Top-Down or Bottom-Up Approaches to Successful Change

Posted by Nick Anderson

Aug 11, 2014 10:15:14 AM

Ideally, your approach to change would be personal!  You make sure your team members buy into it, own it, implement it, and are rewarded for it in their work relationships. Yet, today we still see many leaders using Top-Down Change as their default approach without considering the impact on productive relationships and their ability to respond to the next change.

Why is building productive relationships so important?

As somebody once said, “Performance is Personal Before it is Organizational.”  None of us work in a vacuum.  Improved workplace performance requires productive relationships with peers, bosses, subordinates, customers, clients, vendors, suppliers, and the community.

What is the essence of productive relationships?

In our survey of 1072 business leadersFocusing Change to Win contributors indicated that their organizations change at least annually. These changes are often unique to their organization, ranging from the triggers for change to how it’s managed. Yet, all change has three common elements and specific requirements for communications.

The Three Common Elements of All Change

  • Identifying what you expect people to stop doingFour_Blocker_Stop,_Start__Keep_Doing
  • Specifying what you expect people to start doing
  • Confirming what you want people to continue doing

Once the elements are defined, focus on communicating constantly:


This is the Change Expectations Framework which engages deeper understanding and helps everyone manage stress more effectively.

Just in case you think everyone does these three steps, you are probably wrong at least 70% of the time, according to studies over the last 10 years.

The crucial step, and often-missed step, is facilitating feedback from your stakeholders. That is, determining what they want you to start, stop and continue doing in return. You have the responsibility to set the Expectations Framework, but the “what” and “how” of change comes down to aligning expectations. Then people can:


What are the benefits of productive relationships?

  • Greater clarity and trust
  • Increased competitive agility
  • Faster decision making
  • Progress metrics focusing on what really matters
  • Greater confidence in doing the right things right
  • Accelerated performance towards people’s potential
  • Improved extent and quality of delegation
  • Better motivation as people know what success looks like

How do you reconcile this approach with a Top-Down approach?

A Top-Down approach to change management implies imposed change as the initiative comes from the top. Decision-making is centralized at higher levels of the organization, excluding lower-level employees in the change process, even though they are directly affected. Top-Down change is about making changes quickly and dealing with the problems only if necessary. Leaders who make all the decisions and expect subordinates to follow create resistance to change. Regardless of how well these top-level decisions are made, successful change is stunted because they ignore so much of the organization.  Naturally, people who are forced to adapt to change have the initial reaction to resist.

What are the other limitations of this Top-Down approach?

(1) Decision-making is limited to the top of the organization; therefore lacking information, suggestions and ideas coming from below.

(2) People at the top are not willing to listen to lower-level employees’ ideas, suggestions or feedback, resulting in poor employee motivation and performance.

(3) There is very little task delegation involved in the change process, thus lower-level employees can feel they are perceived as somehow incompetent and under-qualified for such tasks.

(4) Keeping the change process at the upper level of the organization breeds discontent among the lower-level people.



(5) Misunderstandings are created because of both parties’ communication problems and inadequate information.

(6) Many differing assessments to a given situation exist in lower levels and different functions; these employees have little chance to participate and do not know for sure the exact circumstances revolving around the change, and thus resist it.

Finally, the limitations of Top-Down change are too often symptomatic of leaders clinging to the belief that power, privilege, and successes lie alone in their core group.

Why don’t leaders use a Bottom-Up approach all the time?

Bottom-Up change management seeks to involve those affected in the process of change. In essence, this approach is based on collective decision-making and seeks to avoid the pitfalls of imposed change by allowing individuals within their working groups to come to terms with change. The Bottom-Up approach is often associated with an emergent change process; for example, trends in technology demand rethinking in which markets we want to play and with what technology.

However, this approach typically runs into time problems that must be addressed.  It can cause too slow and effective responses to short-term business demands, and when change initiatives come from the grass roots, it takes considerable time to propagate the change throughout the organization, particularly to those higher-up.

When is Top-Down best?

Under critical situations, a Top-Down approach is appropriate. Crisis calls for immediate and fast solutions, which is exactly what a Top-Down approach offers. In these situations, once the plan is defined by the top management, there is no turning back, as there is only one bullet in the gun, meaning only one chance to implement it. If there is great pressure to produce quick results, the organization can be paternalistic towards its employees who, without intervention, would more likely be reduced to helpless recipients of a crisis. When employees are given specific directions and expected to follow exactly as told and without disagreement, the best use of valuable time for vital activities occurs, rather than spending time gathering the various ideas from the lower level of the organization and consolidating them into one functioning whole.

When is a Bottom-Up approach more appropriate?

Where innovation is needed, the Bottom-Up approach is more appropriate in change management. Innovation is essentially participative and relies on a variety of ideas by involving everyone in the organization. When such wealth of information is needed, matching the ideas from lower levels with those from leaders makes for collective decision-making. It breeds a culture of innovation within the company, making it easier to pave the way for internal change.

By allowing everyone in the firm to participate in the change process, there are naturally various sources of information at hand that the top-level managers can bring into one useful and innovative whole. When collective decision-making is supported, people are tasked with the responsibility of contributing anything he or she can for the betterment of the company, thereby carrying everyone on the crest of success.

How do you use these two approaches together?

These two approaches are ineffective by themselves; breakthrough improvements in performance can only be achieved by blending the two. It’s a question of how to blend them. Top-Down direction creates the focus and conditions for performance improvement, which then needs to be blended with a broad-based, Bottom-Up performance improvement plan to get people at all levels to take a fresh approach to solving problems and improving performance.

Next Steps:

Please use the link below to view & download TBO Change Project Guide

Topics: Communications, Organization Change Management, High Performance Teambuilding

View & Download TBO Change Project Guide