Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

Leadership in Crisis – Preserving the Group — May 22, 2020

Leadership in Crisis – Preserving the Group

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 and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to teach them how to help businesses innovate. 

I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis. Of course this is more relevant than ever today. 

I’ve grown and sold four businesses. I know what it is to deal with crisis. And as I’ve said in previous blogs, what you need to do is establish a clear leadership, re-establish your boundaries and re-establish your structure.

You also need to create more cohesion. You have to give everyone within the organization a sense of belonging. The difficulty is during times of crisis, we often have dynamics which are pressing on the boundaries, which creates breaches in the boundaries and breaches in boundaries create less cohesion. Imagine if you have a balloon and the air in the balloon is the cohesion. As soon as you have a hole, all the air goes out. So you need clear boundaries without breaches to hold that air or the cohesion in a company. 

We talked about re-establishing the boundaries in previous blogs, but now we’re going to talk about how to strengthen the cohesion in a company, a family or a nation.


What is cohesion? 


I always describe cohesion using red dynamics and green dynamics. The red dynamics are the negative ones that press on your boundaries. If they press on your major external boundary it is called pressure. If it’s on the major internal boundary, it’s called agitation. If it is breaching the major internal boundary it’s called intrigue

You need a green dynamic to counteract these red dynamics, which we call cohesion. Cohesion means the need of the members and the leaders to preserve the existence of the group. This is the definition that Eric Berne gave in 1966 and I think it’s still true. Now preserving the group can be at many different levels and I’m going to talk about that first. 


Preserving A Group


A group can be preserved in terms of its structure, relationship and idea:

  1. Structure: the group can continue to exist as a structure even if the rest is gone. So for instance, I’m dealing with a lot of production companies where they have to close the factory. So there’s no one in the factory, no one is producing anymore, but the building is still there. Sometimes I walk through town now and I see buildings that are empty. But I know because the building is still there, that the organization still exists. And we say the same thing about teams: if the structure still exists, the teams still exist. 
  2. Relationship: A second level is when the building isn’t there anymore, but the people are still there. So imagine this, the factory is closed, but the people are still there and the people still have a relationship with each other. The organisation exists as a relationship even if the structure isn’t there anymore. The group still exists even if the building isn’t there, but the people are still there. They’re still a group. I went to a school reunion even though the school doesn’t exist anymore. But we exist and when we came together, it was as if the group was still there. 
  3. Idea: The third level of existence of a team is when the building isn’t there and the people aren’t there anymore to hold the relationship. But the idea of the group is there. So the group exists as an idea, even if the building and the people aren’t there. Think of Israel. Israel existed as an idea before the people were there and even before the country was established. So that idea of the group was already there. And that’s a very powerful thing. We say every organization, every team starts as an idea before it starts as a structure or even as a group of people. As an analogy, if you have children, your child exists as an idea even before it’s born. So you have hopes, fears, dreams for your children before they’re physically born. Anytime you start a group or organization, there’s an idea in someone’s head before the structure is there and before the people are there. 

So, cohesion is the need of the members and the leaders to preserve the existence of the group. And that existence can be at the structural level, at the relational level, or at the imago level (idea). How do you increase the cohesion? We have many different strategies for that, and I’m going to talk about that in the next blog. 


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Leadership in Crisis – Reconfirm Structure — May 15, 2020

Leadership in Crisis – Reconfirm Structure

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 and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to teach them how to help businesses innovate. 

I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis. Of course this is more relevant than ever today. 

In this series of Leadership in Crisis videos we’re learning that the type of leadership you need during crisis is directive leadership. The next thing you need to do is re-establish and reconfirm the structure. How do you do that and what structure are we talking about? Within businesses and within teams, we talk about a structure of boundaries, a structure of hierarchy and an authority structure. We’re also talking about a relational structure and a cultural structure, which we might talk about later.

Boundaries First

So let’s talk about boundaries first. Within the team we have three types of boundaries, major external, which makes the distinction between the environment and the members who’s in, who’s out. Major internal, which differentiates between members and leaders. So who has the decision making power on the minor internal boundaries, which differentiates the departments or categories of membership within the team. 

When we are dealing with crisis we usually see that all these boundaries or one or two boundaries are breached. So that means that the external boundary can be breached when there’s so much environmental pressure that the environmental influences come into the organization. We talk about a breach of major internal boundary where people really don’t support the leadership and take over leadership tasks. And we talk about a breach of the minor internal boundary where departmental roles and tasks start flowing into each other and nobody really knows who’s responsible for what anymore. 

So crisis creates breaches of boundaries. One of the first things that leaders have to do is to re-establish the boundaries. The order of play is:

  1. Re-establish a major internal boundary – re-establish the leadership
  2. Re-establish the relationship between members and leaders. 
  3. Re-establish the relationship between the organization and the environment to create unusual partnerships.

How do you do that? 

Re-establish major internal boundaries

  • Physical location: Make sure the crisis team is in one location and everybody knows where that location is. People know there’s a centralized leadership and all the decisions are taken there. All communication goes through that point if it’s relevant to the crisis.
  • Recognisable Crisis Team: In terms of communication with other people, it’s very clear who’s in the crisis team. In that sense you create a clear major internal boundary. Interestingly enough, we usually see that happen when everyone wears the same suits for example.
  • Offer to members: Make sure that people know that you’re there for them. Directional leadership offers hope, structure and love. A boundary is objective and also subjective. So you have to know that when you re-establish boundaries, you’re doing something physically like a room, but you’re also doing something subjectively, like giving hope, direction and love.
  • Accountability: Make sure they also know you’re accountable. So success or failure, you’re accountable.

Re-establish the major external boundary

Make it very clear who’s in and who’s out. During crisis you can create unusual partnerships. So in a sense your major external boundary gets more permeable, but you have to re-establish who’s in before you can create partnerships. This is the paradox of partnership. You have to be clear about who you are before you can create a relationship. 

When we talk about re-establishing the major external boundary, what we’re talking about is being very clear about when you’re a member and when you’re not a member. During normal business time when it’s not crisis, people walk in and out, suppliers sometimes become part of the organization. In times of crisis the boundaries become very clear.

In the time of Coronavirus we’re re-establishing our national boundaries. Germany sees the Dutch as people who are at risk because we’ve chosen a policy of controlled infection rates and Germany has chosen for lock-down. The whole discussion about Europe being one is set aside and we are closing national boundaries. We need to re-establish the major external boundary and say, “You are part of my tribe and you’re not.”

In the case of countries, it’s your national boundaries. In the case of organizations, it may be the fence around your factory, or someone who gets a passcode to get in. It might be who has access to the computers or intranet. Temporary workers might be dismissed so that the resources that are left in the organization are only shared with the people who are members. 

You see this in tribal law: when there’s famine only the clan gets fed. It’s painful sometimes, but natural. 

Luckily we also have unusual partnerships, which I’ll talk about later! So first you re-establish the major internal boundary by establishing a crisis team who controls decision making, communication and who’s there for you. Then you establish the major external boundaries to making sure who’s in and who’s out. Some people do it the other way around and that’s also possible. It depends on if you’re a startup or an established company.

Re-establish minor internal boundaries

The next step is to re-establish the minor internal boundaries, but actually in times of crisis, those are very loosely held. In crisis anyone who’s part of the organization becomes responsible for everything in the sense that it doesn’t really matter anymore who does it as long as it gets done. Role definitions become fluid between the members. You have to be very careful that they don’t get fluid in the leadership.

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Leadership in Crisis – Change Leadership Style — May 1, 2020

Leadership in Crisis – Change Leadership Style

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 and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to teach them how to help businesses innovate. 

I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis. Of course this is more relevant than ever today. 

In the previous blog we talked about what happens to an organization in crisis. An organizational crisis occurs when the dynamics are stronger than the cohesion so that the boundaries get breached. 

Dynamics > Cohesion = Crisis

When a boundary gets breached you have to establish a different leadership style. 

In Holland for instance, we have a more or less a democratic leadership style where everyone thinks they have something to say and to decide. In crisis however you need to re-centralize and re-establish the major external boundary. First you need to reset the leadership, then the membership, and then deal with the environment. That’s the order of play in crisis. 

To be able to do that, you have to switch into a directive leadership style. Now there’s a lot of myths about directive leadership styles or autocratic leadership styles. But there is a difference. Autocratic leaders are strictly top-down and believe in absolute leadership, and are based on what we call in TA, the negative Critical Parent locking into the other’s negative Adapted Child. 

The public relations word for an autocratic leader  is charismatic leadership. But actually it’s the same thing as an autocratic leadership style, but with better PR. The autocratic leader is someone who closes all boundaries and creates absolute dependency between leadership and membership.


Good Directive Leadership in Crisis


A good directive leader creates hope, structure and love. 

  1. Hope: A directive leader creates hope in the sense that they create a point beyond the crisis. A directive leader says, “There is hope beyond the crisis and this is where we’re going to go.” Of course you have to deal with the immediate crisis. But the leader has an end point, which is beyond the crisis.
  2. Structure: The directive leader is the holder of the structure. They re-establish those major internal boundaries than the major external boundaries. They manage the cohesion in the leadership. Then the cohesion between members and leaders, and then the relationship with the environment.
  3. Love: By that I mean that they create a sense that everyone belongs together in crisis. A really good directive leader will create a culture of one for all and all for one, during times of crisis. And when people feel they’re in it together, they come up with unusual solutions in which people are beautifully human and compassionate and helpful to each other. 

That’s the type of leadership that we’re looking for in crisis. Of course, there’s also a technical side to that. Technically a directive leader must:

  1. Create short communication lines. Short communication lines means there is immediate and constant communication about what’s going on. The more Adult information you give to all the members of that system, the more you help them take responsibility and accountability for whatever they need to do within the crisis. Autocratic leaders tend to give false or no information during crisis where really good directive leaders give constant, frequent, accurate information because the emphasis is on everyone taking responsibility.
  2. Create short decisional lines. One of the really important things during crisis is that you create a crisis team. The crisis team are the people who are most necessary to deal with that particular crisis. It doesn’t mean that you follow the hierarchy. It means that you involve the people in a very small group who are necessary to deal with that particular crisis and that you give that team direct and executive power during the crisis. 

During this Coronavirus crisis we can see the differences between countries dealing with the Corona crisis. As an organizational consultant I’m fascinated by how they establish leadership during this time. If I compare for in terms of decision making the Netherlands, France, America, and China you see completely different styles.

In the Netherlands, they’ve established this directive, quick decision making crisis team with experts. The experts and politicians are very closely linked, and they haven’t involved people who are usually in the political hierarchy that are not necessary. They give constant and clear Adult information about what’s going on. Everybody knows and can look up who’s ill, where they have to go, what they have to do. 

In Holland, the government has decided to create this autonomy of membership. They’ve decided to put in place regulations and ask for the population to take responsibility. Every time the population doesn’t follow the regulations, they tighten them. So that means that there’s this interplay between members and leaders about accountability. 

It’s very important to establish accountability in a crisis because a crisis team that only creates top-down autocratic leadership, will create dependency. And the more dependent people are, the less innovative they are in finding solutions. 

In Holland, more than in other countries, you see that people find very creative solutions and unusual partnerships. I really believe it’s because the government has decided to do this short directive leadership, with quick decision lines, good communication, and then this interplay of accountability. 

Directive leadership is not the same as autocratic leadership. You need to create hope, love and structure. You need to create short decision making lines and clear Adult communication so that you can establish an interplay of autonomy and accountability.

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Leadership In Crisis – Work Interrupted: How to Deal With Crisis — April 24, 2020

Leadership In Crisis – Work Interrupted: How to Deal With Crisis

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 and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to teach them how to help businesses innovate. 

I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis. Of course this is more relevant than ever today. 

In TA we define crisis in organizations in a quite precise way. 

An organization has a major external boundary which distinguishes the environment from the organization, and a major internal boundary, which distinguishes the leadership from the members. 

When the dynamics in an organization are stronger than the cohesion within an organization, there is usually a breach of boundaries and that’s what we call a crisis. I’ll explain. 

There are three types of dynamics:

  1. Pressure from the outside. A breach of the major external boundary means that the outside forces come inside. Then people are so preoccupied with dealing with this invasion that they forget to work. Imagine a country where someone breaches the frontier. Everybody goes to that frontier to push them back and then the normal work of that country is disrupted. The same goes for organizations. 
  2. Pressure on the leadership. Imagine members in an organization pushing on the leadership boundary, complaining, agitating, sabotaging, criticizing, not getting behind their leaders. If there’s a breach, it’s because the leadership isn’t cohesive enough to maintain that boundary. If there’s not enough leadership cohesion members become the “leaders”, which disrupts the functioning of the organization. When the employee dissatisfaction with leaders gets too high, then the group becomes a process group instead of a work group, causing a leadership breach or crisis. 
  3. Pressure between members. If there’s not enough cohesion within the units or departments in an organization, there’s a breach of the minor internal boundary and you see role confusion. One department complains constantly about the other department, for example the production department complaining about the sales and marketing. Sales has sold too much and production can’t keep up. Or marketing promises something and R & D can’t produce it. Those are traditional types of intrigues between departments. If that gets too strong, there’s a breach of the minor internal boundaries between departments and then the departments start concentrating on their fight instead of the work they’re supposed to do. We call that an internal breach or a crisis.

What can you do when there’s an organization in crisis? Well, there are a few of things:

  1. Change the leadership style.
  2. Reconfirm your structure. 
  3. Increase the cohesion. 
  4. Create unusual partnerships.

This is what we’ll look at in coming videos.

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Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – Secret Exit Doors — April 10, 2020

Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – Secret Exit Doors

My name is Sari van Poelje I’m the CEO of Intact Academy. We give training programs for coaches and consultants all over the world, from beginning coach to team coach to organizational consultants. There are team coaching training programs everywhere. You can find them on My other business is Team Agility. I am an Agile Business Innovation Designer: I help companies innovate their business more quickly than their products so that they’re always on time to market. 

In this series of videos we’re looking at transactional analysis or TA. We were talking about conflicts and psychological games and how to get into conflict. But now we’re also talking about how to get out of conflict. So we’ve talked about why people get into games and how you can diminish the need for games. We’ve talked about the drama triangle and how to switch into the winner’s triangle. Now we’re going to talk about the game formula and all the exit doors we have to get out of games. Even if you’re into conflict already, it requires some discipline, but it is possible. 

This work is based on the article by Stephen Karpman called Options, and also on my own experience of how to help people get out of conflict. In the game formula, Formula G, we’ve said one of the reasons people get into games is because they’re under stress. Now, when you’re under stress, everyone automatically goes back to their primary survival mode. So one really good way to stay out of games is to diminish your stress. 

How do you diminish stress and avoid conflict? 

Secret 1: With delete, dilute or diminish.

1.Delete means that you avoid your stress factor. All of us have specific things that really get us stressed. Certain triggers that remind us of our childhood might get us really stressed. One way, of course, to have less stress in your life is just to recognise what triggers you. I’m going to make sure in my life I’m not in that situation anymore.

For me, there’s a certain type of person who always gets me stressed. And these are people who Persecute from a Victim position. It’s my thing. And it’s something that reminds me of the past. When I meet these people, I have a trigger. So I tend to avoid these people.

2. Dilute means if you can’t avoid the trigger at least make sure you’ve got other people around. So, if you have to deal with people that trigger your stress, make sure you’re in a group of people who have different kinds of energies where you don’t have to deal with this alone.

3. Diminish the trigger for stress. Make sure you’ve got internal resources, your tank is full of recognition, you have done your personal work, that you have cleaned your house internally so that this doesn’t trigger so much. Also, up your support network so you will be less stressed and that therefore get less into conflict.

Secret 2: Name the Ulterior Motives

Any game or conflict starts with an exchange of ulterior transactions. So that means people say something, but they mean something else. This ulterior meaning, a psychological message, will always win. It’s often non-verbal, and non-verbal is the first language we learned. So these messages usually have more impact. Unfortunately, that’s the rule of communication. So if I say to you, “Where did you put my socks this time, darling?” Then the tone of what I say will be much more important than what I actually say. Which means you will react to my Persecution in the tone, and you will not hear the question, which is: “Where did you leave my socks?”. 

One of the ways to deal with the ulterior motive and to stay out of conflict is just to name it. You could say, “If I’m understanding you correctly, you want to know where your socks are?” or, “Am I understanding you correctly that you want to fight about your socks? Because in that case, let’s just put an alarm  clock to five minutes and have the fight.” Sometimes you just need to relieve the stress. 

You don’t want to do this in every situation. If someone is trying to seduce you and they go, “Would you like to have a drink with me afterwards?” Don’t say, “Am I understanding you correctly?” Because that would be a killer for your romantic situation. But if people are hooking you into games, into something negative, it’s a really handy trick to have up your sleeve. 

Secret 3: The Moment of Silence

The third step in the game formula is the switch, when you respond to the ulterior motive. You get into one of the roles and then you get a switch. There’s an escalation of ulteriors until you’re hooked. That’s the way conflicts work.

So you’re having this conversation about who puts out the trash and someone says, “If you really love me, you would have put out the trash.” And then you’re having a conversation about your relationship instead of the trash, and at the end of this conversation the trash is still in the house

In every conflict there’s a switch, like the centre of the storm. There’s a moment of silence where you realise that one of you switched ego states or switched roles in the game. So you’ve gone, for instance, from Rescuer to Victim in this case or from Persecutor to Victim. There’s a moment of silence because you can only continue the conversation when one of you changes ego states if the other changes ego state too. If you catch yourself in that moment and have the presence of mind to say:I think we’ve had this conversation before, I’m gonna make a cup of tea. I love you. I’m gonna come back in 10 minutes and let’s talk about this.” 

This moment of silence in any conflict is your door to something else.

Secret 4: You Can Choose Not To Go There

At the end of the game there is a moment of payoff where you get into your favourite rotten feeling and you confirm your belief about self, others, and the world. One person walks away saying, “I always have to do everything here. Nobody ever does anything for me. The world is a hard place.” 

In that moment, and it’s very difficult and takes a lot of discipline, you recognise that there is an opportunity for you to reconfirm your basic assumptions, but that you actually choose not to. This really requires discipline. You think, I could go there, but I’m choosing not to. 

Secret 5: Uncover the Unmet Need

The important thing to recognise is people get into conflict because there’s an unmet need. Now, I know this is difficult to hold on to during the moment you’re in the heat of conflict or in the heat of the psychological game. 

I’ve been doing this for a very long time, for 35 years, and even I get into games still. I suddenly realise, oh, no, I’m a trained professional, I’m a transactional analyst. I’m in a game now. I should get out. But I recognise that every time someone gets into a psychological game, including me, there’s an unmet need. One of the mega ways to get out of conflict or get out of games is to take a step back and think, what is my unmet, unspoken need? And what is the other person’s unmet, unspoken need? If you can get to that in some way, then that’s a sure way to get out of conflict. 

One of my clients every time he came in back from work, got into a fight with his wife. So he’d been on a business trip, came home, got into a fight with his wife. I had a talk with him and I heard him say, “You know, I deal with conflict every day. Why should I deal with the chaos when I come home?” I pointed out that the pattern is, “You come home, you have a fight and then you have an excuse to go to your study and be by yourself. So what would happen if instead of having a fight, you tell your wife, every time I come home from a business trip, I need a moment for myself before I can re-engage in the relationship.”

After that they had a much more peaceful time. It’s often in the transition times that people get into conflict. Recognise that there’s an unmet need. 

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