Top Down vs. Bottom Up Management: What’s the Difference?


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It’s best to have a management style in place before attempting to carve out a piece of the marketplace or execute a big project. Two of the most popular approaches are top-down and bottom-up management, both of which provide a good introduction to the tenets of management.

When it comes to choosing a management style, there are many things to consider. For instance, what is the culture of the company, the personality of the executives and the business environment? What kind of project management tools do you use; are they collaborative or planning-based? Choosing a management style is a personal decision, one of great import. Your decision will influence every aspect of your business, project and team.

Let’s take a deep dive into top-down vs bottom-up management to get to a fair conclusion. From there you can narrow the field and make the appropriate choice.

What’s Top-Down Management?

Also called autocratic leadership, top-down management is the most common form of management. It is hierarchical, with a chief executive office (CEO) who sets the course for the entire company. Their leadership is then carried out through a succession of executives, middle management and finally down to the bottom of the totem pole.

In top-down management, everything from the workplace to the business systems is all determined by upper management, and then it’s passed down the chain of command. Each role is responsible for carrying out the mission as stated by the higher-ups, without much room for comment or criticism. While some lower-level managers might join the decision-making process, ultimately the final decision rests with the C-level executives.

Examples of Top-Down Organizations

As noted, most organizations use top-down team management. Any company with an executive ladder (with a CEO on top, then middle management, then team leaders directing team members) is structured in such a way.

Obvious examples are the Trump Organization, Helmsley Hotels and Martha Stewart Living. Regardless of your opinion of the people leading these companies, they all have strong personalities, which become the faces of their respective companies.

Pros and Cons of Top-Down Management

The pros of top-down management aren’t always immediately clear to low-level employees, but they are there.

Clarity if the Leader Knows their Stuff

One of the advantages of top-down management is that it sets clear goals and expectations, as goals are delivered by one person, and that message is not diluted by committee or multiple voices. Because the law is laid down from on high, the employees don’t have to be distracted by participating in the process of decision-making. This gives them more time to focus on their tasks.

The top-down management style requires a strong leader, and there are benefits to this type of leadership. It makes it easier for middle management; they have direct orders and can act on them quickly without second-guessing or trying to decipher mixed signals.

This isn’t to say a top-down leader should be simply shooting from the hip. These types of management structures work best when the leader has done due diligence, researched and considered all angles of how the decision will impact business and employees.

Lack of Buy-In if the Leader is Weak or Dictatorial

On the downside, the idea of a powerful personality leading the company can veer from thoughtful and careful stewardship to something more dictatorial. If that happens, buy-in from employees suffers and morale sinks, which in turn impacts the ability for the business to stay competitive and be successful.

Related: Why Isn’t My Team Listening to Me?

Furthermore, if the CEO of the company is not a strong personality, then they’ll be less likely to take on the necessary responsibilities, and the business will pay the price. Therefore, this type of management approach is not for every organization, especially those that are looking for more creativity to help them reposition themselves.

What’s Bottom-Up Management?

The idea that “two heads are better than one” is the primary reason that some companies don’t apply a top-down management approach. There could be a lot of talent in the ranks, which would be wasted in a top-down environment. Or, the leadership is not skilled and knowledgeable enough to lead decisively. In these cases, bottom-up management is recommended.

The broad definition of bottom-up management is it’s a structure where the whole organization participates in the process of leading the organization. This collaborative method gives employees a say in how to accomplish the overall goals and objectives of a business. Bottom-up management utilizes their unique perspective from the front lines of the work.

Teams are autonomous and are assembled by skills and experiences, which are then trusted by managers. These teams are self-directed and decide on the best way to accomplish their tasks, rather than receive orders and only then act on them.

Related: 6 Tips for Developing Cross-Functional Teams

Examples of Bottom-Up Organizations

While still in the minority, more companies are embracing the bottom-up style of management. The approach is seen in the way some businesses are approaching projects, if not in their overall administrative process.

For example, The New York Times and even staid businesses like Ernst & Young and IBM have all tried the bottom-up management approach at the team level. Everyone should be a part of the decision-making process, at least in the subsets of the organizations. As these experiments prove fruitful, more companies will come on board and even adopt the style for their full administration.

Pros and Cons of Bottom-Up Management

The advantages of bottom-up management are clear to people who are not employed at the top tier of an organization.

Gets the Most Out of a Team’s Talents and Dedication

One advantage is that bottom-up management can retain talent, keep morale high and get project buy-in since it gives lower-level employees a voice. Because the whole organization feels part of the process, the company is more likely to improve productivity. If everyone feels ownership in the overall goals and objectives of the company, they will likely be more dedicated to its cause.

Furthermore, the ability to get the most out of an employee is one of the great benefits of bottom-up management: it allows for the full talents of employees to be used. Those employees who are lower down the corporate ladder are often the ones who are interfacing with customers and dealing with the nuts and bolts of what a company does. Therefore, their input, which is not considered in a top-down management approach, is a competitive edge in bottom-up management. Sometimes this even leads to business process improvement.

Too Many Voices & Ideas Slow Business Agility

In terms of disadvantages, having employees a part of the decision-making process can slow things down or have the company follow unproven ideas that dead end. This can cost precious time, losing time to market, allowing the competition to take advantage.

A glut of ideas is not always the best way for maintaining high business agility. Given the high number of choices, it can be difficult to discern the best one. This may require more time for research in order to make an educated choice. Or, once a decision is made, that choice might not be followed consistently, causing the company to pivot without rhyme or reason.

There’s also the issue of ego. If everyone is vying to get heard, they might be motivated by self-interest rather than the overall goal of the project and company. This creates division and conflicts that are not good for business.

How ProjectManager Helps Whatever Style You Use

ProjectManager is award-winning software that is used to help organize projects by tens of thousands of teams, including Volvo, the US Postal Service and NASA. What’s unique about our software is its flexibility. It can help manage your marketing plan or project, whether your company’s style is top-down or bottom-up.

Traditional Tools for Top-Down Teams

Our software is designed to work in more traditional environments, where the plan comes from the top and is structured in clear phases from start to finish. Our Gantt chart project view collects all your tasks on a timeline, breaks up the larger project into manageable phases with milestones and links dependent tasks to prevent bottlenecks down the line.

ProjectManager's Gantt chart
ProjectManager has Gantt charts for top-down management. Learn more.

The view gives a lot of control to the manager of the project, who can then assign specific tasks to their team.

Tools for Agile Teams, Too

If your company likes a more agile framework, with self-directed teams working collaboratively in short bursts, then our software can easily cater to your needs. For example, our kanban board is a great way to collect backlog items and then plan sprints, giving teams the reins to manage themselves, while managers still get transparency into the process.

ProjectManager's kanban board
Kanban view in ProjectManager

Whatever way your business is organized, you’re going to want data to track progress and make sure your initiatives are moving forward as planned. We have several ways to monitor your project. Our cloud-based software delivers real-time data to a dashboard that automatically charts several project metrics, and one-click reporting prepares you to relay the latest info to your team.

Dashboard charts and reports can be easily shared, so top-down organizations can keep their stakeholders in the loop and bottom-up organizations are able to keep everyone on the same page. We have the features to suit any management style.

The Choice is Yours

The differences between top-down and bottom-up management are significant, each with their pros and cons. The decision, of course, is up to you. Now that you know about these two opposing leadership structures, which will you choose?

Leadership knows that productivity can increase with dynamic software, regardless of the management style. ProjectManager is a cloud-based project management software with online Gantt charts for project planning, kanban boards for team collaboration and real-time reports for better decision making. Whatever type of leader you are, try it today for free with this 30-day trial.