“The major difference between the most and least successful executives is the latter’s lack of awareness. Successful executives are critical of their own performance. Unsuccessful executives are critical of the performance of others.” — Harry Levinson, The Exceptional Executive

At our youngest daughter’s sixth birthday party, five-year-old Ryan hit her on the head. As Vanessa cried hysterically, I asked him to apologize. He politely refused. When I asked him why, he replied, “Mr. Clemmer, I don’t apologize unless I see teeth marks or blood.”

Many managers don’t realize the pain and problems they’ve created unless they see teeth marks or blood on those they work with. The most insensitive managers are generally the ones who don’t have good personal feedback systems and refuse to seek input on how to improve their personal performance. Their “open door policy” is, “if you don’t like the way I do things, the (exit) door is always open.”

We can’t build an organization or team that’s different from us. If my team or organization avoids or even resists performance measurement and feedback, I need to take a hard look at my own approach to personal feedback. If I don’t have a continuous system and practice of actively soliciting feedback on my behavior, our organization is reflecting my measurement values. Feedback impaired managers are usually in favor of performance measurement and strong feedback loops — for everyone else.

We first noticed this connection when we were trying to understand why some teams or organizations had rich and powerful flows of performance data and rigorous measurements. But many other organizations that seemed equally determined to improve had very weak performance measurements. It didn’t seem to be a knowledge issue. These low measurement organizations knew all about “360 degree” feedback systems, performance gap analysis, data-based tools and techniques, and the like.

But it was a lot of talk. There was little application. Then we noticed how people tiptoed around sensitive issues, especially problems that should have been raised with their immediate managers, or further up the hierarchy. We began to take note of the number of conversations we were having about how people try to gauge a senior manager’s mood to see if today was a good day to raise a sensitive issue or flag a problem. We also noticed how many managers claimed that they wanted to build a learning organization, then did little to learn how people in their organization perceived their behavior.

Personal feedback — especially about problems or faulty signals we’ve sent — can be very painful. But our frequency, sensitivity, and action (or lack of it) on personal performance feedback sets the pace and tone for the rest of our team and organization. Many of the best measurement tools and techniques are severely curtailed in a feedback-adverse culture. As consultant H. James Harrington puts it in his book, Business Process Improvement, “Measurement is the lock, feedback is the key. Without their interaction, you cannot open the door to improvement.”