Top Down vs. Bottom Up: Which Strategy is Better?

There are pros and cons to both top-down and bottom-up management. Understand them both to get the most from your team.

May 25, 2022
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Top-down or bottom-up management: which is better for your business? 

There are pros and cons to both planning approaches. And understanding which management strategy is the best fit for your organization is a surefire way to get the most from your staff. 

Read on to discover the difference between top-down and bottom-up management so you can figure out which might be best for your business. 

What is the difference between top down vs bottom up management strategy?

Top-down and bottom-up are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to management philosophies.  

Top-down management, also known as autocratic leadership, is the most common management strategy. It involves a company’s higher-ups deciding on its strategy and direction, then passing their instructions on to front-line staff to execute through middle-managers. 

In a top-down management system, employees on each rung of the corporate ladder are expected to carry out the instructions they’ve been given by the company’s directors, without much room for comment or criticism. While middle managers might be involved in some aspects of the decision making process and individual contributors might have autonomy to approach the tasks they’ve been given in their own way, their North Star is the strategy laid out by the organization’s directors.

Bottom-down management is a relatively new approach to management. It’s when employees at all levels of an organization are involved in setting its strategy and making key decisions. Instead of the directors calling the shots from on high, staff at every level have a say in what the business is trying to achieve and how they’re going to go about achieving it.

The thinking behind a bottom-up management system is that the employees spending each day in the trenches can provide insights the company’s director’s would never come up with. Bringing them in on key decisions therefore makes it more likely you’ll come up with creative and effective solutions to the problems your organization faces.

Examples of a top-down approach 

Apple under Steve Jobs is the perfect example of a top-down approach to management. When Jobs said “jump”, everyone else at Apple asked “how high?”. He set the company’s strategy, dictated (notoriously demanding) deadlines, and essentially used his colleagues as tools to bring his personal vision to life.

Jobs’s word was final, and Apple’s engineers and designers’ job was to do what he told them, not question it. Because Jobs was a visionary, this environment created some of the most successful products in history. But he was famously difficult to work with, and it’s safe to say the Apple engineers and designers working late nights to hit a deadline he’d forced on them have their own opinions of how successful his approach to leadership was.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the top-down approach?

A top-down approach comes with pros and cons. Here’s a closer look at each of them so you can decide whether it’s the right approach for your organization:

The advantages
People love to rally behind a charismatic leader

Just about every successful organization or movement in history has been spearheaded by a charismatic leader. For better or worse, the majority of people are drawn towards following powerful figures. A top-down approach to management leverages this deep-rooted aspect of human nature by giving your team a figurehead to rally behind.

You’ll make decisions faster

The fewer people involved in the decision-making process, the faster decisions will get made. Top-down management allows an organization to act a lot faster than if the whole business was brought in on a decision.

Employees can focus on execution

The employees of a top-down organization are free to focus on executing their day-to-day work rather than being bogged down by thinking through the strategy behind every task on their to-do list.

It’s often the only way for large organizations to get things done

Realistically, organizations with thousands of employees would never come to a clear consensus on anything if they adopted a bottom-up approach to management. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and once a company hits a certain size there needs to be a cut-off point of who’s involved in decisions if anything is going to get done.

The disadvantages
The organization’s success relies on the strength of its leaders

The big risk you take when you adopt a top-down approach to management is that your organization’s fate rests entirely in the hands of its leadership team. If these people aren’t up to the task, your business is doomed to failure, as the business won’t be set up in a way that employees on the front lines will be able to communicate when things aren’t working (and the leaders often won’t listen even when they do).

Limited creativity

The message top-down organizations send to their employees is clear: do what you’re told. And that’s a surefire way to shut down any creative solutions or suggestions your frontline staff might bring to the table. 

No sense of ownership

Your employees aren’t likely to feel ownership over goals they have little say in. Unless they’re fully bought-in to the vision laid out by your organization’s leaders, they’re more likely to go through the motions with the tasks on their to-do list rather than be driven to do their very best work (something you can keep on top of through Self-Evaluation Reviews).

Slow-moving  

Frontline staff are often a lot more likely to spot problems and opportunities long before they hit the radar of an organization’s directors. Take a strict top-down approach to management and your organization can be very slow to adapt to changes or jump on opportunities. 

Examples of a bottom-up approach

Bottom-up management is often the approach taken by early stage start-ups. Because these fledgling companies are made up of a small group of specialists, it’s easy for them to come together to make decisions as a group. A flat company structure also allows them to be a lot more agile and quickly pivot their business model or adjust their approach when they need to.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the bottom-up approach?

A bottom-up approach to management isn’t right for every business. Here’s a look at its pros and cons so you can see if its right for you organization:

The advantages 
More informed and creative decisions

Staff that spend their days on the frontlines of your business are going to be able to bring invaluable insights with them from the frontlines of your business. A bottom-up approach to management leaves no stone unturned and makes use of every ounce of talent and creativity in your business, leading to more informed and creative decisions.

Agile

Your teammates executing your organization’s strategy are going to be the first to notice when something isn’t quite working or there’s an opportunity to improve your processes. A bottom-up approach allows employees to flag these issues and opportunities fast and your business to quickly adapt.

Empowered employees

Your employees are a lot more likely to take pride in their work and put their all into their work if they’re involved in setting the strategy rather than just following tasks they’ve been delegated from on-high. A bottom-up approach is therefore often the best way to get the most from your team.

The disadvantages
No clear leader to follow

Would Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook be the companies they are today if they’d taken a bottom-up approach to management rather than being fronted by a magnetic leader? It’s hard to imagine. For better or worse, the world’s most successful companies all have one thing in common – a cult of personality surrounding their leader. Take a bottom-up approach to management and you risk there being no powerful leader for employees to rally behind, which can have a big impact on employee engagement and staff turnover.

Too many cooks can spoil the broth

The more people involved in a decision, the more likely it is to grind to a stalemate or veer off on an unproductive tangent. It can be a lot harder to come to a consensus on something and get things done when you’re taking an entire business’s worth of people’s opinions into account. 

It doesn’t scale

Bottom-up management can help early stage start-ups and small businesses be more agile, creative, and effective. But as the business grows, there’s going to hit a point when involving every employee in each key decision your organization faces and the direction of its strategy is going to be counterproductive. At this point, you’ll have to adopt a top-down approach for at least some decisions or your organization is liable to grind to a halt.

No clear career progression

The strict corporate hierarchy of a top-down organization definitely creates problems. But a big benefit it brings with it is a clear and obvious career path for every member of your team. Take a bottom-up approach to management and your team might struggle to see what the next step in their career is at your company and start eyeing the door (something you can help navigate with Assembly’s Career Development Survey Flow).

Which is better: Top-down or bottom-up planning?

The best leadership approach depends on your business.If you’re a small or growing business, a bottom-up approach can allow you to get the most from your staff and give you an edge over the competition.

But for most organizations, a top-down approach is going to work best – simply because every business hits a point where it wouldn’t get anything done if it aimed to involve every team member in each key decision. 

However, this top-down management certainly comes with its drawbacks – many of which can be overcome if you leverage the latest tech to create a hybrid approach to management.

For example, Assembly’s Manager Feedback Flow can help leaders quickly get bottom-up feedback from their direct reports that can then inform their decisions in a structured way that reduces the risk of this delaying or derailing the decision-making process. 

One-to-ones between higher-ups and their reports are where you’ll often get the most valuable feedback for your business. And Assembly’s One-to-One Direct Report Flow (and the One-to-One with Manager Flow for reports) helps leaders get invaluable insights from their team that they can then take into the decision-making process (here’s how).

Last but not least, Assembly’s Flow Insights help you take a deep dive into employee feedback so you can spot trends and quickly incorporate those into your corporate strategy and the key decisions you need to make about the direction of your organization.

While a bottom-up approach doesn’t work for most medium or large organizations, strict top-down management is rarely an effective approach in the modern workplace. Taking a hybrid approach, where employees are invited to have their say through surveys and within one-to-ones with their manager, is often the best approach for businesses today.

Interested in learning more? Book a quick demo today.

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