How to Combine the Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches for Success

How to Combine the Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches for Success | Business Management | Emeritus

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

This is what Abraham Maslow, a renowned psychologist said. He was the creator of the pyramid we call Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, used even today to put things into perspective for prioritization. And what it tells us about growth is that to grow is natural, and we must choose growth over safety every single time. Every organization out there wants to grow and prosper. But when an organization grows, all its good and unwanted aspects multiply. For instance, if a company has a top-down approach to policy, the chasm between the top management and the base-level executors will multiply as the company grows. Similarly, if the organization has a bottom-up approach only, then top-level strategy might be found wanting in a state of exponential growth where they miss out a bird’s eye view of the scenarios.

This brings the top-down vs bottom-up approach into play. For any real success, organizations must aim to multiply their strength while reducing their inefficiencies to a minimum. And the middle path to do this is the top-down vs bottom-up approach that takes all scenarios into account.

What is the Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach?

top-down-vs-bottom-up-approach

As a career coach with two decades of experience, I have found that integrating the bottom-up model with the top-down one is part of business coaching. This approach to coaching in an organization is highly successful, provided each layer is built step-by-step methodically. I am sharing the how and what of such an approach so that readers can get a sense of this coaching method.

It is important to note that in any organization, while the design and decisional power is held by the top leadership, the execution power is the domain of the field level at the bottom. When these two powers are bridged by the middle managers through the exchange of requirements and resources, then work gets done effectively, leading to growth.  If there are blockers at any of these levels, then there is a sense of abject inertia leading to what can be called the treadmill effect.

How to Make the Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach Work?

When I am called for coaching in any organization and create a learning space there, my first job is to gauge the level of integration at the three levels: top, middle, and bottom-level staff. To get a sense of the integration, I meet representatives from the bottom, middle, and top together. When representatives from all levels sit together, it opens a view of the flow of communication, execution, and alignment within teams.

Creating King Authur’s Round Table for Top, Middle, and Bottom Levels

In many organizations, getting such a group together is a very crucial intervention, as the culture of an organization may not endorse such a design. In such an environment, when the design is introduced, the integration that happens and the subsequent results that evolve are highly beneficial to organizational growth. As per my coaching style, we are not “talking about” constructing a top, middle, and bottom integration; the “talking happens” between the representatives of the top, middle, and bottom levels.  The outcome necessary is already addressed as a part of the coaching design itself. The analogy of the round table from the Arthurian legends is meant to signify that this platform considers participants from all levels at the same stature.

Ensuring Safety for All Levels

There are some important aspects to consider when designing an integrated top-down vs. bottom-up approach.  As a first step, we need to build safety for all three levels. Building safety happens through initially meeting the levels separately for a few sessions. In these sessions, we coach the participants on how to be listeners, ask relevant questions (with a sense of curiosity, care, and commitment), express blocks respectfully, share motivations, ask for resources, and demonstrate changes through actions.

Building Continuity and Seamless Integration

After working with each level separately, we bring them together. Continuity is the key to this work. We negotiate a minimum of one session per month for a period of six to twelve months. We become the custodians of the learning space and hold the team to build trust and ownership through action. If we sense the group is not ready for such collective learning, then we get back to segments and coach each level and then again bring them back to multilevel learning once they are ready.

Top 3 Things Needed for Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach to Work

As part of preparing the ground for the levels to sit together, as a business coach, I invite reflection and agreement on three major areas.

1. Confidentially

The participants agree to maintain confidentiality by not disclosing any personal information shared in the group.

2. Safety

The people in the top and middle, as well as the bottom, openly state that there will be no consequences attached for expressing personal views in this learning forum

3. Transparency

The participants learn how to ask clarifications and questions respectfully to avoid mis-assumptions.

We start with how each level is appreciative of the work that they already doing. This gives a feeling of ease and pride to trust further opening up. Then, the issues faced at all levels are listed, and each level takes one common focus where they will demonstrate cooperation and work as a team.

Building Trust Among Different Levels in an Org: A Case Study

If I were to take one of such initiatives as an example, I made a VP,  two RMs, four Divisional managers, and 12 field staff sit together. These 19 people who were working together sat down to learn about their way of working and what could ease the work that they do. Among many projects that were stuck, they identified pending claims from franchisees as a major time waster to productivity. This team, therefore, focused on solving the long-pending claims of their franchisees within one month.

The Premise of the Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach

1. The field executives took over the task of identifying the number of claims and sharing details of where the payments were stuck – whether it was approval or pending documents, etc.

2. The middle manager’s task was to focus on the delays at the admin department and other divisions so that the claims could reach the franchisees on time.

3. The VP would get involved where there are requirements for adjusting the system or revisiting the policy for smooth execution of reimbursement of claims. In this process, the bottom-level executives get support from all levels.

The Focus of the Month

Once the focus work for the month was discussed, we moved to the next step. The discussion in the meeting then moved on to blockers– what are the blockers or hesitations the field staff had that stopped them from talking openly, cutting across the hierarchy when they faced challenges in the work that they had to complete?

The Flow of Communication: Top to Bottom and Back

It is natural for the flow of communication to go from top to bottom, but for the information to flow back from the bottom to the top is against gravity. It is this re-flow of information that causes blockers, and the desired conclusion eludes the team. Hence it’s the responsibility of the leaders to align to the base level and facilitate information flow to the top.

We set an inquiry for the team to talk about what they hesitate or contemplate a lot before escalating a problem to their leaders.

The list of beliefs at the bottom and middle levels was as follows:

  • My manager may think I am inefficient in handling my problems
  • I should not disturb my manager, they must be involved in a very important task
  • I should solve and then communicate to my senior
  • I will be scolded for my inability, my views may not be valued

Once these beliefs were spoken about openly,  the leaders shared their openness to support the field staff in addressing their problems. This created a sense of solidarity and sense of safety for the field staff. Also, the middle managers felt relieved that they would now know the problem as it surfaced rather than face it when it had blown out of proportion. Thus, the blockers in communication were ironed out.

The Result

When we met the same team a month later, 90% of the work was completed, and most importantly, the team had learned to trust each other and work on each other’s strengths. The taste of success, as they spoke about it, motivated the team to take more responsibility and complete them with co-coordination. They now felt they were on the same page and, hence, were buoyed. We could sense that cooperation, distribution of power, and complimenting talents were what multiplied in this team.

Our methods are replicable, and we encourage leaders to practice them in other areas to utilize the top-down vs. bottom-up approach in their organizations.

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Emeritus.

About the Author


Senior Organizational Change Coach
Geethan is the founder-director of Nibbana Institute, Chennai. Combining his professional strengths as a psychotherapist and senior organizational change coach, certified by IOBC- Germany, he works with senior management and guides them to facilitate change in their organization. The different learning frameworks and methodologies employed by him to initiate developmental change have been tested in various organizational contexts and yielded consistently positive results for decades. When he is not helping companies to grow with his inputs, Geethan is engaged as a spirited Youtuber and has a green thumb that is evident from the health of his garden.
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