Top Down Leadership Is Out of Style, and Here’s Why

Despite its widespread use, the top down leadership approach is not an effective management style. Employees don’t want a boss who only tells them what to do, but rather a commander who prepares them for battle and leads them through it.

The most effective management strategy requires that you know and work with your team. A relational strategy of leadership emphasizing strong communication and employee innovation will bring you, your team, and your organization the most success.


What Is Top Down Leadership?

Top down leadership is one of the most common leadership strategies used in American businesses. It is a management strategy in which autocratic leaders design the company strategy and make business decisions on their own.

In the top down approach, leaders develop plans without input from their team, and management directs employees to use their skills to fulfill the leader’s vision. Most leaders who engage in this leadership style don’t get to know their employees and simply expect their workforce to get the job done. 


Top Down Versus Bottom Up Leadership Styles

The bottom up approach to management differs from the top down approach. It’s a cooperative leadership strategy that relies on communication, teamwork, and inclusion between leaders and their employees in making company decisions.

In the bottom up management approach, leaders engage in communication and cooperation with employees to discuss company goals and strategy. Leaders implementing this management style know their employees personally and encourage them to use their strengths to achieve organizational goals. Employees may individually decide how they want to meet goals or participate in a company-wide discussions on how to meet business goals.


Why Does Top Down Leadership Fail?

Top down leadership is failing leaders today because it first fails employees. Employees’ needs are not met under top down leadership, resulting in a toxic work environment and poor organizational culture.


The Needs of Employees

The O.C. Tanner Institute reports that at least 79 percent of employees are experiencing burnout at work and that employees are looking for the following six things to improve their work experience:

  • Purpose

  • Opportunity

  • Success

  • Appreciation

  • Wellbeing

  • Leadership

These six needs indicate how top down leadership is failing employees. It keeps employees isolated from the decision-making process and ignores their role in fulfilling company goals.


How Top Down Leadership is Failing Employees

Top down leadership is an isolated structure. The lack of collaborative leadership leaves employees feeling powerless, disposable, and unappreciated. Instead of finding purpose in work and seeking opportunities for growth, employees perform mindless tasks with increasing levels of boredom, discontentment, and disconnection.

Instead, individuals thrive under leaders who are in it for them. Consider the relationship dynamics within a football team, for example. The quarterback is the leader on the field, calling plays for the team. However, the quarterback’s calls aren’t going to win the game on their own. The whole team must be empowered to follow the quarterback’s leadership using their skills, knowledge of the game, and discretion to fulfill their specific roles.

The same concepts apply in the workspace. Leaders should be available to their employees to provide direction while simultaneously affording employees freedom to engage in the process and complete their work as they see fit. Just as a football team shares the desire to win, your entire workplace team needs to share the same goals. 


What Challenges Does Top Down Leadership Fail to Address?

Leaders face many challenges, but most can be overcome with the right mindset and strategies. Top down management approaches, however, usually fail to address the following challenges:

  • Uncooperative employees

  • Delivery of bad news

  • Poor culture

  • Constant pressure

These challenges cannot be solved by top down leadership because top down leadership doesn’t consider employee needs or engage uncooperative employees in a larger purpose to ease their dissatisfaction.

For example, top down leaders won’t have employee support when delivering bad news or dealing with high-pressure scenarios. Because employees feel disconnected from the struggles the company is facing, they have little investment in outcomes. 

Ultimately, top down leaders face challenges without employee support or understanding. If you use the top down approach, you risk never being respected by your employees because you’re a stranger to them. 


What Are the Alternatives to Top Down Leadership?

Alternatives to top down leadership include bottom up decision-making, representative decision-making, and quantitative vs. qualitative decision-making. According to an article in Forbes, the opposite of top down leadership is outside-in leadership, resulting from a shift in the power balance between seller and buyer.

Regardless of the leadership model you choose, you must understand and motivate your employees to effectively lead your team. You can meet your employees’ needs by employing strategies to improve engagement and relationships.


Prioritize Employee Engagement

Including your employees in your leadership approach and decision-making process is a good way to start prioritizing employee engagement. In addition, seek to understand your employees as individuals.

Building an effective organizational structure in your business will be challenging, but if you engage your employees in the process, you’ll end up with a much stronger business and more efficient workforce. As a leader, you must simultaneously run your business and keep your team happy and effective.


Know Employees Personally

To lead effectively, you must know each team member and what they bring to the table. Give your employees opportunities to share their expertise and motivate them with enticing rewards. Developing personal relationships with your employees also allows you to treat others how they want to be treated.

As you develop your leadership strategy, keep your focus on your employees to help your team function and your business flourish. Reach out to me for support as you implement your new strategy. 


Questions to Consider

  1. Do you engage your employees when making decisions that will affect their lives?

  2. Do you know your employees and offer them incentives to strengthen business?

  3. How can you remove top down leadership structures in favor of a more collaborative leadership style in your company?