style. We had not made any assumptions regarding the relation of Red with either of the styles due to lack of data and plausible theoretical formulations.


We tested our assumptions by administering the Diversity Icebreaker questionnaire together with the measure constructed by Post (2011), to a Norwegian-based sample of N=106. The hypotheses were confirmed, as illustrated in Table 1 below:


There was a significantpositive correlation between the Blue scale and the sequential thinking scale, r=.439; and between the Green scale and the connective thinking scale, r=.563. Furthermore, the Blue scale was significantly and negatively correlated with the connective thinking scale, r=-.458. Similar result was observed in case of the Green and sequential thinking scales, r=-.348.

The direction of the correlation between Green and the Sequential thinking style was negative, as expected, but we can assume that its magnitude could have been different if not the necessity to remove one of the items pertaining to the Sequential thinking scale as a result of Exploratory Factor Analysis.


The present study confirmed that the concepts of Blue and Green preferences for communication and interaction are closely related to the sequential and connective thinking styles, thus supporting the view of the Diversity Icebreaker as a cognitive diversity model.

Interesting to note, the sum of absolute values of the correlations between Blue and the two thinking styles (.892) and the sum of the correlation between Green and the two thinking styles (.803) were both higher than the sum of correlation values between Red and the two thinking styles (.377). It means that the combination of these two colours explains best the structure represented by the connective and sequential thinking styles. However, correlation between Red and the sequential thinking scale was significant and moderate on its own (-.316).

Unpublished results from our study of 21 teams measured with Team Performance Inventory and the Diversity Icebreaker indicate that Green can enhance, while Blue can impede Innovation. In the same analysis Red seemed to have an even stronger positive impact on Innovation than Green. It would be very interesting to pursue this notion, and see if Red – a largely social dimension not included in the study by Post  (2011) – would have a greater impact on innovation than strictly cognitive dimensions.

An on-going research project, using a more advanced measure of cognitive styles – the Thinking Styles Inventory (Zhang & Sternberg, 2006), is aimed to shed more light on this and other questions in effort to look at the Diversity Icebreaker as a cognitive diversity model.

NOTE: contact me should you like to have access to the entire report from this study.


Ekelund, B. Z., Rossi, A., & van Egmond, M. C. (2010). Use of Diversity Icebreaker and learning styles in multicultural teaching settings (workshop). The European Conference on Educational Research. University of Helsinki, Finland.

Jabri, M. M. (1991). The Development of Conceptually Independent Subscales in the Measurement of Modes of Problem Solving. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 51(4), 975-983.

Matoba, K. (2011). Transformative Dialogue for Third Culture Building. Integrated Constructionist Approach for Managing Diversity. Opladen: Budrich UniPress.

Post, C. (2011). Relating Cognitive Style Composition, Mobility and Faultlines to Team Innovation. Academy of Management Annual Meeting (submission accepted), (pp. 1-37).

Zhang, L.-F., & Sternberg, R. J. (2006). The Nature of Intellectual Styles. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Publ.

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Diversity Icebreaker humor project – guest post by Piotr Pluta

We have long since recognized the important role humour plays in the Diversity Icebreaker seminars. However, it is the first time that we took on a systematic and serious scientific approach to investigate how humour contributes to making people reflect, ask, listen and talk during our seminars.

This note gives an overview of our efforts so far in regard to the Diversity Icebreaker humour project and is intended to raise your curiosity as well as encourage you to participate in the project.

When I was introduced to the Diversity Icebreaker I was surprised and taken by how much humour was always there during the seminars. Having spent the last two years of my degree in psychology almost exclusively occupied with investigating humour, while working on my master thesis about its influence on persuasion – I was naturally very keen to investigate it.

So, when I joined Human Factors I brought in some systematic knowledge humour and we grounded our efforts in the field of humour psychology – a multi-paradigmatic branch of psychology, which very existence can be somewhat of a surprise. (Nonetheless, there is an International Society for Humor Studies that’s been publishing a referee based journal Humor since 1989, one or two complete academic textbooks, and some quite prominent figures in psychology who had dedicated much of their work to humour, e.g. Sigmund Freud, Arthur Koestler and Michael J. Apter; there’s also Norway’s very own Sven Svebak, who has been appointed with the humorprofessoren title!)

Why investigate humour in the Diversity Icebreaker?

The considerable amount of humour in the DI should be reason enough to believe that it plays an important, if not crucial, role in the seminars. In other words, since participants engage in laughter so often and so eagerly, it must be to a purpose and it must have some serious social functions. (However simpleminded this assumption might sound, a similar was one of the reasons why psychologists even took interest in humour in the first place!)

Second of all, it’s repeatable. No, not repetitive, although we sometimes do tell the same old jokes during our seminars… By ‘repeatable’ I mean that DI provides a consultant-proof scenario to follow, which always seems to create laughter independently of particular group’s characteristics and/or those of the consultant. When I first saw Bjørn running a session I thought that it was just him being such a funny guy. However, later I saw other consultants creating similar effects and I soon followed, conducting DI for the first time and creating just as much humour. (It doesn’t mean I don’t think Bjørn’s funny anymore.) Thanks to that, we can repeatedly observe the same patterns of humour and describe their effects and underlying mechanisms.

Third, and last but not least, a consultant may initiate and participate in the shared humour experience during the seminar, but it is the participants who generate most of humour and laughter. Therefore we can take a look at humour-in-makingin real social interactions – a setting most appropriate to study humour but rarely approachable.

Humour in the Diversity Icebreaker

What is humour?

Before I share what we assume about humour in the Diversity Icebreaker, let me briefly describe what we (psychologists) assume about humour.

It turns out that we assume quite a lot indeed, and the amount of results and theories building up is becoming even hard to navigate through. To begin with, the psychology of humour has produced a number of humour definitions. Below is one looking at it as a process:

Humour [is a] process [that] can be divided into four essential components: (1) a social context, (2) a cognitive-perceptual process, (3) an emotional response, and (4) the vocal-behavioural expression of laughter.[i]

Some of these elements correspond directly to particular branches of psychology (e.g. the social psychology is interested in how humour proceeds and what functions it has in social interactions and group processes; the cognitive psychology deals with how the mental processes like perception, thinking and memory are involved in humour; and the evolutionary psychologists research the markers of humour and laughter in primates to trace its historical development). However, the division itself is rather an arbitrary one and was drawn primarily to facilitate systematic studies of the phenomenon. It would be hard, and eventually impractical, to separate the cognitive mechanisms involved in humour processes from its content, which in turn is almost exclusively social in its nature.

The ubiquitous incongruity

The presently most dominant group of psychological theories related to humour, and especially to the mental processes behind it, is one encompassing the incongruity theories[ii]. According to these theories, all instances of humour involve some sort of incongruity, i.e. something somebody said or did, or an event that is in some sense odd, unexpected and out of ordinary.

To the right you see an example of an incongruity: who would expect such a big dog in such a humble disposition?

However, incongruity alone is not enough to elicit humour and laughter. Different researchers and theorists proposed a number of criteria in attempt to, on one hand, precisely discriminate between the incongruities that may lead to humour and those that don’t; and on the other to be universal enough to account for all types of humour.

Below is a summary of 3 points that reflect the main ideas regarding conditions for incongruity to be funny first introduced by Apter ii and later extended and adapted to the theory of cognitive schemata by Wyer & Collins[iii]:

1) Incongruity has to induce a re-interpretation of the situation as a less significant and more trivial;

2) This new interpretation cannot entirely replace the original one – both have to be processed simultaneously for a certain amount time;

3) A person has to be in a light mood, with positive emotions and no serious information-processing objectives regarding the message; usually, the person is in a playful frame of mind and already expecting humour.

Humour structure in the Diversity Icebreaker

In the Diversity Icebreaker, the incongruity is often first introduced by the consultant after he or she had given the participants instructions on how to fill out the questionnaire – thus inducing a script for a testing situation, which tends to be perceived as a serious activity. One of the moments when the unexpected occurs is when the consultant starts walking around and commenting on the results in a playful way, or by asking the participants who marked zero on ‘I liked maths better than languages at school’ to ask neighbours for help in calculating the total score (or doing any other thing that is out of ordinary and seemingly diminish importance of the situation, see picture to the left). It then leads to a re-interpretation of a testing situation to a less serious one than it had been perceived previously (1).

However, the reinterpretation of the seminar situation is only partial and temporary, the consultant and group can nevertheless easily shift back to the serious perspective, e.g. when discussing the learning points from the seminar (2).

The introduction of humour and positive emotions by the facilitator serves as an invitation for the participants to engage in it as well. The ‘fixed jokes’ make people laugh and make them expect to laugh more (3), openly permitting for humour in the seminar; hence making it easier also for the participants to induce it, e.g. during the group presentations.

Social functions of humour in DI

The previous caption focused primarily on the role of incongruity underlying all humour – also in one present in the Diversity Icebreaker seminars. In this section however, I go back to the first reason and question that made us and many other scientists investigate humour: Since there is so much of humour, what are its functions?

The literature on humour names a number of social and psychological functions humour probably serves. Below is a small set that we have initially identified in the Diversity Icebreaker seminar (note that this classification is, again, only arbitral and meant to help in systematic research; in reality, most of functions exist simultaneously or overlap):

  • Tension relief. Humour helps to release tensions during the Diversity Icebreaker seminars on many occasions: beginning with filling out the questionnaire phase, when it reduces the fear usually related with a testing situation; during the group presentations, when people submit/receive critique and are being evaluated. Humour can also steer attention away from the uneasiness the participants feel if they had not known each other before, by providing a cognitive distraction and replacing the negative emotions with positive.
  • Liking. Humour increases the feeling of liking and attraction between the participants. First of all, it is because we tend to like people that we perceive as similar to ourselves and being able to laugh together is one of the indicators of similarity. Second of all, we tend to like those who induce positive emotions in us, e.g. those who make us laugh.
  • Cohesion and identity building. The feeling of similarity is also important to bringing people together in a group. Furthermore, people often use humour to define the reality (sharing subjects to laugh at) and differentiate themselves from the others (e.g., inside jokes).
  • Trust. Humour is deemed as one of the constituent components in the trust model for the Diversity Icebreaker seminars created by Bjørn.
  • Breaking norms. Humour helps to break social norms and boundaries in an acceptable way, hence facilitating more-than-usual open communication, e.g. discussing stereotypes, essential for the seminars.

How does Red, Blue, and Green fit an elephant to a refrigerator? – DI and types of humour

A number of humour types or styles classifications have been made. One of the two most known is the 3WD (Witz-dimensionen) humour appreciation questionnaire measuring preferences for three types: incongruity-resolution humour (e.g. jokes where incongruity introduced by punch line can be resolved by referring to another part of the story), nonsense humour (incongruity is can’t be fully resolved, e.g. Monty Pythons, on a very bad day), and sexual humour (instances of humour containing an obvious sexual content).

Another one is Humour Styles Questionnaire, by Rod A. Martin and it seems to be more interesting from the Diversity Icebreaker project perspective, because it focuses not so much on different types of humorous content (or stimuli) but on the functions humour serves individuals during social interactions.

It distinguishes in four humour styles: affiliative (nonthreatening use of humour to enhance one’s relationships with others), self-enhancing (nonthreatening use of humour to enhance oneself), self-diminishing (use of humour to enhance relations with others at expense of oneself), and aggressive (use of humour at expense of others to enhance oneself).

We can look at the different styles of humour and the Diversity Icebreaker concept from two points of view.

First is to try to relate the three DI dimensions of Red, Blue and Green to either of the Humor Styles Questionnaire factors. An appropriate quantitative questionnaire study has not been conducted yet, but the results of the studies relating either the DI dimensions[iv] or the four humour styles[v] to the Big-5 personality traits, allow expecting that: Red will be positively correlated with the affiliative and self-enhancing, and negatively with the aggressive humour style; Blue negatively with the affiliative and self-enhancing, slightly positively with self-defeating; and that Green will positively related to the affiliative, self-enhancing and aggressive humour styles.

The second direction is to observe which of the styles are primarily present and/or induced in the seminar itself. Again, no systematic observation has been made, but one is led to believe that the affiliative and self-enhancing humour is predominant when the participants work in one-colour groups, and the in-group feelings are strong; as well as during the open discussion phase, when learning points are being shared and all participants are reunited again. On the other hand, a bland of the aggressive, self-enhancing and self-defeating humour seems to prevail during the group presentations stage.

Further work and an invitation to participate

Below are the specific next steps we want to take in the nearest future:

1) Write an article about the role of humour in HR trainings, with DI as an example and platform. Since this first article is intended to be based on qualitative data, it requires your help: we are in the process of putting together questions for a semi-structured interview directed to all the experienced (or semi-experienced) consultants using our concept, who want to help. Contact us to share your observations!

2) Include the results of this project in the DI train-the-trainer activities (Master Class in advanced use of the Diversity Icebreaker and half-day seminars).

3) Invite consultants and facilitators, as well as participants, to share funny stories and anecdotes related to the seminars in order let other use them as the safe and secure humour starters in the seminars.

4) Begin to gather data for a quantitative research relating Red, Blue, and Green with the different humour styles. This is intended as an online questionnaire study, with the results analysed using the Confirmatory Factor Analysis technique to test whether the data fit our predictions based on the previous studies.

Read more about Piotr in his profile on Human Factors AS website.

[i] Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: an integrative approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press.

[ii] Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation. London: Academic Press.

[iii] Wyer, R. S., & Collins, J. E. (1992). A Theory of Humor Elicitation. Psychological Review, 99(4), 663-688.

[iv] Ekelund, B. Z., & Langvik, E. (2008). Diversity Icebreaker: How to Manage Diversity Processes. Oslo: Human Factors Publishing.

[v] Martin, A. R., et al. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality(37), 48-75.

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Overview of current research projects and opportunities.

Hi all! Below is an overview of what’s happening around the Diversity Icebreaker concept in terms of research and development projects. The list is relevant as of September 2012 and names both our internal initiatives and projects in cooperation with researchers from around the world.

  1. Use of Learning Styles in Multicultural Student Groups.  Together with Marieke von Egmond and Alexis Rossi we work on gathering data about differences in learning styles between East and West, combined with DI dimensions. The project focuses on analysis of Pedagogical examples and illustrations from classroom culture (pedagogical).
  2. Investigation DI dimensions’ relation to the Thinking Styles Concept. Piotr Pluta and I gather empirical data here in Norway using two questionnaires together with DI: Thinking Style Inventory[i] and a connective and sequential thinking style measure[ii]. This is done in order to test our assumption that the convergent thinking styles are related to Blue, whereas more divergent, connective group is related to Green; and also to explore relationships with either of the styles with the Red dimension.
  3. DI in building of the Third Culture. Together with Kazuma Matoba we write a chapter for a forthcoming book titled “Beyond Hofstede”. The chapter will integrate the Diversity Icebreaker concept of egalitarian categories and shared language created under the seminar, into Kazuma’s model of cosmopolitan communication – the Third Culture.
  4. Language and practice in organizations after DI. Mary Yoko Brannen, Professor of Strategy and Management at INSEAD, and I have conducted interviews and focus groups in Norwegian organizations that have used DI in large volumes, to exam the effects of the seminars on their cultures and daily practice. The gathered data will soon be analyzed.
  5.  DI in conflict resolution processes. This project seeks to build trust in areas where cross-cultural or ethnic conflicts are an issue, such as Middle East. Lilach Sagiv and her PhD students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem conducted 16 Diversity Icebreaker sessions and measured trust and positive affect following the seminars. In December, this group will conduct 8 more seminars within an experimental design involving the Trust game.
  6. DI and flexible HR management. A paper by me and Piotr Pluta titled “Diversity Icebreaker as a flexible tool for diversity management” will be presented at the conference on flexible HR management organized by the Wroclaw University of Economics on 8-10.10.2012, in Wroclaw, Poland.
  7. Evaluation of DI’s validity and reliability. Tetyana Sydorenko from the School of Business and Economics at the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin investigated in her master thesis reliability, validity and consistency of the dimensions represented in the Diversity Icebreaker questionnaire using three samples (Norwegian, English and German).
  8. DI and humour. Piotr Pluta wrote his master thesis about the influence of humour on persuasion and is professionally interested in the psychology of humour. He has designed a humour workshop aiming at increasing participants’ humour awareness as well as giving tips on introducing more humour in organisations. Now he is leading the “Diversity Icebreaker humour project” aimed at analysing the mechanisms and functions of humour in the DI seminar in a systematic, scientific approach grounded in the psychology of humour.
  9. Cross-cultural validation. Rotem Shneor and Human Factors AS are gathering data from different countries to conduct a cross-cultural validation of the DI questionnaire. We expect to obtain 400-500 respondents from the following countries: Israel, Italy, Germany, Turkey and Norway. We also intend to use these data to discuss and explore further the properties of the partial ipsative response format in the DI questionnaire.
  10. Dr. Philos. I submitted my Dr. Philos dissertation on the Diversity Icebreaker to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, this summer. Apart from the interdisciplinary format of the dissertation, unifying perspectives from psychology, philosophy, sociology and drama, two chapters are especially interesting: one discussing DI as a psychological assessment tool and the other looking upon the dimensions of Red, Blue and Green as a cognitive diversity model.

[i] Thinking Style Inventory- TSI-R2 (Sternberg, Wagner & Zhang, 2007)

[ii] Post, C. (2011). Relating Cognitive Style Composition, Mobility and Faultlines to Team Innovation. Academy of Management Annual Meeting (submission accepted), (pp. 1-37).

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Diversity Icebreaker applied in teams – key elements and effects.

The Diversity Icebreaker is a tool often used in teambuilding and our recent market research indicates that as much as 95% of our customers use DI in team development programs. Prompts by these stunning results, I would like to suggest some key focus areas, where DI can contribute to a better teamwork.

1)      Individual competence.

DI makes people aware of themselves as different from others. At the same time the seminar is a learning process providing insight about others and the way they think of themselves. Improved self-understanding makes people more mindful and better team players. Some of the exercises in the Personal Workbook can be used to elaborate further in that direction.

2)      Social perceptions are shared and elaborated.

One of the seminar’s effects is that the participants voice their own perspectives more, learn how to know more about others, as well as they learn more about how others can perceive their own potential contribution to the team. “Team Flower” is an exercise that is used to highlight individual competencies/perspectives/values in an easy way, as well as to make a collective map of the team’s sum of competencies (the exercise is described in the User Manual).

3)      Creating a climate of trust and psychological safety.

The Diversity Icebreaker seminar seems to create quite a unique climate effect, which promotes dialogue, open learning and innovation. These are the components that we believe contribute to such climate:

a)      Egalitarian balance between Red, Blue and Green. No category is more important than the other under the seminar, even despite that it can be different elsewhere/outside the seminar.

b)      Red, Blue and Green diversify but at the same time unify at the collective level. This is reflected in the statement that often emerges in response to the “What have we learnt?” question and which reads: We all need each other

c)      The positive atmosphere and humour reinforce the “more than normal” behaviour of being open, listening, respectful and willing to learn.

d)      People feel acknowledged as individuals and at the same time integrated in a group, and both these realisations are among the basic human needs and are satisfied in the process.

e)      The simplicity of the model makes it easy to understand and apply, thus making everyone feel the sense of mastery.

4)      A team role model that is easy to understand.

Team work is about flexibility in distribution of tasks. Red, Blue and Green give people labels that are easy to connect with different types of activities. (The Team Pyramid in the Personal Workbook illustrates and elaborates this clarification.)

5)      Creative problem solving

Stimulating diverging and converging processes at the group level, in mono- and mixed-coloured groups, enhances creativity to a higher degree than what one might achieve with an individual training in creativity. Even a Blue group can be very creative if it learns to play with its own rules. Furthermore, such training also allows for a process where everyone can assume an important role, as well as train in roles that are not in line with their main preference. This integrative process encourages participants to take on the dialogue-qualities (M.B.I. – Mapping, Bridging, and Integrating) as well as execute analytical decision making skills.

6)      Shared team-leadership

In case of a team leader with one strong preference, it might be relevant for others in the team to contribute either by taking over leadership in particular, specific tasks, which they can perform better than the leader, or constitute a soundboard with a supervising function. Two team assessment tools we often work with, the Team Performance Inventory and the Team Reflector, which invite to this type of discussion with a more thorough mapping of the team members perceptions of their team, and can be combined with the Diversity Icebreaker.

7)      Team development

Important parts of team development are readiness to give and receive feedback and collective reflection. It seems that participants working in teams find it easier to give each other feedback using the terminology of Red, Blue and Green (download a case study to read more about this aspect of teambuilding and DI). Reflecting upon processes seems just as easy, for example using communication as in: “We need more Blue structure here, so why don’t we agree upon an agenda?”

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The effects of Diversity Icebreaker seminars. Does it work? Yes, it does!

Despite the extensive use of Diversity Icebreaker there are still only a few high quality studies that can precisely describe the specific effects of the seminar. There are many reasons for that but to name some, first is the lack of resources and contexts where experimental studies are possible. Such studies, where the measurement before and after the intervention is made, and two groups of participants (experimental and control) are required; would be best to document seminar’s effects but are simultaneously very time- and cost-demanding. Second is the lack of willingness on the part of organizations using DI to share the sensitive data concerning profitability, quality, and improvements etc., which are believed to be most affected by the DI intervention and that could be used for studying its effects in team processes. If there is anyone out there willing to share, please contact us!

Nonetheless, there are six studies that are relevant for demonstrating the seminar effects, if we consider them in a broad perspective. Here’s a short review of these studies – see the reference list below this post for complete works.

1)      Positive affect was measured using the FLOW questionnaire directly after the seminar. Results from 127 participants indicate that the positive emotion level was even across all three colours. (Straume & Ekelund, 2005)

2)      A master thesis has evaluated, with qualitative interviews and a questionnaire, two training sessions delivered to a homogenous and a heterogenous team. Improved communication in the homogenous team was documented (Nordgård, 2008).

3)       Qualitative analyses, with participation of consultants that have been using the concept extensively, have been conducted (Ekelund, Nordgård & Langvik, 2007). Results were obtained with the use of grounded analysis and a software package named Nvivo 7.0. The results have been presented at Academy of Management Annual conference in 2007 and in the book by me and Eva Langvik (2008). The results of the study highlighted six areas, which highly integrated in practice.

a)      A user friendly instrument, intuitive categories

b)      Creates an emotional event characterized by positive affect

c)      Offers a new language and shared understanding to manage diversity

d)     Dynamic polarization

e)     Creates self-, other- and team-knowledge

f)       Facilitates cooperation in organisations

4)      Lilach Sagiv, Andrey Elster, Sharon Ariele and Tammy Rubel-Lifchitz from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem and I started a project to study the Trust-boosting effect of the Diversity Icebreaker seminar in the cross-cultural context present in the Middle East. The project started in 2011 and in our first trials last December we conducted eight workshops with three different trainers. The groups were homogeneous in terms of education (all undergraduate students) and profession (accounting and business students) and heterogeneous in terms of nationality (Jews and Arabs), native language (Hebrew, Arab, Russian) and gender. Total number of students was N=211. We compared the participants’ scores on affect and distrust towards other measured before and after the DI seminar. As expected, participants’ distrust decreased following the workshop (p<.05). Furthermore, the negative affect decreased and positive affect increased following the workshop (p<.01).

5)      In March 2012 we conducted a seminar with a premise of improving trust and cooperation between two departments in one organization. Due to the experiences from the Middle East and development of a revised model for Trust-building in DI seminars, we created a measure for post-seminar assessment of the Trust improvement. The participants experienced the seminar as useful and creating climate enhancing egalitarian attitudes. Among the participants, 85 % answered that this type of seminars would be unconditionally useful for other employees in the organizations; the remaining 15% was also in favour but with some conditions.

6)      An on-going research by Brannen, Brannen-Burt, Ekelund and Ekelund on the effect in four large organizations in Norway points a model illustrated below:

What is especially interesting here are the very clear statements about the climate effects of the Diversity Icebreaker.



Brannen, M. Y., Brannen, N. C., Ekelund, S. M., & Ekelund, B. Z. (2012). A trajectory theory of language development in organzations following Diversity Icebreaker seminars. An on-going qualitative research project.

Ekeklund, B. Z., Langvik , E., & Nordgård, M. (2008). Diversity Icebreaker: Social Construction of Team Roles as a Tool for Managing Diversity. Academy of Management Annual Conference, August, Philadelphia (pp. 109-130). Oslo: Human Factors Publishing.

Ekelund, B. Z., & Langvik, E. (2008). Diversity Icebreaker: How to Manage Diversity Processes. Oslo: Human Factors Publishing.

Nordgård, M. (2008). A qualitative study of Diversity and Communication. Does the Diversity Icebreaker have an effect on communication in teams where particiapnts have different educations (master thesis). Trondheim, Norway: NTNU.

Sagiv, L., Elster, A., Rubel-Lifchitz, T., Arieli, S. H., & Ekelund, B. Z. (2012). Diversity Icebreaker in the Middle-East: Personality and Workshop Implications (on-going research).

Straume, L. V., & Ekelund, B. Z. (2005, September). FLOW following introduction of a diversity tool. Positive Psychology Conference, NPF. Oslo, Norway.

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Trust model relevant for DI seminars

The DI users were long since aware that the seminars have a trust building effect on the participants, and I was willing to investigate this effect. The model described below comes as the result of a joint project by the Hebrew University and Human Factors where we sought to understand the trust boosting effect of the DI seminars in cross-cultural conflicts in the Middle East. I presented it in greater detail during the ION Conference on 25th February in Heilbronn, Germany.

The first five elements discussed below (1-5) are integrated in the early stages of the seminar; the sixth element (Continuity) stands for expectation of the stability of this effects. The last three components (7-9) stand for the emerging results of elevated trust.

Description of the components:

  1. Acknowledgement. The idea derived from Roger’s therapeutic models of acknowledgement for change, from the motivational theories of Self-enhancement and the need for social approval.
  2. Positive affect/humour. Shared humour present in the DI creates a shared understanding among participants and facilitates interaction, dialogue and change. The positive affect itself can be seen a reinforcer or a reward, in such a way that it strengthens the positive behaviours in the seminar.
  3. Egalitarian model / Balanced Power. No power differences are integral to the Red, Blue and Green and during the social processes in the seminar, people with different colour preferences quickly realize that they are dependent on each other. In the seminars we introduce this trilemma structure and make sure that the time, attention and positive self-understanding are balanced between the groups, and that builds trust to convey feedback.
  4. Social Disclosure and Probing.  Revealing one’s opinions and intentions is considered to be an important stage/element of trust process and in the DI seminars we invite encourage participants to say more than usual in terms of self-bragging as well as negative stereotypes conveyed to others in a funny way. In the DI seminars, the fear of rejection implied in such “more-than-normal” openness is reduced by humour (which enables to talk in a less-threatening way about difficult topics) and dissolved in group interactions. Eventually, instead of condemning the content, the participants are praised for their openness.
  5. Integration in a small and large group. A small group of mono-colored people instantly creates in-group cohesion built upon shared perspectives and ideas. In the group presentations stage, all participants seem to understand that they need each other to be able to ensure a high quality problem solving or to become a high performance team. The cognitive diversity introduced at the individual-members level by Red, Blue, and Green, integrates at the whole-group level, by creating understanding of how these individual qualities should be applied in the interaction and task distribution at the group level. Again, also here humour plays an important role as a facilator and indicator of group cohesiveness.
  6. Continuity: Trust due to predictability. The positive affect reinforces behavior manifested in the seminar and creates motivation to sustain it.  The positive elements of belonging to a group, being acknowledged, and being in an egalitarian model are also the components that motivate for continuation.  This creates a shared desire for continuity and predictability, which is another component of trust, a trust that the future interaction and task-related processes will be as positive, as they were in the seminar.
  7. Likeability across diversity. It is recognized that the people are attracted to those similar to themselves. In the Diversity Icebreaker model we create the same kind of attractiveness even despite that the differences between Red, Blue and Green are being highlighted. We see that respect for interdependency and complementarity is a higher order similarity that makes people attracted to each other. Thus, the shared value of respect for emphasized diversity is the component that creates attraction.
  8. Shared mental models of functional interaction. A shared model of interaction emerges as a consequence the seminar: “If I have an idea, I will voice it, and you will integrate this idea in a positive way, and together we will search for a way to integrate all ideas and make them function to the best collective result”.
  9. Freedom from the distrustful behaviorThe DI seminar creates a shared understanding of which are the good, beautiful and functional behaviors. A distrustful act is a negation of these behaviors. And, as norms are implicitly or explicitly created by the positive and acknowledging behaviors during the seminar, the distrustful behaviors will naturally fall in to the non-acceptable acts category.

I believe that the nine components mentioned above provide good reasons to use the DI seminars as a trust-booster in the cross-cultural and “post”-war situations in the Middle East. Apart from that, there are three other reasons to use DI in this context: 1) the seminar processes and effects are quite stable and replicable across situations, cultures and trainers; 2) it usually takes about one hour to run a DI session, which makes it a very time-effective intervention; 3) the two final parts of the seminar have components of collective reflection on categorization, language development and the feeling of a symbolic/language empowerment. In the conflict resolutions where culture, language and identity are tightly enmeshed, I am convinced that such individual and collective meta-cognition will support a higher order learning leading to change.

Further research should investigate the different components in the model in order to identify the specific effects relevant for trust and conflict resolution as outcome variables.

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