How Bottom-Up Feedback & Leadership Drive a Better Workplace: A Hands-On Guide

  • Brace
  • September 5, 2018
  • 15 min

It’s a simple choice of direction: Should changes in company culture start from above and flow downwards, or is it better that they come from below and go to the top? The choice can make a big difference in the talent your company attracts and its success in today’s fast-changing digital economy. To help inform your decisions, we’ll discuss top-down and bottom-up feedback and provide tips on how to use them for a successful and attractive workplace.

The Case For More Bottom-Up Management

According to studies, only 15% of employees are engaged – a rather disturbing statistic for business leaders, since engaged and motivated employees are the drivers of health, growth, and innovation in a company. It turns out that the leadership style of individual managers has a strong impact on these workplace results, making up to up to a 70% difference in employee motivation and productivity.

What’s more, the new generation of workers is set to become the majority of the workforce. With them comes an expectation of a more responsive and appreciative company culture. It’s more important now than ever to keep communication transparent, staff involved in the company, and to keep doors open for employees regarding the state of the organization and workplace changes. How can you involve and connect your employees to the processes of change?

Feedback Methods for the Workplace

The key to integrating and engaging employees in the workplace is feedback. Your staff has unique perspectives from the trenches and creative ideas that could make the company run smoother. They also know best what they are missing and what is hindering their productivity. The trick is getting them to express these views and getting team leads to react in an encouraging manner and make use of the insights.

5 common feedback methods:

#Feedback MethodFunction and Value
1.Yearly reviewsManagers give one-way feedback to employees once a year. Less organization required, but less actionable results.
2.90-degree feedback (top-down)The classic model where managers give feedback to employees. Employees learn but managers can’t learn from them.
3.360-degree feedback (bottom-up)Collecting regular feedback from all sides. Managers and employees alike can see how they are doing and learn from it.
4.One-on-one meetingsRegular personal conversations between manager and employee. They give leaders a chance to learn their team and the team the chance to express their thoughts.
5.Continuous & digital feedbackOnline and digital tools let employees give feedback anonymously when they want to. It lets managers stay current on workplace signals and react quickly.

No solution works for everyone and the method you choose depends on your company and needs. You can even make a mix of different methods such as using one-on-ones and digital tools together. The more often and regular you collect feedback, the more actionable your insights will be.

What Are the Benefits of Employee Feedback?

In the age of digitalization, the success of your company is more and more dependent on a dynamic work environment and efficient change management processes. If you want to carry out successful changes in your company, especially with the bottom-up approach, regular feedback is the most important factor. Feedback should ideally come from both sides, you and your employee, so that expectations of both team and leadership can be evaluated and aligned. This discussion will make clear if everyone is on the right track to achieving overall goals.

Two-way feedback doesn’t just mean commenting on the efforts of your employees. It’s also important to get constructive feedback from them regarding your approach and success as a leader. With both sides of the picture in hand, you can quickly make any necessary adjustments, since bad communication between departments doesn’t help anyone.

The Traditional Path: Top-Down Leadership

In recent years, two different top-down leadership styles have emerged from management circles. One school leans toward the more traditional top-down approach, which prefers giving clear directions and having organizational hierarchies. The other approaches top-down methods with flat hierarchies to make the path to decisions and implementation shorter.

Regardless of style, top-down is a tried and true method consisting of a centralized leadership structure. This means that all information, plans, and directives are finalized at the top then passed down to middle managers, and finally to employees.

The advantages of this are that decisions occur quicker and can be tailored to company goals. But at the same time, there is the risk that orders “from above” can meet resistance from employees or not address their needs. This occurs even more often when the new directives cause significant changes in the workplace, forcing employees to abandon the work methods that they themselves had developed, and adapt to new working expectations.

Misinterpretation and Missing Motivation: Problems of Top-Down Leadership

The top-down method hides within it another problem: The initial purpose and goal of directives are often misunderstood or not implemented as intended. This is often due to strict hierarchies and complicated communication processes between leadership levels and is fertile ground for discontent and complaints in your department. And if the driving reason for the changes also gets lost in translation, then your employees will feel even more controlled and lose their motivation to bring fresh ideas and individual engagement. Isn’t this exactly the level of unmotivated employees that you want to avoid in the workplace?

How About Bottom-Up Feedback?

Recent years have seen many leaders turn their backs on the top-down style, in favor of the bottom-up method. And it comes as no surprise, as companies with a developed culture of feedback and employee participation count among the most successful.

So what is bottom-up feedback and management? The bottom-up approach begins at the very lowest rungs of the company hierarchy and involves every employee.

Bottom-up feedback means:

  • Collecting feedback from and about all levels of the workplace (including management)
  • Quickly addressing issues learned from feedback.
  • Being open to growth and learning.
  • Involving employee perspectives and ideas in decisions and actions.

This means that there is no centralized control center, and ideally, everyone at all levels can individually take part in company and problem-solving processes. With this method, problems that are affecting the workplace can be addressed by the workplace itself, and then communicated upward.

Differences to Top-Down Leadership

As opposed to an often bureaucratic top-down approach, bottom-up is built on flat hierarchies and empowered employees. The advantages of the bottom-up method include promoting creativity, flexibility, agility, and significantly, inspiring individual initiative, which is an important motor to drive success and innovation in an organization. Experts encourage this approach for its benefits to productivity and employee engagement, and it represents a logical addition to traditional leadership styles. If employees have the opportunity to help organize their work structures and make independent decisions, they are automatically more motivated and productive.

Manager’s Role in a Bottom-Up Approach

In a bottom-up leadership system, managers take on a new role. Rather than commanding everything from above, bosses have to listen, sympathize, coach, and react. This means becoming a mentor and leader of people, more than a manager and commander.

More concretely, the manager’s role in a bottom-up system is to:

  • Implement new work processes influenced by employee feedback.
  • Encourage opinions, even dissent, from employees and know how to apply the insights.
  • Communicate changes and why they need to be made.
  • Actively handle employee feedback so the staff knows their contributions lead to results.
  • Set-up and monitor feedback channels so they don’t become disruptive to the workplace.
  • Empower exemplary employees so they can be positive examples.
  • Embody the company culture you want to have by accepting feedback, admitting mistakes, and growing from them.

Keeping Control in the Bottom-Up Method

For many managers, giving up control and influence can be difficult. But it’s not really about giving up control, as much as it is about repositioning your power. Rather than pushing your single point of view, you implement what the workplace and employees need based on feedback knowledge, not personal opinion. And rather than reprimanding employees, you listen to their problems and help them to overcome them.

A manager needs to lead, nurture, and care for their team, but they also have to remain stable. Feedback is an integral tool of the workplace that needs regulations to ensure that it stays functional and doesn’t become a distraction. This also is the role of the boss. They must draw lines on how feedback can be given and applied.

The buck still stops with the boss in a bottom-up approach. It’s only a matter of bringing the minds and views of your team into decisions that makes the difference.

Handling Criticism Has to Be Learned

Many employees are apprehensive to offer criticism to their boss, in fear that it will have a negative effect on their careers or the workplace atmosphere. To get around this problem and be able to learn from outside perspectives on your leadership, it’s best to set up an anonymous communication channel where suggestions and improvements can be safely expressed.

Even if you have three MA’s, a Ph.D., and countless years of experience in your position, it’s never wise to underestimate how important the input of your employees is for your company. After all, a reliable source for understanding the needs and desires of your customers and stakeholders is to learn from those who work the most closely with them.

The Employee Role in Feedback

A team member plays a different role in the workplace with bottom-up feedback. Top-down strategies place all the responsibility up top. This means employees don’t have to engage with the problems or needs of their team. That’s their manager’s job.

With the bottom-up approach, employees are involved and active decision-makers. The company needs their input to make innovations and solve issues. Their voice can help create the success of their team.

Instead of cogs in the machine, employees …

  • … are contributing parts of the whole.
  • … give their feedback and opinions.
  • … need a culture that facilitates the open exchange of ideas.
  • … are problem-solvers and innovators.
  • … interested and able to learn, develop and grow.
  • … feel a responsibility to their team and company success.

A Two-Direction Approach as Compromise

Everyday wisdom applies to life as much it does to leadership: Dogma and extreme positions rarely lead to something good. Rather, a mixed approach combining both methods can be more fruitful. A mixed approach tries to integrate the best of both leadership styles and to drive changes from above and below, in order to eliminate in advance any sources of problems and speed up implementation.

It’s true that people are at their productive best when they have clear expectations and rules, but they also need room for their creativity and space to develop their ideas. To pull off this balancing act, you should continuously collect input from your employees to better understand and apply their opinions, needs, and wishes.

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Flat hierarchies, empowered employees, and direct, two way feedback are all necessities for a successful bottom-up approach.

4 Tips to Make Your Workplace More Successful

  1. Be empathetic. A guarantee for success is to imagine yourself in your employee’s shoes and to see the situation from another perspective. It can be advantageous, between your own tasks, to keep in touch with the work your employees do and see the process from a different angle. After all, the work they do is the basis for a functioning company.
  2. Pay attention to your team. You should always take time to listen to the ideas and suggestions of your employees and keep an open mind and an open ear. If they have something to critique, it’s important to take this seriously and be open to discussion. Unfortunately, this step can be hard for many and often leads to new, beneficial suggestions being flatly rejected. One on one meetings are a great way to overcome these problems.
  3. Pay attention to detail. Actions speak louder than words, and it’s useful to be aware of things that your employees may not actively mention. Observe the workplace atmosphere and watch for indicators of problems, such as increased sick days, absences, or new tensions between colleagues that previously worked well together. If it reaches the point that goals and tasks can’t be accomplished, then it’s time to jump in. When mood and motivation are flatlining, the productivity of the team dies as well.
  4. Give and ask for feedback. Worried that you are one of those bosses that don’t give their employees enough feedback? You wouldn’t be alone. Studies show that more than half of employees desire not only more appreciation for their efforts, but also constructive feedback when something isn’t quite right. There’s obviously plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the feedback culture of companies. We’ll explain in the next section, why the all too often undervalued feedback is actually important.

Get Feedback To Go Forward

What successful managers have in common is that they are open to different perspectives and new ideas. Listening to the suggestions and views of your employees and integrating them into the formation and planning of the workplace is an effective way to optimize your company and team.

Altogether, feedback sounds simple, but doing it proves otherwise. Effectively getting and giving feedback has to be learned.

Learn more about kununu engage and start efficiently collecting valuable, anonymous feedback from your team.

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kununu engage is an application that allows you and your entire company to share continuous and anonymous feedback about what working in the company is like. This insight and transparency can help a company function better and build a stronger company culture.