Fostering empathy through feedback

Aug 15, 2021

Grow your team’s empathy by embracing a culture of feedback, realigning your perspective to view feedback as an opportunity, and becoming coachable.

Client experience is founded on employee experience. At Neumann Monson Architects, our path to improving client experience started with internal changes to our review process. For years, we had relied on a traditional, top-down employee review model, but in 2013, we implemented a new system that reflected a non-hierarchal structure. In doing so, we created a culture of feedback that increases our team’s empathy. By embracing feedback, we have taken our firm in a new direction and enhanced our commitment to our clients.

Director reviews. Traditionally, our reviews reflected a top-down management structure with employees receiving annual reviews from the principals. This process was widely unpopular and generally ineffective at helping employees grow. At our 2013 firm-wide retreat, we decided to reverse the process and called for an anonymous bottom-up review of the directors. For the staff, this was an important opportunity to voice concerns without fear of retaliation. For the principals, this was an opportunity to learn how we could improve.

The staff created the survey with the help of a retreat facilitator. As the results reflected, the staff did not hold back in their responses. The principals decided to meet outside of the office, review the feedback, and discuss how we could change. As we wrapped up, we received a video from the staff holding up signs saying, “We believe in you.” This represented a turning point for our firm. The principal review was a moment of catharsis, and through this process, we were able to develop a more open dialogue and foster a culture of empathy.

360 reviews. Setting an important precedent, the principals agreed to act without defense and commit to palpable change. At our next firm-wide meeting, we openly addressed critiques and our plans to move forward. To reinvent our internal review system, we implemented 360-peer-reviews where everyone receives feedback from the principals, as well as a cross-section of their peers.

Like the principal reviews, we began the process anonymously to ensure everyone felt comfortable giving feedback. As the process developed, we removed the veil of anonymity to allow for clarifying comments and discussion. This system allowed individuals to learn from their team members, helping everyone become more adaptable, interdependent, and unified.

Client reviews. The success of our internal reviews inspired us to implement a similar process with our clients. We began using the Client Feedback Tool from Client Savvy. Rather than soliciting feedback at the end of a project, the Client Feedback Tool tracks stakeholder expectations throughout a project’s lifecycle, allowing the team to address concerns before problems arise. Initial feedback was unflattering, but this process helped us notice our blind spots. Together, we worked through the clients’ feedback and coached each other to act without defense and commit to addressing shortfalls. Soliciting feedback greatly improved our level of service. Between 2015 and 2018, our Net Promoter Score climbed from below the industry mean to a perfect 100. Today, we continue to maintain a Net Promoter score in the top 1 percent of 300 firms worldwide.

Feedback as an opportunity. In the words of Sheila Heen, “The power of feedback belongs to the receiver.” Our commitment to client experience would not be possible without internal changes to our review system. We embraced a culture of feedback, realigned our perspective to view feedback as an opportunity, and became coachable. Through incremental change, we grew our entire team’s empathy. With empathy at the heart of our process, we can become better teammates and better stewards of our client’s vision.

Tim Schroeder, AIA CDT LEED AP is president with Neumann Monson Architects. Contact him at

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