Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down: Why You Need an Inclusive Communication Style at Your Organization

Every organization has different needs, but every organization needs clear communication.                                                                            

Carter Liebscher|
August 19, 2020

Break down the communication silo at your organization with a bottom-up, employee-inclusive communication style.

Miscommunication can cause some negative (and lasting) organizational effects.

Sharing the wrong information (or not sharing any information at all) has a tremendous negative effect on your company’s bottom line. SHRM reported that the average financial loss due to communication blunders among companies with 100,000 employees is $62.4 million. Even small companies comprised of approximately 100 employees lose nearly half a million per annum.

Communication can cross or go silent for a number of reasons. In an otherwise healthy working environment, the reasons could be innocuous: Maybe one department is busy with a project deadline, or perhaps a manager is out on vacation.

In a more wilted company culture, however, the reasons could be indicative of some other issues.

Take this example covered by HR Dive. Back in 2001, the CEO of a healthtech supplier had composed an email berating employees for not seemingly not caring about the company. Rather than only going to the intended managers, however, the email had gone out to all 3,100 employees.

You might not see yourself in that extreme example, but it does show the downsides to a one-sided conversation—or rather, a communication style predicated upon exclusion rather than inclusion.

Examining your company culture without bias can be hard. Take a few minutes to read through the differences between bottom-up and top-down management; the pros and cons of both types; and a few quick, actionable ways you can implement your preferred communication style based on our findings.

Definitions of Bottom-Up and Top-Down Communication

There are numerous of corporate communication and management styles, from basing most meetings on analytical findings to letting people communicate their gut feelings. The details of these styles may be different, but the way by which they’re carried out are founded upon only two general types of communication: Bottom-up or top-down.

In one definition from Smartsheet, bottom-up communication is—

the inclusion of all employees, their ideas, and their perceptions of the business in order to make the most informed decisions.

“Which Management Style Is Right for You: Top-Down or Bottom-Up Approach?”, Kate Eby, Smartsheet

Over at ProjectManager, it’s broadly defined as a structure where an entire organization participates in idea sharing and, in essence, leading the company.

Both definitions are right on the money. Bottom-up communication is collaborative communication, using different employees’ and departments’ professional and personal experiences to create a more robust company culture and strategy.

You might think that by simply having separate departments that your organization already has a bottom-up communication style. However, some organizations bemoan the lack of collaboration between their departments currently, even those whose work is dependent upon the other’s.

Ideally, a bottom-up style sees departments regularly meeting with each other and sharing their collaborative thoughts and findings with leadership.

Logically, you might conclude that top-down communication is when knowledge is shared intercepted by higher-ranking executives and proliferated to other employees accordingly. That’s the TL;DR version.

Here’s a more thorough definition from Bizfluent:

Top-down communication literally is a method of issuing communication, instructions and information within a business using a hierarchical structure. Information from the highest-ranking officials within the company filter down to employees using the company’s managerial structure. Each rung on the managerial ladder learns information from the rung above until the information or command passes to all relevant tiers within the organization.

“What Is Top-Down Communication?”, Jonathan Lister, Bizfluent

As such, we see top-down communication as a representation of traditional organizational hierarchy: Executives and other leaders will receive and proliferate information as they see fit, or they receive that info and retain it. Even if that information is pertinent to a specific department or all personnel, it has to be vetted and shared according to the org’s communication standards—which can be slow.

Organizational hierarchy, or at least structure, is certainly necessary, but there’s a difference between safekeeping proprietary info and running low-impact info by non-stakeholders for bureaucracy’s sake.

Now that we have a better understanding of these two corporate communication styles, let’s look at some of their respective benefits and drawbacks.

The Pros and Cons

You might think that utter transparency and collaboration is a feat only small companies can accomplish, or you might think that things get lost in translation when you have multiple voices with different perspectives speaking on the same thing.

Depending on your company culture, both statements may be true. However, there are more nuanced pros and cons to each of the styles that show existing company culture has a big impact.

Pro: It engages employee on a large-scale and on a long-term basis

Research shows that employees with personal stake in their employer, whether tangible (stock options) or intangible (career and personal development), are more engaged than those who feel their work is expendable. One way to provide employees more ownership over their existing work is to include them in prospective work, as through simply asking for their opinions on projects outside their immediate scope.

Con: Erring on the side of privacy, especially when it comes to proprietary info, is safer

Looking past the NDAs both new and exiting employees sign that allow organizations to act handle these events accordingly (even if they’re unintentional), employees can’t protect what they don’t know they should protect.

Mistakenly leaked info could get into your competitors’ hands, losing the competitive edge you’d undoubtedly rather have.

Pro: Aligning usually disparate departments

Interdepartmental collaboration is a necessity, especially if one department’s work is reliant upon the other’s. However, even departments that don’t often interact with each other can benefit from more frequent communication.

For example, let’s say that a designer on a product team has been collaborating with the marketing team on what app features consumers have been asking for. Both the product and marketing teams are excited about the updates, but they haven’t yet spoken with engineering on what’s possible and what’s not. By the time the three departments connect, less than half of the concepts introduced by product and marketing are doable—and that’s with a longer rollout than expected.

When individuals in departments are expected to stay tasked with low-impact work, they lose communication and thus opportunities with other departments.

Con: Communication can get confusing with multiple voices from non-subject matter experts

You know the classic saying: There are too many cooks in the kitchen.

That saying can translate to corporate communications, where asking non-engineers an engineering question can result in shrugs or, possibly worse, an uninformed and costly opinion.

Of course, department-specific questions should be directed toward their intended audience, and management shouldn’t act on a non-subject matter expert’s insight without running it by an expert. Often, though, there are multiple stakeholders across roles and departments that aren’t identified early on. Organizations that don’t identify those stakeholders will certainly run into this downside.

Pro: Goals can be clearly defined when information is first vetted

Managers very well might know that employees across the company have great, insightful, actionable ideas, but ensuring that knowledge is shared after it’s been signed off can save some headaches.

Con: Bottlenecks prevent organizations from reaching their goals, even when they’re clearly defined

What management saves in back-and-forth with employees they lack in bottlenecking.

In the manufacturing sector, bottlenecks are often the result of broken machinery or employee loss. In project management, they’re the result of too much work between too many people.

If a project isn’t clearly defined with the appropriate actors before the work begins, approval will grind to a halt once sent off to management.

Determining and Implementing the Best Style For Your Organization

Over at Ideawake, we believe in the power of the crowd. Your employees, regardless of their title, specific responsibilities, or experience level have insight that can drive innovation from within.

For organizations more concerned with maintaining their market position than superseding their competitors, a top-down approach could keep things running smoothly—but only if you’re a leader in an already disruptive industry. Otherwise, a bottom-up approach is the more effective and impactful choice.

One way to implement a bottom-up style is investing in an idea management platform.

You get the organizational benefit of a top-down approach—leadership can assign challenge statements to specific subject matter experts—with the capability to open it up to the entire organization. Communication is laid out for all stakeholders, and collaboration can be done in real-time.

Health system Sanford Health utilized our idea management platform to crowdsource ways to address the COVID-19 crisis. Healthtech company OODA Health is using Ideawake to gather organization-wide insights on racial justice.

You don’t have to be in health care to reap the benefits of an inclusive, collaborative culture. No matter your industry, you’ll reach your goals, set new ones, and improve your market position with inclusive communication and collaboration.

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