Bottoms-Up: Reversing the “Top-Down” Approach to Leadership

In a heirarchical system, when those at the top are in control, have all the answers, and make all the decisions, there is often a split between those in power and those not in power. While this split creates conflict, friction, and disharmony, it also breeds ignorance. This ignorance leads to problems that affect the system financially, morally, operationally, and countless other ways. For purposes of this article, I’ll use Barry Oshry’s terms of “Tops,” “Middles,” and “Bottoms” to simplify three tiers of a given organization.

Many organizations operate using this model. People at the top make decisions without seeking input from key stakeholders, namely employees. Instead, they look to market trends, outside consultants, or take stabs based limited information or their own perceptions to make important decisions. This can include decisions around policies and procedures, products and services, addressing issues, and future goals. When these changes result in backlash, create more problems, or simply fail, both the organization and everyone impacted by it suffer.

Instead, imagine including everyone, especially the Bottoms, in generating ideas, input, and feedback.

Think about it: in a given organization, who has the most connection with customers and hears about complaints, issues, or praise? Who knows the day-in, day-out procedures and how effective they are in practice, not just theory? Who most feels the impact of organizational changes? Who exemplifies and personifies the mold from which they are created? Who knows the nitty-gritty details? Whose ears are closest to the ground? Who are on the frontlines?

Answer: the Bottoms (and, to a lesser degree, the Middles).

Instead of spending huge amounts on money, making decisions based on external input that may have no bearing, or taking shots in the dark, imagine opening up the lines of communication between all three tiers and asking for input. It’s not rocket-science; it costs almost nothing; it doesn’t even take a lot of time. It’s actually quite simple: ask.

I can’t tell you how many times, whether it’s from my personal experience or from friends and colleagues working in organizations, the answers to the problems that have those at the top scratching their heads or implementing strategies that have nothing to do with the real issues are obvious. Gossip ensues, morale plummets, efficiency goes down the drain, and everyone loses.

The benefit to seeking input from employees goes way beyond getting valuable information that can completely transform your organization – it breaks down the heirarchical model and creates an atmosphere of collaboration, teamwork, creativity, excitement, and inclusion.

This doesn’t mean mean that everything is equal across the board. Instead, it means maximizing the strengths and minimizing the limitations of each tier. For example, the Tops still make decisions – they just do so with a lot more information and input so they can make better decisions. The Bottoms still handle the day-to-day details – they just do so with more authority and responsibility. The Middles still act as go-betweens – they just do so as bridge-builders and conduits rather than mediators or bearers of bad news.

Imagine the strength, potential, and possibilities in such organizations. Consider the impact, both on the organization and those who it serves. Rocket Science? No. Radical? Perhaps. Simple and easy? Definitely.

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