Maureen Collins

Maureen Collins

Maureen Collins has a B Sc degree in Psychology from Edinburgh University and over 20 years of management and consulting experience in the African corporate world. She started her career in the mining industry with Anglo American in Zambia before coming to South Africa in 1976 to join AECI. She then worked for Afrox and the Barlow’s Group before joining the FSA Contact consulting group in1985. From 1995 to 2006 she was an Associate of Gateways Business Consultants. She now consults independently as Straight Talk.

Maureen has consulted extensively in the chemical and manufacturing sectors and in other organisations such as Telkom, SARS, Harmony Gold Mining Company and TFMC. Her current clients include Wesbank, Safmarine, Rand Air, Aberdare Cables, Ovations, Johannesburg Securities Exchange, Nedbank, Development Bank of South Africa, Gauteng Department of Health, and Multichoice.

Maureen’s experience is in management and leadership training; team building, and handling change and transition. She has trained managers extensively in performance management. The challenge of improving the quality of performance feedback given by managers to their employees lead to her interest in the field of emotional intelligence as a means of improving communication in the corporate world.

In designing the Straight Talk material she has drawn on her own experience and a broad range of resources to help people improve their communication skills in the difficult conversations they encounter in their professional and personal lives.

Friday, 24 May 2013 15:29

Are you being bullied?

Bullying has been in the news lately because it seems to have reached epidemic proportions in schools. But in the business world, where it’s more often called harassment or toxic behaviour, it’s just as common.

Bullying is not about anger, disagreement or conflict. It is the wilful, deliberate and repeated display of aggression and domination by one person toward another. It’s about contempt and control, and reflects the bullies’ view of the imbalance of power between them and their targets. 

Most bullying in the workplace is emotional and psychological. It’s more subtle, but no less damaging, than being pushed around or having your hair pulled if you’re a child at school.  

Do you work in a toxic environment where bullying behaviour is tolerated and even encouraged? 

  • There are signs of anger and frustration everywhere. Absenteeism and turnover may be high. Bullies are often in foul moods that cause misery and stress for others. 
  • Bullies are admired for their results in spite of their behaviour. When they shout, swear, or intentionally criticise and embarrass others, their behaviour is excused as strong leadership and competitive business practice. So long as they continue to expand the business, bullies are allowed to behave aggressively and manipulatively. 
  • People react to problems by blaming others. Bullies have little insight into their own behaviour and dodge any responsibility for things that go wrong; but they are quick to take credit for good results even if it involves stealing it. 
  • It’s hard to make sense of work. Objectives are unclear, priorities change, deadlines are unrealistic and decisions seem arbitrary, all adding to the general frustration. 
  • Relationships are dysfunctional. Criticism, gossip and backbiting are common. Bad feelings linger and straightforward conversations that clear the air are seldom heard. 
  • Meetings are a waste of time. People are intimidated into silence by bullies who criticise, interrupt, indulge in monologues, manipulate and intimidate. 
  • There is a sense of unreality and hypocrisy because of the contradiction between what is said and what is done in the organisation. Bullies are masters at giving a good impression to their seniors while terrorising staff. Senior managers may be unaware of or may ignore what is going on and HR may be incompetent or disempowered. People who try to speak up are told they are too sensitive, that they have misunderstood the situation or even that they are to blame for causing it. Good people leave.  

A toxic work environment starts at the top when senior management looks only at the bottom line, unaware of or naively overlooking the extent of toxic behaviour and its effects on employees. If you decide that you are in such a workplace and that you will be unable to get support in dealing with a bully, your only option may be to leave for a happier and healthier environment. In the extreme, you may have a case for constructive dismissal.  

If bullying is not the organisational norm however and if you are in a position where you can influence the culture of your company, there are steps you can take to deal with the dysfunctional behaviour of toxic individuals.

1.The organisation must start by being explicit about what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. This doesn’t mean a blandly worded policy statement. It must be a clear description of behaviour that can be seen and heard.

2.Senior managers and other influential people create the culture in an organisation. They can start by modelling non-bullying behaviour when they resolve problems and exert influence. 

3.Bullying should be addressed as soon as it becomes apparent and consequences for unacceptable behaviour must be applied immediately before the abusive behaviour develops into a habit.

4.Job performance or big sales figures should not be allowed to excuse bad behaviour or to allow bullies to become models for others. When people see bullying behaviour being rewarded they can be quick to copy it. 

5.Bullies can be helped to understand the reasons for their behaviour and to develop more effective problem solving and communication skills. 

6.People targeted by bullies can be shown how to cope with bullies so they avoid becoming victims.  This help most often needs to be supplied by counsellors skilled in dealing with violence and bullying.

It’s not enough for an organisation to proclaim a zero tolerance policy on bullying or to pride itself on its tough culture. Employees are entitled to work in safe and motivating environments where they know that aggressive and manipulative people will be confronted; where the values of respect and communication proclaimed by the organisation are supported in practice; and where those who fall below standards of professional behaviour will be held to account. 


Friday, 03 May 2013 15:14

Who's in charge

Intellectually you may believe that you’re in charge of your own destiny. In practice, what does your behaviour say?

For most of us our emotions exist on an on-off toggle. Often we choose to shut them down completely, afraid to express them because we’re scared of the damage we might do. Then, unable to hold onto our anger or frustration or misery any longer, we explode. Tears and tantrums follow… it’s not pretty.

Just as you control your actions, you also control your thoughts and feelings. It's part of the same internal discipline. How well do you do?

I would argue that your most precious personal resource is your time. Are you in charge of yours? Who manages your time at work? Can others block it out in your diary to the point that the 30 minutes you have free for yourself in the whole day can disappear into another meeting?

Have you learned to say no? Do you let people highjack your plans or your free time simply by asking you to do something for them instead? If you can’t say no, you’re allowing others to take control.

‘Incoming’, the military term for approaching fire, makes it an appropriate label for the barrage of text messages, mail, BBMs and social network alerts that come at us. Our Pavlovian response to these alerts now has its own acronym: FOMO, ‘fear of missing out’. When did you last turn everything off; out of sight and out of mind, so you could do some creative thinking – quietly - all on your own? 

You can gain control over your life with the choices that you make; unless of course you decide to be powerless. 

Who’s in charge in your life? Click here to assess how well you control your emotions.


Friday, 03 May 2013 15:08

Managing emotions at work

  • You get frustrated with employees who make the same mistakes over and over.
  • You feel pressurised and stressed by clients whose demands are unreasonable. 
  • Your stomach goes into a knot with anticipation of big orders that might – or might not – come through.
  • You worry that a strike at your key supplier could disrupt your production process.
  • You snap at a colleague and then feel guilty that your behaviour was unreasonable.

There’s a lot more emotion involved at work than you might think. But we’ve been taught that big boys don’t cry and that holding onto a stiff upper lip, no matter the circumstances, is professional business behaviour. So we put a lot of effort and energy into hiding our emotions.

It’s not always easy. Your emotional state is carried in your body language and the non-verbal signals you send out. When you’re angry, frustrated, or upset, you can feel the tension in your stomach and shoulders. You may notice that the rate of your breathing increases. Others see the frown on your face and clenched jaw muscles: they hear your harsh voice. 

As the tension and stress build up you get to a point where you can no longer control your emotions and eventually you explode with anger, harsh words, and even physical violence. This is the worst possible way to communicate how you feel. Your emotions, not your intellectual faculties, are in charge and in the heat of the moment when you are so angry you can’t think straight, you may well say and do things you regret later. 

You can try to keep your feelings entirely out of the picture but it seldom works. It’s unrealistic because we all feel strongly about many issues and frustration, anger, disappointment and excitement are all powerful emotions that are hard to hide. Sometimes we think we can, but our body language usually gives us away. 

How often have you been feeling strongly about something and someone says to you: ‘Are you OK?’ Your conventional answer is most likely to be: ‘Yes, I’m fine.’ But the person may continue to probe: ‘Are you sure? You seem...’ 

This interchange demonstrates how your non-verbal signals let others know that something is bothering you, but leaves them mystified about what exactly is going on.

Most importantly, emotions put energy into your interactions with others and provide the impetus for people to listen to what you have to say and to consider changing their ways. Think of a conversation with an employee who has been performing well but has started to make careless mistakes. You have spoken to him a couple of times but nothing changed. Your next conversation could be the last one before you have to use disciplinary action.

You could open the conversation by saying: ‘We’ve reviewed your performance in each of the past three months’ and refer to your evidence of his continuing poor performance. Then you might say, ‘I’m going to give you one more month. Then I will have no option but to start disciplinary action.’

See how much stronger the conversation would be if you added ‘When you started with us I had great hopes for your future with the company. Frankly, I’m disappointed in how things are turning out.’ Although it may sound low key, telling someone that you are disappointed in them is one of the strongest pieces of feedback you can give.

If you then add the open question: ‘What’s going on?’ you make it as safe as possible for the employee to give his side of the story so you can get to the bottom of the problem before you decide on the action to take. 

The best option is always to manage your emotions intelligently, rather than shutting them out completely or waiting until they blow up and control you. This means becoming aware of your feelings and learning how to express them appropriately. When you do so, you will find that their power helps you create better quality conversations and build better relationships. 

It is common knowledge – as well as common sense – that if you want to get the best performance from people, you must be clear on what you want them to do.  That has been the starting point for a veritable industry that has arisen around writing goals and objectives, targets, standards, key performance areas and indicators, outputs and BHAGS – Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

Even the best remedies however have side effects, and there are several that come with goal setting. One of the most serious is that you get what you ask for. 

When CEO Lee Iacocca of the Ford motor company announced the goal of producing a new car, the Ford Pinto, that would be ‘under 2000 pounds and under $2,000’, within a tight deadline, managers met the objective by signing off on safety checks that had not been properly carried out.  One of these checks was on the placement of the car’s fuel tank.  53 deaths, many injuries and expensive lawsuits later brought the point home that the design of the fuel tank caused it to ignite on impact and that poorly performed safety checks had not picked up the fault.

In Ford, managers had worked to the specified goals of speed to market, fuel efficiency and cost, at the expense of other goals that were not specified, such as safety and ethical behaviour. 

There are many other examples. When salespeople are measured only on revenue targets they are likely to bring in poor quality business with low profit margins. Call centre agents become short and abrupt with clients when they are measured only on the number of calls they process per day. Managers run down stock levels toward the end of a financial period so they can make the figures look good. Focus on production outputs and mere compliance with emission control standards, encourages people to overlook the broader environmental effects of their business practices.

People obviously pay most attention to the things that are being measured, and for which they are being rewarded. Ironically, the more efficient your reward system, the more serious the consequences if goals are misdirected. An organisation needs to have strong values, and executives who model ethical and co-operative behaviour, to survive the effects of an aggressive management by objectives process where the focus of the objectives, if followed thoughtlessly, could be damaging to the business. 

Goals may actually encourage unethical behaviour when people start to believe that the ends justify the means. Hours are billed that are not worked, repairs are carried out unnecessarily and sales reports or financial statements are falsified, sometimes with dramatic consequences.

At the corporate level leaders who conflate business goals with their personal ambitions, and are unwilling or unable to back down under the spotlight of public expectation and opinion, can lead their organisations into unethical behaviour and excessive risk taking. The financial melt- down of 2008 / 2009 contains many examples.

It seems to makes sense that setting challenging goals and objectives to which people are held accountable, is the best way to inspire them to top performance. However, goals which are set too high cease to be motivating when people see no point in even trying to achieve them.  Focus on individual goals may also destroy the cooperative behaviours that hold groups together. 

A different downside to goal setting is that people stop experimenting and learning because they focus only on obtaining results.  Goals inhibit learning when they provide no reward for time spent looking for alternative routes and different solutions. This applies to complex tasks in changing environments, when ‘the way we’ve always done it’ may not be the best way this time around, but where there is no motivation for people to stand back and look for alternative strategies.

Some organisations try to use learning or personal development goals which focus on development of competencies, but in practice managers often have trouble determining what these competencies should be or when they are appropriate. In addition, when they are not included in the reward system they are seldom given any priority.

Lastly, there is always the possibility that goals will not be reached. People seldom handle failure well and are liable to become demotivated, questioning both their own abilities and those of the managers who have set the goals in the first place.

When consideration of business ethics, organisation culture and teamwork, safety, and environmental impact is important, narrow, output oriented goals can be dangerous. If you work toward them, you will most likely get what you have been aiming for. Be sure it is what you want.

People are our most important resource. It’s a phrase that’s used often and appears regularly in various forms in company reports and on walls and posters throughout the country. Most managers today accept that managing the performance of their people and giving them regular feedback is one of their most critical roles.

In practice however, things play out somewhat differently. For a start, managers are often reluctant to give people any feedback at all. Whether it is for work done well or about a mistake that has been made, giving feedback is rarely as urgent a task as chasing up an overdue payment, calming your biggest customer after a late delivery, or sorting out a production problem that threatens to close the factory. It might be on the To Do list but it’s always near the bottom for the day ‘when things settle down’. And when is that ever going to be?

We rationalize our behaviour. We tell ourselves that we don’t need to give people positive feedback. We say that praise and compliments are for softies; and that people know what they have to do and are paid to do it properly. Why should they be praised for doing exactly what they should be doing?

The conversation in which you have to give critical feedback when someone has made a mistake is one of the conversations that managers dislike; avoid for as long as possible; and handle quite badly. There are a number of reasons.

Opening up a critical feedback conversation is tricky because it can be hard to put your finger on exactly what is wrong with the person’s performance. Sometimes the facts are clear; recorded in financial statements, sales reports or production records. But giving feedback on a presentation you think was handled badly, or a report that is poorly organized is another matter. 

Even more difficult is the conversation when someone is getting the job done but where you are bothered by their behaviour. Perhaps they spend too long on the phone making private calls, surfing the internet, or talking too loudly in the open office. 

Worst of all are the conversations about attitude. People who are aggressive with colleagues and junior staff, those who have negative attitudes that affect everybody or people who moan constantly about their personal problems, are often allowed to continue with their toxic behaviour for years because no-one is brave enough or competent enough to tackle them about the impact they are having on everyone around them.

Conversations about performance can be avoided and poor behaviour can be tolerated:  up until the end of the year when decisions about bonus payments and salary increments for the coming year have to be made. As employees start to anticipate their end of year rewards: managers are dreading the difficult conversations they can expect to have with those who are going to receive rather less than they were hoping for.

These end of year conversations around bonuses and increments are tough tests of how well managers have been dealing with performance appraisals and feedback through the year. Managers who have been giving their people regular feedback; positive when it was deserved and critical when they needed to confront poor performance or bad behaviour, have nothing to worry about.

But if you have not held regular appraisals and have not confronted poor performance in which you were honest about your concerns and clear about the consequences of continued poor behaviour, then you face a problem. You have two options.

You can spread your available budget evenly amongst the team. This is the cowardly solution to the problem and has two negative consequences.  People who legitimately deserve more, and are high performers you want to retain and motivate, will be disappointed and upset. On the other hand, poor performers will receive tacit approval for their non-performance and will be reassured that they can continue with it into next year. 

The courageous choice is to step up to the conversations you should have held during the year; give honest, constructive feedback and clear the air so that you start over on a realistic footing. Afterwards, allocate bonuses that send the right message about the kind of people and performance you want in your team.

Then resolve to manage your way through the coming year more professionally.


Friday, 19 April 2013 16:22

Talking doesn’t help! What now?

Are there people around you who consistently miss deadlines, perform below your expectations, or frustrate you with irritating behavior and negative attitudes?  Have you talked to them? Did your conversations make a difference?

Probably not! There are many conversations in which we think we have been clear on how we feel about someone's behavior or attitude and we think we have agreed on what will change. But nothing does. How often have you said in frustration, ‘We’ve talked about this over and over! Why is it still happening?’

Conversations must get to the real problems to have any hope of solving them. The simplest conversation is about a one-off problem. This is something that has not happened before and hasn’t been discussed before. It might be with a supplier who missed a delivery date for the first time or with a new employee who made a mistake. A simple question, ‘What happened’, may solve the problem.

Often it doesn’t, and then we resort to nagging. Why are you late?  You're late again!  I've told you before!  Can't you get it right?

As our frustration grows, the nagging become more emotional, with more blame and accusation. It also become less effective as the other person tunes it out.  The real problem is that we are not addressing the pattern of behavior or the habit that has developed, and the longer it is left unchallenged, the more difficult it will be to talk about or to change.

When a conversation about a one-off problem does not achieve the change in behavior that you want, the next conversation must address the pattern of behavior.  These are more difficult conversations and the temptation is often to put them off for as long as possible. This however gives the impression that you are okay with the behavior, and in the long term you will have even more difficulty changing it.

To open a conversation with someone who has started to come to work late, you would say, ‘I am concerned about your time keeping.  You have been late two mornings this week. You know that we start at 08.00 and I need you here on time. What’s the problem?’  An opening like this sends a clear signal that you will not accept the pattern of late-coming.

Don’t accuse or exaggerate a problem by saying, ‘You’re always late!’ or ‘You never get this right!’ Stick to the facts and be specific.  When you address a pattern of behavior in this way, there is every chance that you will solve the problem.

Sometimes however, there are broad issues that affect how people behave. If a person is in the wrong job, no amount of talking, training, or even discipline will get them to maintain the level of performance you require. Conversations about broad issues are often about commitment, personal or family problems, and relationships.

If a supplier is overstretched, the broad issues you need to discuss will cover their long-term ability to meet your needs and whether you need an additional or a different supplier. The decision you finally reach will also take into account your relationship with the supplier.

When you do not speak up about performance with which you are unhappy or behavior that drives you crazy, nothing changes except that you become more irritated, more frustrated and angrier.  Until you speak up, the other person has no way of knowing how you feel and has no reason to change how they are behaving. 

Although these conversations can sometimes be difficult, it is always best to speak up and get to the real problem. Then you can agree a solution and move on.

Friday, 19 April 2013 16:21

How to handle tears and aggression

There are many things that managers dislike about performance appraisal interviews with staff. One of the most dreaded is the woman who breaks down in tears at the first hint of critical feedback.

I’m not talking about the one-off event where one party, the manager, is a little insensitive; and the other party, the employee, is a little overly sensitive. This is usually nothing more than a blip in an otherwise good relationship; a blip that tissues, tea and apologies from both parties can fix. I’m talking about women who, at the drop of a tear, can avoid being held to account for their performance, sometimes for decades.

Do not be mistaken: this is not an exclusively female domain. Men too, avoid criticism; only they do it with defensive aggressive behaviour.  Tears and aggressiveness are two outwardly different behaviours that are used in appraisal discussions with the same purpose: to manipulate managers into backing off from giving critical feedback and holding people to account.

What can you do to handle this situation?

The very best way is to avoid having it happen. There are two ways in which you can minimise the likelihood of tears or aggression.

One is to prepare for the conversation by gathering facts that describe the performance problem with which you are concerned, and to present those facts in a neutral, non accusing way. For example, if you were talking to someone about the amount of sick leave she takes when you have no evidence of any serious disease, you could open the conversation by saying, ‘I’d like to talk about your attendance.’ Then you would walk her through the attendance record that you have obtained before the meeting, drawing attention to any pattern in the days she has been away.

Presenting facts like this allows an employee to see why you are concerned about their behaviour, without your sounding accusing or blaming. When you sound accusing you provide the excuse for tears, or for a defensive aggressive response.

The second way to pre-empt the problem is to agree a ground rule at the start of the conversation. You might say, ‘I’m going to give you some feedback. It’s a little detailed. If you want time to think it through quietly at any point just ask for time out.’

If, in spite of your care, you are confronted with tears or aggression, remember that the purpose of the conversation is to give feedback. Then be sure you are not diverted from that purpose. Stop the conversation. If you are dealing with tears it does no harm to offer tissues. Then say something along the lines of,’ I’m going to give you a few minutes to think about what I’ve said so that we can talk it through calmly. We do need to get to the bottom of this problem.’ Then leave your office, with the person still sitting at your desk. The message is clear: you will be back, and you will continue discussing the issue.

If you behave firmly and consistently in these conversations, without allowing yourself to be diverted from the purpose of the discussion, your employees will quickly learn that you will not be manipulated.

Tuesday, 09 April 2013 15:42

It’s getting more toxic

There’s more toxic behaviour than ever in corporate workplaces. You’ll be familiar with it.

  • People are unreliable. They flit between meetings, leaving trails of forgotten promises and incomplete projects in their wake.
  • The response to any feedback is defensive. Everyone’s on the edge so any feedback is taken to be criticism.
  • We’re all distracted, trying to attend to a dozen things at once, and giving precious little intelligent attention to any of them.
  • We exist in bubbles of our own importance, unaware of or uncaring that people find us inconsiderate and disrespectful.
  • We blame others more often than we take ownership and accountability for our actions.

The reasons aren’t hard to find. Everyone is working harder, longer, and under more pressure. Stress is high; fuses are short; tolerance of mistakes is low. It takes a lot of emotional intelligence to maintain a calm, rational and amiable face under such circumstances.

Your emotions exist in two phases: either you’re in control or they are. Emotional intelligence starts with awareness of your own emotional state so that you can manage and control it.  Then you need to become aware of the impact you have on others, so you can attend to your relationships.

It’s worth developing these skills. They  make the difference between people who are truly successful in their lives and those who are not. 

Click here to assess how well you control your emotions.

Thursday, 04 April 2013 09:37

Who’s in charge – you or your emotions?

Everyone is working harder, longer, and under more pressure. Stress is high; fuses are short; tolerance of mistakes is low. It takes a lot of emotional intelligence to maintain a calm, rational and amiable face under such circumstances. 

Your emotions exist in two phases: either you’re in control or they are. Emotional intelligence starts with awareness of your own emotional state so that you can manage and control it.  Then you need to become aware of the impact you have on others, so you can attend to your relationships.

It’s worth developing these skills. They make the difference between people who are truly successful in their lives and those who are not. If you answer yes to more than 7 of the questions below you may need to improve your emotional intelligence skills.

1.    Are your conversations often derailed by strong emotions?

2.    Are you sometimes scared to speak up?

3.    Does dealing with emotional issues leave you tired and stressed?

4.    Do minor conflicts escalate into street-fights?

5.    Do you keep silent rather than explain how you think or feel?

6.    Do you often make assumptions which facts later prove to be incorrect?

7.    Do you get emotional when you disagree with people?

8.    Do you over-react sometimes – and have to deal with the consequences?

9.    Is there tension in your relationships because you don’t speak up?

10.    Do you get angry over and over about the same things?

11.    Do people have a wrong impression of you from the way you speak up?

12.    Are you able to let go of negative emotions?

The way you manage your thoughts and emotions determines your personal effectiveness.


Monday, 11 March 2013 19:50

What happened to delegating?

Is there anyone out there who is not waiting for someone to make a decision: someone who is probably in back-to-back meetings and drowning in e-mail?
Business is being strangled by the bottlenecks created by people who don’t delegate.
Delegating - remember the steps? Choose someone to delegate to. Know what you want and explain it clearly. Check they understand. Agree on the resources required, standards, mileposts and deadlines.  Then the scary part: get out of the way and let them get on with it – their way.
You need to trust the people you delegate to. If you don’t, you’ll worry too much, micro-manage and generally make a nuisance of yourself. Delegating involves letting people do things their own way, instead of insisting they do everything your way.  When delegating is successful, people don’t merely feel ownership of the work, they have ownership.
As business pressure increases however, delegating seems to be decreasing and work that requires any degree of decision-making competence is being pulled ever more tightly up the line. The pressure comes from the need for speed, to be right first time, the consequence of error and, ‘I haven’t time to delegate.’
Giving your work to someone else always sounds easier than it is in practice. If you have any tendencies toward being a control freak, obsessively detail-focused or over-invested emotionally in what you’re doing, then it’s hard to let go.
The reality is that you have no choice. The current pace of life is not sustainable.
For one of the best pieces of writing on delegation, go to Management Time: Who's Got the Monkey? - 22 Touch by W Oncken Jr - 1999