Burr Cota
Polaris Principles
Having The Tough Conversations
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Polaris Principles is a management consulting company offering a unique approach to leadership development. We believe that strength and depth of relationships are the defining measures of success. When leaders learn how to communicate better, confront and resolve conflict effectively, break down barriers, and create psychologically safe cultures for their employees, it translates into enhanced trust, happier employees, and better work-life balance. Companies will see lower turnover, increased employee effectiveness, and healthier cultures as a result of our work together.


Burr has worked as a coach and business leader for over 20 years in enterprises ranging from start-up ventures to Fortune 100 corporations. Industry specialties include General Contractors, Construction Management, Medical Device Companies, Insurance, Bio-Tech, and Dental Equipment Manufacturers and Suppliers.


Many of Burr’s clients have labeled him as their “culture keeper", acting as a trusted advisor and objective guide who maintains confidentiality and brings a unique perspective to team dynamics. He has built his invaluable reputation by coming alongside his clients to help them find their clarity of purpose, implement new strategies for increased effectiveness, and provide objective insight as they pursue self-actualization. You could think of Burr as your personal business coach.


Burr Cota is a Genos Certified Emotional Intelligence practitioner, he administers the Highlands Ability Battery and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and has International Coaching Federation Certified training from Coaching Out Of The Box, and from the Integrated Wellness Association (IWA).

In this episode

Burr Cota of Polaris Principles observes that many companies mistakenly believe that celebrating a "return to the office" with team building events and happy hours is going to help their employees return to their pre-pandemic productivity. Burr notes that people aren't motivated (long-term) by corporate mandates, fun activities, or even increases in compensation. People are motivated to do their best work when they feel a strong connection among their core values, the why behind the work they do, and the mission of their organization. Having healthy conversations with people about how they can strengthen that connection needs to be the focus of our corporate leaders today.


Burr shared that according to a recent research poll, 85% of employees are either not actively engaged, or are actively disengaged, 61% of American employees say they are burned out at work. Each disengaged employee costs their employers approximately 34% of their salary. Burr provides 4 steps for leaders to follow to better connect with and engage with their workforce. Listen to the end for a gift Burr is offering each of our listeners.

Having The Tough ConversationsBurr Cota
00:00 / 29:59

A glimpse of what you'll hear

03:36 Why direct conversations with staff are so difficult for managers to have.

04:44 Be careful when giving critical feedback to Gen Z and millennials.

07:10 How to engage your staff using effective communication

12:41 Benefits that come from using effective communication to engage with your staff.

17:25 Four steps leaders can follow to better connect and engage with staff..

23:06 Learn about Burr. Email Burr at burr@polarisprinciples.com.

Episode Transcript
(Note: this was transcribed using transcription software and may not reflect the exact words used in the podcast.)

Centricity Introduction 0:04

Welcome to the Best Kept Secret videocast and podcast from Centricity. If you're a B2B service professional, use our five step process to go from the grind of chasing every sale. to keeping your pipeline full with prospects knocking on your door to buy from you. We give you the freedom of time and a life outside of your business. Each episode features an executive from a B2B services company sharing their provocative perspective on an opportunity that many of their clients are missing out on. It's how we teach our clients to get executive decision makers to buy without being salesy or spammy. Here's our host, the co founder and CEO of Centricity, Jay Kingley.


Jay Kingley 0:42

I'm co founder and CEO of Centricity. Welcome to our show, where our guests share their provocative perspective on what their target market is missing out on. I'm happy to welcome to the show Burr Cota, Polaris Principles. Polaris Principles is a management consulting company focused on leadership development, where the strength and depth of relationships are the defining measures of success. Burr is based in Seattle, Washington, welcome to the show Burr.


Burr Cota 1:13

Thanks, Jay. I'm a fan of the show and glad to be joining it.


Jay Kingley 1:15

One of the dirty words when it comes to relationships is confrontation. I think that humans are wired to hate confrontation, it's almost like that flight or fight, we would rather flee than have that uncomfortable conversation, then yet, having tough conversations is not only essential in our personal life, even more so in our professional life, not everything is a bed of roses, not everything is just praise, praise, praise. Sometimes, you need to have a direct confrontation, and direct conversation that allows people to really talk about the tough issues that they're facing, and to get alignment, and to get on the same page. And yet, so many executives and managers and colleagues don't keep it to themselves, they'll gossip with others, but they won't sit down and have that discussion. Now, we of course, are talking about constructive criticism, where the comments are focused on a behavior or an action. And they are not destructive words very personal, where someone says you have an have some kind of a defect, it's always about those outcomes. But if we're not willing to have that conversation, then not only is there a sense of frustration that builds over time, we get issues around alignment of expectations, I am sure for all of us, we have had times in our professional careers, where we felt we were really crushing it, we were on a great path promotion raises were soon to come to us. And then we had that meeting with the boss. And the boss had quite a different view. And it was stunning. It was uncomfortable. You felt angry, you felt taken advantage of all because during that journey, the people didn't sit down and have that open and honest and constructive conversation Burr. You are someone who has a lot of expertise in terms of relationships, and interpersonal dynamics. Why is having this direct, constructive conversation providing this type of feedback? Why is it so difficult for people?


Burr Cota 3:53

Yeah, you're spot on Jay. This is something that people are not necessarily trained in. They didn't always have positive role models, the examples that were set for them with regards to confrontation and conflict in their families of origin, were sometimes not to the healthiest and not the best. And you add into that the current job market that there's a real fear of losing our people, if we give them tough feedback, and not to be the old man get off my lawn. But there are some generational differences that are happening. The millennial generation is a little bit different than my generation Generation X, that they're a little bit more sensitive, and they don't necessarily respond to challenging feedback the way that we did. And so it really makes it challenging. We put these conversations off.


Jay Kingley 4:40

Let's take the millennials, the Gen Z, where there is perhaps heightened sensitivity. Is this something where we say so you can't go there with them? Or are you saying no, you have to still go there, but you're going to have to have certain techniques, certain training to allow you To do that effectively and constructively,


Burr Cota 5:02

Yeah, unfortunately, I think a lot of leaders are putting off those conversations with some of their millennials and Gen Z people, and they're, and they're paying the price for it. turnover is on the rise. There are lots of great competitors out there trying to steal your people. And you're absolutely right, these conversations have to happen. And the better that we can get trained and practice and having these conversations, the more likely we are to have our people stay engaged and stay with our companies.


Jay Kingley 5:29

So not only do we need to have the will and the fortitude to have these conversations on a regular basis, I'm hearing another issue that we're going to have to address, which is that at a more gross level, there are generational issues, there may be cultural issues, perhaps gender issues, that you have to tailor your feedback to be appropriately received by the recipient. And I think even in those categories, we're not all alike. So there's even that finer tuning, where I need to understand who you are, what your personality is, how you are likely to react, so that I can tailor my feedback appropriately. So my, my question for you on this is how do you think about the responsibility for this effective communication? Is it 100% on that executive or manager who's initiating the conversation? Or is it 100%? On the recipient, where you have to say, look, you know, put on your big boy pants, so to speak, you need to learn how to accept this criticism, or is it shared in some fashion? How do you look at that?


Burr Cota 6:47

I really believe it is a shared responsibility. And I think that as leaders, we need to model what it looks like and be intentional about the process so that we can make it as safe as possible for the person that we're giving feedback to, to remain engaged in the process, to stay in the conversation and not retreat and get into more of a fight or flight mode.


Jay Kingley 7:08

This issue is, as you've talked about, clearly critical to the success of any organization, I think both at the organization level, and having been on both sides of those conversations, I can tell you when it doesn't go wrong, the emotional cost that each party is going to incur, is both high and unnecessary. So Burr what do we do about this?


Burr Cota 7:32

Yeah, we need to engage our people in these conversations, we need to show them that we care about them by by investing the time and energy to meet with them and to have these conversations, to show them that we value them enough to give them the feedback that they need to hear to get from where they are today to where they want to be in the future. And it's beyond that as well. It's also people want us to set a standard, they want to work for a company that has high standards. And if in their heart of hearts, they know that they are not always consistently meeting those standards, they really want us to come to them and point out the gap between where they are delivering results and the standard that we're trying to have them hit.


One of the things that I hear differing views on is someone will say you do this on a scheduled regularly occurring basis, you make appointments to sit down and have these performance discussions. So very structured, or use the word formal. On the other end, you have people that say it should be organic, it should be fluid, you should have these conversations on an as needed basis, which is probably fairly frequently, but let it happen organically get away from the structure. How do you balance those two sort of competing approaches to having these conversations?


Burr Cota 8:59

I really do believe that it needs to be a hybrid of both, I think some structure and some consistency, especially when bonuses and raises are kept in mind as far as these conversations go, yes, annual reviews, I believe, are still good opportunities to have those conversations and engage on how a person is meeting or not meeting the standards that they're that they're in before for the position. Unfortunately, I think too often leaders put those conversations off until the annual review and it's a much easier way to put off the tough, scary, unpredictable, messy conversations on feedback until that annual review time. But as you mentioned in your open that's a terrible way to really receive that feedback for the first time you're you're really being penalized in your wallet and it really kind of ambushed almost it would have been nice to know this six months ago, you know boss so that I could adjust my behavior and my in my work so that I can you know, meet your expectations and hopefully have a better raise and bonus right? So it's imperative that we do a high hybrid, I really believe giving feedback, while it's fresh is is best. And I think, especially on the positive, so often, leaders will really have that critical eye and point out the areas for improvement. And I think all of our minds go there to an extent. But it's really important, especially when we talk again to the younger generations to also give them affirmation on the things that they are doing well. And I generally like to separate those two conversations, the positive feedback and the negative feedback. The truth is, you know, I was raised in a time and with leaders that, you know, I remember my first manager when I was giving me advice on leading people said, you know, if you're giving feedback, do the old feedback sandwich, you know, a little bit of positive feedback at the beginning of the really tough feedback in the middle, and then some nice feedback at the end. And that way, it's that's a bitter pill to swallow. I think that was misguided. I think the truth is, when you combine positive feedback and negative feedback, people just naturally walk away remembering one thing. And what do you think that is Jay?


Jay Kingley 11:01

They're always doomsayers.


Burr Cota 11:04

That's right, but the negative they're gonna remember the negative feedback that they heard.


Jay Kingley 11:08

Another question along the same lines, but I want to look at it from the other end, which is, who should initiate the conversations? Is that the boss's job? Or is that the subordinates job to say, I want to have a conversation on how things are going?


Burr Cota 11:24

In an ideal situation. In a perfect world giving and receiving feedback and high performing teams and culture is happens on a regular basis. And it's not a big scary thing. And being that as part of the corporate culture, I think leadership a lot of times initiates that it might be part of the culture in high performing company that managers are having monthly one on one conversations with their employees to check in on them not just on the logistics and operations of the work they're doing, but on how they are doing as people what other training tools and resources they might need to do their job more effectively, what obstacles is the manager can get out of your way, so you can move faster and be more effective in your role. I think in in healthy cultures, that happens on a regular basis, from above. But the truth is, I think every person is a leader, regardless of your job title. So if you're not in a corporate environment, in a culture where that is happening on a regular basis, you as the employee still have a lot of autonomy and freedom and power to do something about the situation. And again, I think it's a little scary for an employee to go to their boss and say, I'd like more feedback, or I'd like us to meet more regularly. But I do think it's about getting more comfortable communicating what your needs are. And so it's not happening enough and and you're the employee, you'd like to have this more consistently invite your boss into that conversation, let them know what's going on for you.


Jay Kingley 12:46

Let's talk about when you make this change to a more constructive, organic dialogue, on how things are going. And in giving that necessary feedback. How do you see business's performance improving, when they make the shift,


Burr Cota 13:08

This does connect directly back to the bottom line. When when these conversations are avoided with regards to feedback and checking in with employees, things that you've seen negative consequences that businesses experience are higher turnover, less engaged employees, if employees feel that they're their boss, and their direct supervisors, their their company as a whole cares about them and sees them as people not just as a tool to be used, respects them, engagement goes up. And and that really does garner more loyalty and dedication from your employees. And you start seeing more discretionary effort given, which is that above and beyond where we're in employees doing the right thing when no one's watching, they're coming in early or staying late, not because they're being paid to do so but because they care about the mission that they are on. That is discretionary effort. These are real tangible benefits that happen when companies engage in these conversations, even though they're messy and scary, even though some of them don't go as smoothly or as or as planned. The act of actually engaging your employees in these conversations, shows them through your actions, not your words, that you do value them, you care about them and you respect them.


Jay Kingley 14:19

There's such an emotional cost that so many people incur both sides of the table when they have these types of conversations when they haven't been trained and don't understand how to do it, as you've talked about, they're often postponed until far later, which leads to a larger magnitude of issues because things tend to get worse. They don't tend to get better without course correcting. They tend to be very confrontational as opposed to collaborative and they tend to be you know a lot on the negative side. leading to surprises due to a mich mismatch of expectations. So talk a little bit about both the emotional cost and the relief from those costs that you get by adopting a more structured collaborative feedback process


Burr Cota 15:15

When these conversations aren't happening, resentments building on both sides of the equation, the employee is feeling unsupported, they don't feel that they are being seen or heard. They're feeling a real disconnect between the work they're doing on a daily basis, and the support they're getting and the real vision of leadership connecting to their needs. Conversely, the supervisor is looking at disconnects in the employees performance, and also seeing resentment build. And so while all this is going on, you know, the conversations that are happening are more stilted, are more operations focused. And a lot of these unfortunately, default into email and electronic transmissions as opposed to face to face employee engagements, even in a virtual setting, it's much easier to just put these in an email. So it builds a lot of tension. You think about Jay, a tough conversation that you had, that you're putting off, maybe for days, maybe for weeks, and that and that low level anxiety, that's it's building and building and building to the point where it at some point becomes the last thing you think about before you close your eyes and go to bed. And it's the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning. Now think about when you have that conversation, even if the outcome and result of that conversation wasn't ideal, just that release of Oh, my goodness, it's over, it's behind me. Now we can move forward. What I needed to say is out there, what the other person needed to say is out there. Now we can begin the real process of trying to figure out what to do from here, right? Sometimes that's a collaborative process. And it's really healthy. Sometimes it's a parting of ways, but at least there's that emotional release that it's out there and it's over. And really, leaders know these conversations need to happen. And they are avoiding them. And that avoidance really breaks trust with yourself, it's hard to look yourself in the mirror and feel good about what you see, when you know you're not being real with your people. And you're not being real with yourself.


Jay Kingley 17:06

I think when you don't have the proper way, the proper training. To do this, the two words that people would use to describe the feedback process is necessary evil. And I don't think anybody wants to sign up for doing things which are a necessary evil. So you have pointed us in the right direction, you have made a very strong case as to how when you shift your thinking, when you're properly trained, that you don't have to incur this cost. And in fact, there's a lot of upside to be gained by adopting this approach. So that leads me to think so what are the steps that an organization would need to take to implement this more constructive way of giving feedback.


Burr Cota 17:57

And this is not limited to just feedback, I really do think any conversation where the stakes are high, this is a great roadmap to follow. So four simple steps all laid out for you, Jay, first of all, declare intent, which is to try and let the other person know what is you want for what is the outcome you're aiming for, for the relationship for the business. You know, for this conversation, even just simply I'd like to have a conversation about, you know, that meeting we had last week and how we functioned or how we delivered on that project last quarter. Declaring intent, really let the other person know, okay, this is going to be a real conversation. And the point here is to keep it as safe as possible. So in any of these, you know, unpredictable, important conversations. By declaring intent, my guard may come up a little bit if I know that you've told me we're gonna have a conversation about how I how I showed up at that meeting last week, how we worked together, but my guards not gonna come all the way up to where I start disengaging from the process. I can now start formulating, okay, I know where Jays going with this, I can start sort of formulating my plan and my defenses a little bit. So that's a great step one. Step two is really seek to understand a lot of leaders skip this step and want to go right into the feedback and start getting into what they see as the areas for improvement. It's much more important that we slow down a little bit and ask what's going on for the other person. So I've declared intent about how we're not fully aligned, as was evidenced in how we worked together in this meeting last week. I'd really love your perspective on how you felt it went. And during this important step, it's imperative that the leader or the person initiating this conversation, listen with the intent to be able to paraphrase back what they are hearing succinctly. So that is a great listening trip that really helps. If while the other person is talking, you are already formulating your next response, which is referred to as evaluative listening. You're missing the point. You're not really engaged you the other person here needs to feel that you heard them If you paraphrase back what you heard from them succinctly and check for clarity and then say something to the effect of was that right? Did I get that right that I hear you correctly. If you get those magic words from the other person, that's right, you are really tracking you're on the homestretch. Step three, is to really create transparency, you really want to let the other person know what's going on for you. This is an opportunity for you to now transition into what you're seeing and how the experience is going for you. And you kind of lead by example, and showing them hey, I've modeled first what it looks like to be heard now inviting you to do the same by listening to me and sharing my perspective. Finally, the last step is collaborate. This is you know, we've done this hard work by making it as safe as possible and declaring intent and pointing our direction to our conversation towards a mutual destination. We've now sought to understand the other person, and we've listened to them. We've shared our perspective. And now we're getting into this collaborative perspective where we need to put our heads together, two brains are better than one, what can we do going forward to get a better outcome or better results. And it's really important, this step that you be specific, as if you're in a leadership position, make sure that there are dates and specific follow up items that you're both crystal clear on, this is not often a one and done situation, you really do want to have a rhythm to this. So if you've done all this great work had this healthy conversation, when should we follow up on this Jay, in a week, in two weeks in a month? And what is it you're going to be doing between now and our next follow up? And what is it that I'm going to be doing between now and our next check in. And that way we both you know be added to our calendars right away, we have a lot of clarity. I really do like following these conversations by one party, or the other with a quick, succinct email, just laying out what it is that that we agreed to do. And by when.


Jay Kingley 21:49

I think that this issue, if you talk to anyone in a company in an organization, they would absolutely point to the importance of feedback, the importance of having constructive conversations that as you point out, goes beyond performance itself is so critical, and yet everybody finds it painful. And I think you have pointed a way forward for how to turn this big negative now into a positive, if not even a source of competitive advantage for your organization. So I thank you for that. We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to learn a bit about Burr.


Centricity Introduction 22:35

Wondering how much longer you have to grind and chase after every lead conversation and client, Wondering how much longer you have to grind and chase after every lead conversation and client, would you like clients to knock on your door so you no longer have to pitch follow up and spam decision makers. Well Centricity's The Tipping Point program uses a proven five step process that will help you get in front of the decision makers you need by spending less time on doing all of the things you hate. It's not cold, calling cold email, cold outreach on LinkedIn or any other social media platform, or spending money on ads. But it has a 35 times higher ROI than any of those things, leveraging your expertise and insights that your prospects and network value. The best part even though you'll see results in 90 days, you get to work with the Centricity team for an entire year to make sure you have all the pieces in place and working. So you can start having freedom of time and a life outside of your business. So email


Jay Kingley 23:33

Welcome back. We're talking to Burke Cota of Polaris principles. Let's find out a bit more about Burr. Burr, if you could talk to us about the pain points that you solve for your clients in Why do your clients need you to get rid of that pain.


Burr Cota 23:50

I do a combination of group work and individual coaching. And it's in the group setting. It's helping teams practice a lot of what we've talked about today really learn to communicate, to engage in challenging conversations, to navigate conflict and get better outcomes. When it comes to individuals. It's really tailoring my approach to that person and really helping them work through, you know, their challenges when it comes to communication, trust conflict, you know, building stronger relationships and getting more done and being more effective in their roles.


Jay Kingley 24:23

What do you think about you and your organization that really makes you great at what you do for your clients?


Burr Cota 24:31

I do a really intentional job of creating a psychologically safe environment for people to be authentic and bring their whole selves to the process in a team environment. And that really does open the doors for people to understand each other and to get out of their own way. I think a lot of people, a lot of teams. There's a lot of infighting and inner politics and jockeying for position that is happening before I engage in the process and being able break down those barriers to help people unite behind a common mission and purpose really leads to a lot of outstanding results for teams and organizations. And then the individual front and my individual one on one coaching, I think really building strong relationships with people creating that confidential environment, where they know they've got an advocate in their corner, who is really going to share insight and help them get from where they are to, you know, a closer step towards who they really want to be and where they see themselves in the future.


Jay Kingley 25:29

I encourage our listeners to go to burrs LinkedIn profile, learn a bit more about his background, his career progression, which I think all supports why it is that he's very, very good at what he does. But bear I have a slightly different question for you share with our audience, what has happened in your life, that would most explain why you're doing what you're doing today.


Burr Cota 25:56

You know, Jay, I actually have my my messed up dysfunctional family of origin to thank for a lot of what I do today. It was it was not pretty, there was alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, you know, 911 calls, it was a scary, unsafe environment as a child, but that really taught me at a young age, the importance and value of of being empathetic and being able to read a situation and people I needed to know, at a young age, if my dad was about to blow up and start punching holes in walls, or, you know, hitting my mom, it was it was a very unsafe environment. As I mentioned, today, the way that has really helped me is that, you know, in a group setting, I have a real unique ability to, to read the room, read the situation and ask just the right question at just the right time, or to gently, you know, navigate to help help a team navigated real sensitive subjects and get to the outcomes that they are really hoping to get to. So my family of origin is as messed up as it was, it taught me you know, that I had a choice in how I wanted to process that information and use that going forward, I chose to not have that define me, but to really allow it to make me stronger. And again, that really serves me really well today in my in my group work and in my individual coaching.


Jay Kingley 27:14

So often, being able to develop and manifest strong empathetic skills has a cost to get there. But you can either choose to turn that and make it make it better for you, or you can let that destroy you. And I think we're all better off, that you're out there making the positive contribution that you are and building off of your life story. In order to do that. I know that we've got a lot of people in our audience that would love to reach out to you continue this conversation on how we have these tough and difficult conversations and how to do that more effectively. What's the best way for people to get in contact with you?


Burr Cota 28:00

Sure, they can go to my website, polarisprinciples.com. Again, as you mentioned, they can find me on LinkedIn and message me that way. Or they can email me burr@polarisprinciples.com. And those are all three great ways to connect with me.


Jay Kingley 28:16

And I will put all of that in the show notes. And as an insert into the video to make it easy for all of our listeners to find you and to continue that conversation with you. This has been such a great show, we have tackled, I think of very, very critical issue that has such a high emotional cost initially, that causes us to not want to deal with it making the real costs both to us and to our business so much more expensive. And I'll be honest with you, Burr, I feel like I've gotten a real coup here to get you to come on the show and talk about that you probably are sitting there thinking, Jay, you've got to be really happy. Let's go out with a smile on our faces. And I'm gonna say not so fast. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, because I actually think very highly of you so much so that I think you can do a bit better. I think you can give just a wee bit more. So Burt, I'm going to put you on the spot as the primary advocate for our listeners. I think you can offer our listeners a gift to just take the value you've provided today into outer space. So what can you do for us?


Burr Cota 29:44

All right, sure. Jay. I am a fan of the show and I really appreciate your listeners. Let me do this. I will offer a free 30 minute kind of needs analysis for any of your listeners as long as they contact me mentioned the Best Kept Secret podcast with Jay Kingley. That'd be great. I'll give him a 30 minute free needs analysis and we get to know each other and see if it's a good fit.


Jay Kingley 30:07

All right audience you've heard enormous value. Take our discussion that we had today to the next level, make it relevant to your situation your organization and start that off by taking advantage of burrs very generous gift for I want to thank you truly, you were outstanding. We are all better off having listened to your sage advice to our audience. Let's continue to crush it out there. Until next time.