Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

MEMBERSHIP: Values and Ethics – are they negotiable? — October 1, 2020

MEMBERSHIP: Values and Ethics – are they negotiable?


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy. We have eight different programmes where we train coaches and consultants, from beginner coach to supervisor, team coach to organisational consultant. I am also the director of Team Agility, where for 35 years I’ve been implementing Agile Business Innovation all over the world. If you want to know more, please go to or 

I’m talking about membership at the moment, because I’m really concerned about the split in society due to COVID, between people who are placing themselves outside of societal membership, and people who are committed to societal membership. 

I’m interested in that tension. We talked about membership as being part of structure. We talked about membership as being part of a relational network. But we’re also talking about membership at a deeper level, the existential or psychodynamic level, which means that if you become a member of a group, you also have to think, “Am I willing to accept the values and ethics in this group? Am I willing to accept the imago, the image of the group that is fashioned by our unconscious processes?” 

For example, I am in a group of professional coaches and consultants. Recently we did an exercise where we co-constructed values in the group. Then we were asked by the facilitator, to stand in front of each person in that group to say, “My name is ____. I will contribute ____. I want ____ from the group. I will adhere to the values and ethics we’ve just decided on.” And then to ask explicitly to each member of the group: “Do you accept me as a member?”

This is really powerful and not to be taken lightly, because at the existential level you’re doing something to create commitment, almost tribal commitment. It’s not to be recommended as an exercise in a group of loose individuals, or even a team. But if you want to create more of a tribal sphere, it could be a good exercise. 

The problem with this exercise is we’re talking about the psycho-dynamic level, and we had not agreed beforehand what would happen if someone would not be accepted by the other people in the group. And we also didn’t agree what would happen if people didn’t want to participate in the exercise at all. We co-created the values, which was a fantastic exercise, but then this next step of commitment, we hadn’t thought through fully. Some people did it, some people didn’t. Something that could bind us, is actually something that is splitting us because we didn’t agree to the conditions beforehand. 

Values and Ethics

Belonging fully in society means that you, at the deepest level, accept the values and ethics.

Membership at the structural level, means adapting to a structure or to the rules or its decision making processes. That’s negotiable. You can talk to the leaders of that system, and tell them if something isn’t working, and suggest changing the laws, or the processes of decision making. As a member, you have a lot of influence. Not everyone takes it, but you actually do have a lot of influence if you use structure well..

At the relational level, being a member of a group, you can negotiate the network of relationships. You can position yourself in proximity or at a distance from people. You can say I don’t want to work with you, I do want to work with you. This network of relationships in any society or organisation is constantly changing, depending on how close or far you feel from someone. And this level of regulation of intimacy is negotiable as well. That’s fine. 

The question now really is in this group in particular, but also in general, when you commit as a member to the ethics and values of a group, is that really negotiable? 

If you want to be a group or a team or a tribe, is it possible to say some people are allowed to not respect ethics and values? Or is that a really one / zero decision? So that means that at the existential level, at the really basic, unconscious psycho-dynamic levels of groups, when you say, “I accept the ethics and values will you accept me as a member?” it’s actually non-negotiable. You’re either in or out. 

That’s why we have such clear laws and constitutions. Of course, this is a difficult thing. You could also say it’s an ethical dilemma. For instance, you agree to adhere to transparency, and someone wants to keep their secrets – what do you do? This is up to the leaders and the members together to decide. Is it even possible to have ambiguous members at that level? Who will not adapt? That’s the question I really have for you. 

How negotiable do you think these levels are? And how consequential are you in your organisation or society, about allowing people at that psycho-dynamic level to differ, or not?

MEMBERSHIP: A Network of Relationships —

MEMBERSHIP: A Network of Relationships


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy. We have eight different programmes where we train coaches and consultants, from beginner coach to supervisor, team coach to organisational consultant. I am also the director of Team Agility, where for 35 years I’ve been implementing Agile Business Innovation all over the world. If you want to know more, please go to or 

We’re talking about membership. I talked about the importance of recognising that membership is partly a structure, a relationship and a construct of values and ethics. We talked about the structure, now I want to talk about membership as a relationship. 

You can imagine that once you become a member of the structure, you are also in a network of relationships. Partly people become members because they want this relationship. Membership brings belonging and becoming part of a whole. We’re born in a team, a family, a system. So we learn membership in that system very early. What kind of relationships are there? Do I accept the hierarchy in this family or not? This early experience reflects on how you later become a member of society. 

In your family of origin, you learn how to relate, not only upwards but also outwards and inwards. You learn to relate to your superiors (your parents), but you also learn how to relate across, with your peers, your sisters and brothers. Later you learn how to relate outwards, with society and nature. And maybe later in life through your life experiences you learn more about relating inwards, with yourself. That’s how you form your identity and relationship formats. 

Now, within that relationship we distinguish two things that are of importance for membership: 

  1. What is your persona? How much can you be yourself in a relationship or in an organization or society? Being a member means that you’re constrained. To belong to any group or society there are areas where you compromise your own proclivities. In organisations and societies where there’s a lot of room for personas there’s a lot of freedom to show character differences within a role.

    This is important to remember for the responses to COVID. 
  2. Being in a relationship also means that you accept your position in the constellation of relationships. What is your place in the social ranking? Do you have an informal role?  

The fallacy of being part of a network of relationships

Being part of a network of relationships within society or within an organisation does not mean you can be yourself. This is a fallacy in most people’s thinking, “A great group or a great society is a place where I can be myself completely.” But the truth of the matter is, anytime you join a network of relationships, there’s part of you that you give up, part of you that you adapt to belong within society. 

Of course, the measure to which you do that, how much negotiation room there is, determines the freedom in a society or in an organisation. Nevertheless, no matter how free the society or the organisation, there’s always a place where you cannot be yourself. 

There’s a very subtle process that goes on when you become a member of a network of relationships, where there’s a moment where not only are you accepted in the structure, but depending on your degree of adaptation to the relationships, you’re also accepted in the relationship. That’s the moment where you truly become a member. 

I’m following what’s happening on Lesbos, Moria refugee camp. I’m a frequent visitor to the island, so I know for a fact that it contained more than 17,000 migrants. Refugees in a camp meant for 3000. Everyone in that camp got one litre of water per person per day. Imagine the summer with 35 degrees, and just one litre of water per person. Sixteen toilet blocks for 17,000 people. 

If you enter as a migrant, or as a tourist on a Greek island, you’re a guest in that network of relationships. What does that mean? Do you adapt? How much? It depends on the freedom of character. When are you allowed to revolt and protest against it? And what does it mean for the belonging in the network of relationships? 

Obviously, by burning down the camp the migrants are seen as outsiders in the network of relationships. I know for a fact that before the migrants were partly seen as an element in the network. A lot of the people of the islands actually helped them to survive in that camp. It’s a tragic example of a systemic failure.

I’ve often experienced it and I’m sure all of you have to: how much do you adapt? How much do you want to be yourself in that network of relationships that also encompasses membership?

MEMBERSHIP: The Structure of Membership: I and We —

MEMBERSHIP: The Structure of Membership: I and We


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy. We have eight different programmes where we train coaches and consultants, from beginner coach to supervisor, team coach to organisational consultant. I am also the director of Team Agility, where for 35 years I’ve been implementing Agile Business Innovation all over the world. If you want to know more, please go to or 

Today I want to talk about membership. It’s something that’s preoccupying me in these COVID times. I don’t know about your countries, but here in Holland, I can see a definite split . On the one hand people who want to keep the COVID rules. And on the other hand, a group of people who are resisting COVID measures. The way I look at it, it’s really a very deep division between:

  • people who consider themselves individual members of a group focused on their own well being within society, and, 
  • people who feel they’re part of a tribe, where they’re actually adapting to whatever measures are good for the tribe. 

This division between people who think in terms of personal well being and people who think in terms of tribal well being is becoming greater. I call this the division between “personal” versus “society”. “I” versus “we”. 

What is membership? 

I see leadership as three different things: 

  1. Leadership is a position in a structure, you’ve got a role in a hierarchy. 
  2. It’s a relationship, you are guiding people. 
  3. It’s also a symbol because you stand for the ethics and values in a group. 

Membership is a mirror to this. Membership is a position. As part of the hierarchy, you are a subordinate to somebody else. Within that you have a role and responsibilities just like leaders have. The question is, if you’re a member do you accept being in that structure?

What I see as a COVID reaction, for instance, is many people are a member of a structure in society, but they don’t actually accept that they’re subordinate to that structure. In some countries it’s easier, as they are used to being subordinate to a hierarchical structure. But for instance, in the Netherlands where I live people don’t accept structure very much. They’re used to determining their own structure. The questions are: are you in that structure for your personal well being? Or are you there for the well being of society as well? It’s a difficult balance. 

I’ve lived in 10 different countries to date, most recently Hungary, Sweden and the Netherlands. My joke about membership structure is to watch how people keep to the traffic rules. 

  • In Hungary, traffic rules are a suggestion. If there’s a speed limit it’s at your discretion, and some people do whatever they want to. It’s not part of their DNA to submit to the rules (and given the historical context this might be termed a strength). 
  • In Holland, traffic rules are kept as long as there’s somebody else watching. If people don’t think there are speed cameras, they won’t keep to the speed rules. So, in Holland rules are kept when there’s supervision
  • I’ve also lived in Sweden. From one tip of the country to the other it’s a 24 hour drive. Even in the middle of the forest, people keep to the speed limits. No people, no cameras, just moose and deer, and drivers still keep to the speed limits because in Scandinavian countries, following the rules for the well being of society is part of their DNA. 

Being a member means accepting the structure, with all the roles, hierarchy, processes in place, until you decide to leave or the majority decides otherwise. 

Leadership In Crisis: Re-entry After Corona — August 3, 2020

Leadership In Crisis: Re-entry After Corona


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products to accelerate their time to market. In Intact Academy we organize accredited training programs for coaches and consultants to themselves and their practice. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years. This series of blogs is a way for me to transfer my knowledge to a new generation.

One of the things that fascinates me at the moment is how we are going to take care of re-entry after Corona, or even during Corona. Here in Holland, we’ve been through a period of infection and we’re actually expecting a second wave of infection, but in the meantime, we’re slowly reopening businesses, restaurants and theatres in a very controlled manner. For instance, in the theatres, now you can have 30 people there who have had their temperature checked, and are wearing face masks. I can visit my mother now in the care home for half an hour. So slowly, slowly, we’re reopening. And at the same time preparing to close again, because there is an expectation of the second way. 

Why are we expecting a second wave? Because the government has let go of the imposing of guidelines, they’ve given the responsibility to us as citizens to maintain our distancing, to maintain our face masks, to maintain reasonable guidelines, and to prevent infection. 

I find it interesting that because of the guidelines we have less Coronavirus, and we also have fewer deaths because of other causes. I was speaking to a doctor who explained that because of all the measures we’ve taken we have “under death”. Statistically, there should have been more deaths in this time.

One thing we’re really fearful of is how do we reintroduce people after a pandemic? How do we take care of re-entry?

I don’t really have any answers yet, but I have a lot of questions and ponderings. 


Managers need to change their leadership style


One of the things I notice is that managers really have had to change their leadership styles. Leaders had to change their style because people were working from home, they were forced to trust them. And this forced trust is something that should have happened a long time ago. This paradigm shift from command and control to trust and relationship is one I’ve been advocating for a very long time.

When they come back into the business, the question is, are they going to be able to maintain this trust? What we know from research is that most people leave or derail because of their bad relationship with their leader, because of a relationship with the leader where the leader doesn’t trust them. So will this mean if people actually shift paradigm that people will work harder and longer for one person? And what does that mean in the long run? In the past 20 years, we’ve seen an acceleration of job hopping. Maybe now we’ll see a deceleration. And that means that people will stick to their boss and maintain loyalty, build up more knowledge. Maybe that’s a good thing.


Virtual platforms can be fun 


During this time of working from home, we’ve all had to work with MS Teams or Zoom or any other virtual platform. A lot of leaders really don’t know how to use the platform. Just yesterday, I had a leader who lamented how boring it was using a virtual platform. What do you do? Just talk to the camera? He said: We have an agenda beforehand, and we work the agenda, but people are missing the relationship. 

I use zoom in a very different way. I do what I usually do, which is connect through the camera, and extend my energy. I do fun things during meetings on zoom. I call in my yoga teacher to give yoga exercises every two hours. Last time I had a DJ on board who played music during every break, and we were dancing in the living room, all of us together. There are many ways you can use zoom. 

With virtual working it’s much easier to call in experts from all over the world. You don’t have to wait anymore. You can just contact someone and say, Hey, could you speak to my team for an hour? It’s much easier than it used to be. I hope people start to be playful in our virtual working that would make our lives much more fun and easier.


We have entered into people’s homes


The other thing that’s interesting with virtual working is we’ve actually entered into people’s homes. Behind me you can see my home office. This balance between home and work has shifted because this virtual curtain, that there used to be between home life and work life, has dissipated. 

Sometimes I zoom with my clients who are top leaders in organizations and their children suddenly run by and ask for milk and cookies. Or their dog starts barking in the background. Or we have a conversation about the art on the wall. This has meant that I have been able to meet my clients in a much more personal way. People now know their colleagues in a very different way than they did before. And I’m wondering what’s going to happen to that. I’m hoping it’s going to stay because honestly, for five days a week, we work eight, nine, 10 hours with these people. This difference between work and private life is really a construct. It’s not true in real life. So I’m hoping that some of this relational intimacy will stay. We may have had physical distancing, but hopefully we’ll keep the social intimacy.


Onboarding people who have been through trauma


In some countries we’ve had people who have had the illness, who have had loved ones who have been ill, or people who have died. In Holland most people know someone who’s been ill or who has died. So people have been through traumatic times where they’ve had loved ones being sick, or die in isolation and they’ve not been able to say goodbye. So what does this mean when you try to reintegrate these people into your workforce? 

All of us in some way or other, even people who haven’t been ill or who haven’t had people who’ve died, have been through traumatic times. All of us have had to decide who’s part of our clan. We’ve all had income loss, except the people who were bounty hunters in war. So how do you reintegrate people who have been through trauma? 

We have to pay much more attention as coaches to: teaching leaders to deal with people, deal with working virtually to trust, and to deal with people with trauma.

So I’ve got the questions. I’m going to think about it and I’ll come back with answers in my next blog.


Leadership In Crisis: How to Encourage Democratic Leadership — July 28, 2020

Leadership In Crisis: How to Encourage Democratic Leadership


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products to accelerate their time to market. In Intact Academy we organize accredited training programs for coaches and consultants to themselves and their practice. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years. This series of blogs is a way for me to transfer my knowledge to a new generation.

In these blogs I’ve been talking about my ideas about coaching and consultancy and the development of systems and leadership. I’m really fascinated in this Corona time about the development of autocratic systems. Will we be able to hold on to this change of paradigm from individual responsibility to collective responsibility? Unfortunately you see a split. Either people go back to the normal, or they create something different. You see a re-establishment of democracy or a re-establishment of autocracy.

I’m going to talk more about the establishment of autocratic systems. In the last video we looked at the five stages of their development. In this blog, I’d like to talk about how you can prevent this from happening. How can we encourage democratic systems instead of autocratic systems? 

How to encourage a democratic system:


1. Satisfy the unmet needs


Followers have unmet needs for structure, but also for recognition. In a sect, unfortunately, the structure is high and the recognition is high. So if you do something to please master you’re set for life. One way to create a more democratic system is to make sure that our people have filled their tanks with enough recognition, so that they don’t need to get it from someone else. 

The basic role of a relationship is you have to find someone who wants you, not someone who needs you. That is one of the rules for creating democratic systems. People want to belong, they don’t need to belong. So if we can find a way to diminish the unmet needs in a population, then we can create more autonomy in a system. 


2. Keep boundaries open


In an autocratic system the boundaries are closed, so people can come in, but they can’t go out. It’s really important to keep democracy, and that democratic energy flowing by keeping the boundaries permeable. Even in a state of emergency you keep the information going in and out. You keep people going in and out, you keep money flowing in and out. Because if you don’t allow that movement, then a system becomes stagnant and with any stagnant system there’s a danger of autocracy. So keeping the permeability of boundaries even in crisis is a very important rule to keep democracy going.


3. Deal with the police force


This is a theme at the moment because we have protests because of the murder of George Floyd, by the police in America. What we see in an autocracy is that the police act as the arm of the law as an extension of the master, and they mix moral police with military police. In the United States, they are calling in the military police for an internal struggle, which is a typical sign of autocracy. Very unfortunate. I have compassion for my American friends. 

One of the really important things to keep a democracy going is to keep the police in a humane position where they are the third party in maintaining law and order. So not an extension, but an independent upholder of law. 


4. The constitution


If you look at the constitution of autocratic systems it reads the same way as a democratic constitution. There is just one difference, and that is that in a democratic constitution, there is always a clause about how you can change the constitution. In an autocratic system that’s the one clause that’s missing. 


I lived in Hungary for 27 years, the Iron Curtain had just fallen in ‘92, I saw the establishment of democracy and I saw the re-emergence of modern autocracy with Orban. The first thing president Orban did was to ban the first parliament. In Holland, we have a second and first parliament: the second parliament proposes law and the first parliament can amend it or ratify it. Within a week Orban banned the first parliament so that he could pass laws himself through the second parliament. He also changed the constitution. You see that in Russia as well, they changed the constitution so that they can become leaders forever. Instead of democratic elections every four years, they changed the constitution so  that they extended their leadership. They also made the changing of the constitution almost impossible. For any system to stay democratic you have to make sure that there’s a clause to change the constitution.


5. Your leadership


If you want to maintain democracy as a leader, you have to discourage dependency and encourage autonomy. Anytime someone says to you, Oh, you’re the only one, Oh, I came because of you. It’s really important to push people back anyway with kindness and say, it’s your decision. You have a right to decide within this framework. This is your way to do it. That’s not my job as a leader. 

As responsible members of society, we can actually encourage democracy as well. It’s not just the leaders of our state who can do that. I really encourage you to be democratic, to accept differences and to accept diversity in your communities and to encourage autonomy.