July 6, 2022

Dara Fontein

Top-Down Management: Experience Starts from the Bottom Up

12 minutes

Organizations have experienced a shift in almost every aspect of their business over the last few years. From hybrid and remote-first working structures to the Great Resignation, there have been significant transformations taking place in the world of work.

One of the more significant changes? The evolution of different management styles. A one-size-fits-all approach will no longer work when it comes to the relationship between the leadership team, managers, and workers. While a top-down management approach has historically been the norm, employees and employers alike are discovering the benefits of more collaborative management styles.

In this post, we’ll explain what top-down management is, some potential disadvantages of this widely-accepted framework, how it differs from a bottom-up management style—and how and where each of these management techniques fit into your business.

What is top-down management?

As the more traditional approach, top-down management is probably the type of management style you’re most used to. This leadership style is sometimes referred to as “autocratic leadership” or “authoritarian leadership.” With top-down management, the leadership team determines company-wide goals, priorities, and direction and then calls upon their employees to execute on this roadmap.

For example, a CEO of an organization might decide that their main goal for next year is to focus on environmental initiatives while creating a more sustainable business model. This high-level goal would then be funneled down into every team and communicated across the entire business, where projects and tasks would help support this main goal.

While many have a negative association with top-down management—thinking of it as a kind of “because I said so” approach—there are times when this kind of management is beneficial.

Some potential advantages of top-down management are:
  • It can help with overall structure and organization When leaders know what they want, when they want it, and why, there usually isn’t much up for interpretation by those working underneath them. Here, there’s no confusion about who is in charge and who is involved in decision-making—it will always be those in leadership positions.

  • It can lower the stakes for workers. If the CEO decides they want to spend a million dollars on hot air balloon advertising and they don’t listen to the opinions or input from anyone else within the company, they only have themselves to blame when their decisions are unsuccessful. With this, responsibility is removed from employees and put solely on those making decisions. 

  • It is necessary with critical matters. Some business situations require a top-down management approach. For example, when information has to be shared quickly and efficiently to ensure the safety of employees and customers, a top-down approach is preferred. When it comes to safety, product quality, and legal matters (to name a few areas of importance), a top-down and decisive approach often works best.
While some occasions call for a top-down management approach, it’s important to consider the disadvantages.

The disadvantages of top-down management

Top-down management doesn’t work for all employees or teams across an organization. As modern workers look for more responsibility, aim to shape their own working experience, and want to truly feel as if they’re engaged and invested in their workplace, a top-down management approach may not always be the best choice.
Some key disadvantages of top-down management include:
  • It limits creativity.When leaders give employees direct commands with no wiggle room, there isn’t much space for creativity or alternative viewpoints. At this stage, workers are essentially just fulfilling orders from managers and senior leadership rather than having any real opportunity to approach business problems in new and innovative ways. When leaders only bring employees into projects and tasks at the final stage, there’s little to no room for brainstorms, out-of-the-box thinking, or experimentation.
  • It reduces employee engagement and retention. Employees who aren’t involved in decision-making are much less likely to be engaged and invested in the company. When employees have the opportunity to play a part in establishing strategies crafting the business’ overall vision and understand how their work contributes to the company's goals, they can gain a true sense of ownership that naturally increases loyalty to their workplace.
  • It hurts the sense of camaraderie. When employees don’t have the opportunity to collaborate and work together through the decision-making process, they’re robbed of the chance to boost their sense of belonging and camaraderie. When workers can solve problems and brainstorm solutions together, they enjoy a sense of joint accomplishment and teamwork.
  • It slows down real problem-solving. While top-down management may speed up decision-making, it can slow down actual long-term problem solving by facilitating only short-term solutions. When only one group makes all of the company’s decisions, they’re often not effectively addressing the crux of the business’ problems. Employees have valuable insights into customers and their pain points that most leadership team members will not be privy to. They understand how to solve problems in a way that addresses core issues important to your clients and users, and can often have a much more holistic perspective of the entire business.
As you can see, there are many disadvantages to employing a top-down management style. However, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a place in your organization. To understand how and where to use both top-down and bottom-up management styles, it’s important to explore the differences—and similarities—between them.

Top-down vs. bottom-up management

As explained above, a top-down approach is when decisions are made at a senior level of the business and then communicated to the rest of the company to execute on. In contrast, bottom-up management includes workers across the organization in decision-making and strategic decisions (when and where appropriate). Bottom-up management finds ways employees across the company “...can contribute to the strategic decision-making (ask how they’re going to deliver on strategy, don’t tell) to help create connection, understanding, and less resistance when strategic plans and priorities are introduced.”

The advantages of bottom-up management

Just like top-down management doesn’t work for every team or situation, using a bottom-up management approach requires some consideration. However, there are several clear benefits and advantages to taking a more collaborative approach within your business.
Some key benefits to a bottom-up management style include:
  • It boosts employee growth. According to research from SHRM, only 0 percent of employees surveyed are satisfied with company growth opportunities. A bottom-up management style can help. When employees are given the space to think critically, their opportunities for personal and professional growth are endless. When they have a chance to participate in decision-making, lead, and move outside of their comfort zone, they can develop skills they might not otherwise have the opportunity to expand if working solely under a top-down management approach.
  • It fosters a sense of ownership. The majority of respondents to a recent McKinsey study said that what motivates them most at work is “ a powerful sense of agency and being able to influence the outcomes that matter to them.” The collaborative decision-making process prevalent in a bottom-up management approach helps workers gain this sense of ownership with their work and the organization as a whole. When employees are involved in helping shape their professional experience, they’re able to feel much more invested in producing quality work and making sure the business succeeds.
  • It encourages collaboration. While a top-down approach tends to silo and separate teams based on specific and rigidly set roles and responsibilities, a bottom-up style allows for many more collaboration opportunities. Here, employees and managers have the space to hear from others across the business, incorporate these insights into projects, and innovate more rapidly than if they strictly stick to what their job title dictates.
  • It reduces overall business risk. When businesses are running solely based on the decisions of those in executive or senior positions, what happens when these individuals leave the company? If the CEO had previously made all decisions and suddenly they departed the company, the entire organization in a company that relies on a top-down management style will experience significant disruptions. By empowering all employees across the organization to participate in strategic discussions and gain decision-making skills, businesses can build adaptability and resilience in the face of structural change.
  • It creates less resistance to change. Only 14 percent of employees say they are aligned with their company’s overall strategy. By including teams across the organization in strategy discussions and encouraging their input and ideas, leaders are less likely to receive pushback and resistance to any changes to process, new policies, or other areas to which they may have reacted negatively in the past. By getting employee buy-in, companies are able to better develop a cooperative work environment for all.
  • It boosts engagement. A study from Dale Carnegie found that “...companies with engaged employees outperform those without engaged employees by 202 percent.” A study from The Workforce Institute at UKG found that “employees with very high senses of engagement (92 percent) are more likely to feel heard than those with very low belonging (25 percent) or engagement (30 percent).” By involving your team in decision-making and showing them that they are heard, you can help increase engagement and a sense of investment in not only their work but the overall business.

Improving a bottom-up management style with discussion management

Now that you understand the benefits of a bottom-up management approach, you may be wondering exactly how to start integrating aspects of this management style into your business culture. A great place to start is with a discussion management platform.

A tool like ThoughtExchange provides a safe space for leaders and employees to come together and collaborate without the worry of bias. Managers and executive teams can use ThoughtExchange to find out what their employees think or feel about specific situations, get their input on business matters, ask for their ideas about company problems or areas of opportunity, and more.

Because answers are collected anonymously, employees can feel empowered knowing that all of their voices are being heard without the threat of being interrupted, termination, or any other negative consequences. Organizations can quickly and effectively identify roadblocks within their company, build trust with their employees, and act on the most pressing issues (as identified by the workers themselves). ThoughtExchange contributes to a bottom-up management style by allowing employees to have their say and participate in decision-making at every stage of the business.

While both a top-down and bottom-up management style—or a mix of both—can work, it’s up to every business to understand how their unique organization functions and where these approaches fit into your overall strategy. (PS. If you’re unsure, you could always use ThoughtExchange to ask your employees.)

Dara Fontein
Dara is a copywriter and content creator born, raised, and currently based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She’s written for companies including Hootsuite, lululemon, Article, and ThoughtExchange. When not playing around with words, Dara can be found updating her cat's Instagram account and wandering the aisles of home decor stores.

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