Best Practices

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach: Which Management Style Is Right for You?

Jonathan Friedman
April 24, 2021
Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach: Which Management Style Is Right for You?

Are you trying to determine whether you should use a top-down approach or a bottom-up approach to manage your business, department, or team? Then you've come to the right place. We'll walk you through everything you need to know about top-down vs. bottom-up management styles.


Did you know that according to a Gallup Poll, employee engagement is the highest its ever been at 34%? Unfortunately, this means that 66% of your workers feel disengaged at work. 


For many employees, this is because of mismanagement and poor communication. How you manage employees matters when improving employee morale and productivity. This can cost your business thousands of dollars in decreased productivity and missed days at work. 

For many managers, it can feel uncomfortable analyzing your managerial approach. But don't worry, we've got you covered; keep reading to learn all about top-down vs. bottom-up management styles. 


Below is everything we will cover. Feel free to skip ahead.


What is the top-down approach? 


The top-down management style is the more traditional business style. And this is the one most people are familiar with, their boss tells them what to do, and they do it. When change happens, it is usually dictated from above and expected to be carried out. 


In this management method, executives and upper management leadership make all the decisions about strategy and implementation. These top-level leaders determine the course of the organization. They then disseminate those decisions down the hierarchy of middle-level management to lower-level managers and finally down to the employees carrying out the tasks. 


However, this dictatorial or delegation style of leadership can be detrimental for employees. Many feel that their opinion or ideas don't matter. People want to be heard, and they want to do their jobs well.


If their ideas about improving their job aren't considered, there can be a lack of contentment in the workplace. There isn't room for suggestions from those at the perceived bottom of the ladder in this approach.

For some, this can sound extreme. But, there are several types of organization and specific situations in which this approach is very beneficial. 


Benefits


The top-down approach can have many benefits. In some companies where quality assurance is of the utmost importance, you need to ensure that everyone follows the standard operating procedures. 


For example, a surgeon doesn't decide mid-surgery to change how they do things because they think they might have a better idea. They follow the strict guidelines they must adhere to to ensure that the patient is safe and surgery goes well. 


Additionally, specific departments within your organization might need to be run with a top-down approach. Then others might be able to operate in another way. For example, your accounting department shouldn't put into place a new procedure for managing your cash flow without first getting executives' approval.


The top-down approach can reduce your risk as those at the top should have all the information they need to make the organization's best decisions as a whole. 


So, if you're creating a highly standardized product, then the top-down approach can be beneficial. And if you work in a field that requires a high level of quality control, top-down is beneficial for your organization. 


Best practices


Large organizations can default to the top-down style as it lends itself so well towards an organized system. However, implementing it can be difficult and lead to resistance from those feeling micromanaged. While complete autonomy might not be possible for your team, you can still use certain best practices to implement them well.


The first best practice you should adopt is always to keep the communication lines open and transparent. This includes how you communicate with your employees. And it also includes how you listen to them. 


People want to feel heard. And they want to feel like their managers value their opinion. Have a method in place that allows everyone on your team to give suggestions and feedback.


Then truly listen to what your employees are saying. And work to incorporate their ideas into your strategy. Additionally, when changes need to occur, there are better ways of disseminating this information to your team than simply laying down the law.


While you need to ensure quality control and compliance, you can still implement change management that doesn't feel authoritarian. Lastly, when you share new strategies or decisions, share why these choices were made.


Many of your employees will find it easier to implement new changes when they understand why they're doing it. And you'll see that you can still gain buy-in from employees by keeping communication clear and transparent. 


Examples


Some examples, as we've mentioned, include healthcare facilities that must ensure strict quality control. Other industries that need to use the top-down approach include the military and certain financial services sectors.


Additionally, within each organization, specific departments lend themselves better to the top-down style. This is especially true in manufacturing and production. 


Just because the top-down approach sounds like a dictatorship, it can have many advantages, especially when done right. 


What is the bottom-up approach? 


By contrast to the top-down approach is the bottom-up management style. This is more like a grassroots style of management. Your team members are empowered to have ideas that could change the way your company does business. 


In many creative businesses, this can give your organization the competitive edge over others who are simply doing business as usual.

Many managers shy away from this style because they fear they will become obsolete if their team makes all decisions. However, as a manager in this grassroots style of business decisions, there still needs to be someone who keeps their eye on the larger picture. 


You will become more of a coach or advisor rather than the big brother who is always watching. Your role is to listen to people's ideas and then offer suggestions about how to implement them. 


Even if your organization runs on a top-down style overall, your department could benefit from an internal bottom-up approach. For our example of the surgeon strictly adhering to the medical best practices. This doesn't mean that if someone working on the team saw potential cost savings from changing a supply used or process implemented, they could still bring it up to their manager.


That manager could then consider if the overall process and safety protocols would still ensure strict compliance. Then consider the change based on the employee's feedback and insight. This is an example of a bottom-up change within a top-down system. 


Benefits


Some of the many benefits that come from this management style include generally higher company morale amongst your employees. It also encourages ingenuity and creativity to give your employees a better sense of contributing to the company's overall goal. 


Many smaller companies find it easier to implement the bottom-up approach. This is because it's much easier to keep communication open among everybody involved.


However, even larger companies such as Google use a hybrid model. This is to ensure that their employees are continually working on company goals. And their personal career goals as well. 


While this approach might take more time to implement and can feel chaotic at times, it still holds a ton of value to organizations. The bottom-up approach can give your team the boost in morale that they need to complete their jobs and enjoy the process. Using Objectives and Key Results to reach your goals, as those at Google do, can help you to do just that. 


Those in the creative sector, especially content creation, have been using the bottom-up style for decades. For centuries journalists worked tirelessly to pitch new ideas to their editors.


Today's content creators might look different from yesterday's journalists. But podcasters and bloggers everywhere work tirelessly to pitch their ideas and have their voices heard. 


However, this method isn't strictly for those in the creative process either. Toyota is an excellent example of a manufacturer that has embraced empowering its employees. 


They have built a culture in which employees have a voice in the production process. And while their quality control must adhere to the strictest of standards, they have created a product that everyone around the world agrees is reliable and trustworthy. 


Best practices


When a team member comes to you with the idea that they think will improve their workflow, it's essential to listen. As a bottom-up style manager, we mentioned that you would become more of an advisor than a boss. In this leadership style you.


Many managers have learned to value the input from those team members who are out in the weeds doing the work every day. Their insight into possible improvements can be invaluable when increasing productivity and decreasing costs. Companies of all sizes realize how vital their entire workforce is towards success in today's volatile market. 


Some best practices in implementing a bottom-up approach include regularly asking for feedback from your team. You can do this during annual reviews you might already complete. Or you can create a yearly survey you ask your employees to complete each year. 


The key to this working over the long run is to take the time to listen to and analyze all of the feedback gathered during these exercises. If employees start to feel like you're only doing these exercises to make them feel better, they'll quickly see it as disingenuous. They will then become disengaged, leading to a downward spiral of non-participation and pushback.  


So, as you implement this management style, use the best practices to ensure each project's successful completion. Otherwise, you run the risk of chaos and poor productivity. 


Examples


Many people think of the creative industries when they think of the grassroots management style. Startups are also linked to this ground-level thinking and valuing everyone's opinion. 


Additionally, just as with their top-down counterparts, certain departments function better in the bottom-up sphere. Human Resources departments especially value the engagement and satisfaction of employees. In fact, many HR departments' existence is to ensure that a companies employees are happy and well taken care of. 


Top-down vs. bottom-up: how do they compare? 


It can be easy to jump to conclusions about which managerial style is best for you: top-down vs. bottom-up. However, it would be best if you also considered your overall organization as well as the department in which you work. Some companies and departments will lend themselves to a particular style over another.


Additionally, sometimes companies will need to pivot during certain times to adjust to changes outside of their command. This was seen across the globe in the spring of 2020 when companies had to adapt to a global crisis. Businesses everywhere were unsure what tomorrow would hold, and employees lived through uncertainty every day. 


In times like that, even the most grassroots startup will need existential leadership from the top. Authentic leadership will reassure them of the overall goals and what they need to do every day to meet those goals. 


So, you don't need to use one managerial style across your entire organization for all time. There are ebbs and flows in every business. Harness that and lean into it when you need to change your managerial style from time to time.


And as you make changes, consider the pros and cons of each style. This way, you're sure to make the best decision for your team, your company, and the time in which you're working. 


Pros vs. cons


The simplest tool when analyzing options is the pros and cons list. And this is just as true when you're choosing between the top-down vs. bottom-up management styles. Let's look at the benefits and drawbacks of each. 


Top-down approach


Top-down approach pros vs. cons

Many times to fastest path is to make the decision and then implement it. This is especially true in top-down management. You don't have time to gather feedback and ensure everyone feels heard.


This is why so many executives favor this style. With this method, organizational hierarchies are clear and systematized. Some of the pros for the top-down approach include: 



However, many of today's employees find this management style to be confining and difficult to adhere to. Some of the cons of the top-down approach include: 



As you compare the pros and cons for the top-up structure, consider the bottom-up structure as well. 


Bottom-up approach

Bottom-up approach pros vs. cons


The bottom-up approach takes into consideration the unique insights of each of your employees. Those on the ground level doing the work each day are the most in tune with what works and what doesn't. Some of the pros of the bottom-down approach include: 



Unfortunately, while the bottom-up approach has several great benefits, it can have some cons as well. It can be hard to juggle everyone's opinions and ideas, especially if you don't have an organized system of gathering and analyzing all of them. Some of the cons of the bottom-down approach include: 



As you can see, each managerial style, top-down vs. bottom-up, can have its advantages and drawbacks. As the leader within your organization or team, it's your job to make the best decision for your situation. Take into account each of these pros and cons so you can create the best environment for your team to do their best jobs possible.


Top-down vs. bottom-up: which is right for you? 


Unfortunately, there isn't one correct answer for everyone. And even when you do decide, it doesn't mean that you'll stick to it exclusively. When it comes to choosing between top-down vs. bottom-up management styles, you must consider all the factors.


Sometimes you'll use a hybrid approach to manage your team within the larger organization best. As we've seen, companies have had to pivot quickly to keep up with external changes. And your managerial team, along with your C-suite executives, must also be able to pivot quickly. 

So, the right decision for your department won't be the same as the next one. This is why it's important to empower everyone to make the best decisions for their team.


The financial division will need to ensure that your organization is sustainable and profitable. Therefore, they won't have as much flexibility as your marketing division. However, when it comes to the budget, a top-down mandate from the financial department can be met with resistance and pushback.


This is why budgetary decision-makers must gather information from all departments. Ask them what their needs are before making the overall budget. Then once the final budget is handed down to each team, it must be adhered to so that your organization can remain solvent. 


This is a perfect example of how each model can work cohesively together. While input is gathered from the bottom-up, the final decision is still made at the top and followed strictly by everyone down the chain of command. 


Let's look at how each managerial style can be used for planning and implementing your next big project. 


How to implement each management style


Sometimes the bottom-up approach might take more time in the beginning. You will have to spend countless hours gathering everyone's ideas, then test them for feasibility and cost-analysis. Finally, you make the decision and communicate it back to everyone. 


However, when you take the time to plan your projects in this manner, you will have better engagement and buy-in from your employees. This will lead to higher productivity, and you'll find yourself reach your goals faster in the long run. 


As you learn your best management style, you will begin to see how each approach can help guide your steps. Project managers everywhere are incorporating both bottom-up and top-down approaches into their management style. 


Let's look at how your next project can benefit from both styles.


Determine the tasks


The first step in any project is to determine the steps needed to reach your final destination. How you complete this step can vary depending on whether you choose the top-down vs. bottom-up approach.


With the top-down approach, the tasks for each project are determined by the executives of your company. These objectives and tasks are then dictated down the chain of command to those carrying out each task. 

Using this method probably aligns with the way most people think of project management. Someone at the top of the organization determines the desired outcome. Then they break those down into smaller projects and finally determine the granular tasks.


In the end, the person deciding each goal, project, and task then assigns each one to the responsible parties. Those people are then expected to complete each task regardless of their current task load. 


With the bottom-up approach, you will instead gather input from all your stakeholders. This will include the team members completing the project and your executives, and even your client. Everyone involved in the project should have a say in what tasks will be necessary to complete the project. 


With this approach, you might plan a brainstorming retreat. This can be a simple afternoon out of the office at a coffee shop where everyone can feel equals and get away from their daily workload to focus truly.


Other times, teams might plan an entire day or weekend away from all distractions. This can allow everyone time and capacity to brainstorm all the possible steps and tasks needed to complete the final project and reach the overall goals.


This approach can take more time. But ultimately, many teams find it much more fulfilling and easier to implement without as much resistance from their teams. 


Determine how long each task will take


The second step in planning any project once you have your task list is to determine how long each task will take. In the top-down approach, you might have a project manager determine each task due date based on reverse-engineering from the client's final delivery date. Once the schedule is decided, it's handed down to each team member regardless of their schedule or other commitments. 


This approach can get sticky and cause friction if you're working with interdepartmental team members. Some team members will still have their core tasks and functions they must complete for their job. 


Additionally, you're then adding to their plate and requiring completion of these additional tasks to complete your project. 


If their task isn't completed on time, other team members will be affected and then unable to complete their assignments on time. This can lead to a cascading domino effect that will ruin your timeline and cause you to push back delivery to the client. Alternatively, if you find yourself bringing in outside help to complete the project on time due to this domino effect, you will blow your budget despite on-time delivery to the client. 


With a bottom-up approach, you would consult with every stakeholder on the project. You must speak with all members of your staff to gain feedback on how long they'll need to complete each task. Effective stakeholder management can mean the difference between completing your project and not. 


And if you are outsourcing anything, you'll need to speak with each one to determine how much time they'll need. Ask what their calendar looks like because you need to ensure that you can reserve enough time on their schedule to complete the tasks necessary. 


Upload them into your favorite software program


The third and final step is to upload each task and its required duration into an organizational system. Regardless of which managerial style you choose, you need to use the right online project management software to ensure you meet your goals.


For the top-down manager, you will create the calendar and schedule. Then assign each task to the person completing it along with the necessary timeline. Finally, you'll make that schedule accessible to everyone based on their needs and the tasks under their purview. 


In the bottom-up managerial style, you might instead make a list of all the tasks that need to be completed. Then make that accessible to your team. Each person will choose the tasks that align with their skills, strengths, and schedule.


Since they can see what tasks need to be completed and how long each will take, they can make the best decision for themselves. When you use a cloud-based system, everyone can access the entire project regardless of what department they work in or where they're working from. This can break down the silos often felt in cross-departmental teams. 


As you can see, having and utilizing PM software that everyone can access gives you an advantage for both managerial styles. It doesn't matter which style you choose; you still need a central location where everyone can see what needs to be done and who is responsible. 


The importance of communication and collaboration


For both managerial styles to be successful, you must take into account both communication and collaboration. One fundamental way to keep communication transparent is to use a robust software program. This will also empower collaboration amongst your team members. 


Using a program such as TrueNxus is more than just inputting data into an Excel sheet or another simple PM program. It is a next-level, cross-functional collaboration platform. It is the one central location you can use to manage your entire organization.


You need a program that will provide a large database with all your SOPs for everyone to access and easily use. You also need a central place for everyone to communicate. This allows you to eliminate the dreaded and seemingly limitless email threads that always seem to get lost in the shuffle. 


Additionally, a robust program such as TrueNxus gives your executives a better platform to manage the many projects and tasks they oversee. Having an organized and centralized platform for both managerial styles to plan your projects gives you an edge over your competition. 


Change is unavoidable in today's fast-paced society. Global changes can happen overnight, and your team must be able to adapt to these changes. This is why communication and collaboration are key to successfully navigating whatever may come your way. 


And when you use a quality program such as TrueNxus to communicate your team and organizational goals, you empower everyone within your company to collaborate and work towards the common goal. 


We've helped businesses across the world to improve their productivity while also increasing engagement from their team members. And we're here to help you do the same. Our robust program is your centralized platform from which your team can do their job better and faster. 


Conclusion


Choosing between the top-down vs. bottom-up approaches doesn't have to be hard. Use this article to make the best decision for your team so you can improve productivity and morale across your organization. 


Unfortunately, successfully implementing each managerial style can be difficult. However, you can effectively manage your team with the right tools and get your work done on time. 


So, if you're ready to see how TrueNxus can help you improve your workflow while also improving communication and collaboration across your team, then sign up here for our free two-week trial.