The Perils of Top Down Management

Two employees discussing strategy at a conference table with their superior.
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You may not have heard of top down management, or bottom up management, but you are definitely familiar with the former, as it's a traditional management style. Essentially, the boss makes all of the decisions and the employees carry them out.

In a top down configuration, all employees know what they are supposed to do, and hopefully, they do their tasks responsibly. Granted, few businesses run exclusively on top down management with a dictatorial CEO, but many operate in a modified one, with each department run by a leader who directs (micromanages) the work of other employees.

Perils exist to the organization when top down management is the method used for managing employees. Here are four problems with top down management.

You Miss out on Great Ideas

Yes, the boss knows the business and wants the business to succeed, but no one person knows everything. And, even if the boss knows everything about this business, remember your company doesn't operate in a vacuum.

You have competitors who challenge you daily. You have clients that change over time. You have market forces going on that will impact your business one way or another. You need ideas and input from other people. You're paying people to do the work; you should listen to their ideas as well. You need to actively encourage their input so that they own the plans and progress.

Diversity is hugely talked about these days, but diversity is more than having people with different skin colors sitting in your office. Diversity is about hearing different ideas, honoring the background and experience of your employees, and encouraging respectful interaction for continuous improvement and change management.

And, this broader view of diversity means that you need to listen to people who aren't sitting in the corner office.

But, if you operate with a strict top down management approach, the senior team directs all of the work, and no one learns the skills they need to learn so that they are prepared for a promotion.

It Kills Employee Engagement

People work for three reasons: the money, the challenge, and the sense of accomplishment. In a job that only fulfills one of these needs—the money—most people will spend their time looking to move on. Or, they will look for engagement elsewhere.

This is okay—each employee makes choices, and if you want a job where you can just go, do your job and come home and focus on your family and hobbies, that's fine. But, a wise company wants people who are engaged at work. For that to happen, your employees need a challenge and a sense of accomplishment.

If your job is to simply do what you're told, it may challenge you, but it's not going to challenge you as much as a job in which you have to figure out the details and plan. You'll experience a small sense of accomplishment when you complete any task, but you'll experience a better sense of accomplishment if you've had to figure out what to do and how to do it. You're more likely to feel satisfaction when you've put some brain power into the work.

Succession Planning Is a Disaster

When most of the employees in the company just do the work, and a team of leaders comes up with the ideas, what happens when one of those leaders quit? You have to hire from the outside because no one who is lower in the hierarchy knows how to come up with ideas or lead. It's all been done by the management team.

While it sometimes makes sense to bring in leadership from the outside, it is better to prepare people from within the organization. You want people to grow in their careers—it keeps them engaged and challenged and gives them a sense of accomplishment.

When a senior manager quits, you're stuck. You have to look for an employee from the outside or promote an employee who has little experience in thinking, planning, or directing the work of other employees.

Your Employees Are Micromanaged

There are so many things that don't matter. For instance, if you do task A first or task B. Sure, it usually makes sense to do task A first, but occasionally it makes more sense to do B first. In a top down management organization, employees are stuck doing A first even when B makes a lot more sense on this particular day.

They can't make decisions for themselves. This micromanaging not only makes employees frustrated, it often hurts the business in the long run. Why? Because flexibility gives the employees the option to come up with the best solution for the situation.

There is no right way to talk to an angry customer. There are plenty of identifiable wrong ones, but not a single right way. When you have top down management, an employee has to follow instructions from a boss who has never met this customer, doesn't know the exact situation, and can't judge the tension already in the room. It's not effective.

Your employees should make the decisions when people are genuinely closest to the situation and the need for a decision.

Can You Fix Top Down Management?

You don't have to get rid of your hierarchy in favor of some trendy holacracy where everyone functions as an equal. What you can do is give your employees power and influence over their own sphere. Managers still direct the work, but you allow the employees to carry out the work how they see best.

This can grate on the nerves of managers who are used to their word being the equivalent of a commandment issued from on high. But, it can not only reduce the stress and pressure on the leadership team but increase the engagement and happiness of the employees.

You'll need to ease into a change. For instance, you can start asking your team for input and then (this is super important) implement at least one of these ideas. You may think that your idea is better, but keep in mind that your team is closer to the actual work than you are—because they are doing it. Try it out.

Then, when an employee comes to you with a problem, you can provide a few ideas or brainstorm and then say, “but do what you think is best,” and mean it. Remember, that even if the employee's idea fails, you can't get angry or punish the employee. You can give feedback and work through why the solution didn't work out but you cannot provide punishment for the failure.

And, the lack of punishment for failure is the key when you are attempting to break away from a strict top down management style. Remember, people aren't used to failing because they aren't used to succeeding. It's about learning and learning always has failure associated with it. You have to teach them that it's okay to try and fail because otherwise, they won't learn how to try and succeed.

If your business currently operates with top down management, begin fixing this perilous situation now. You'll experience a bit of a rocky road, but you'll gain a better workforce for your efforts.