Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
July 04, 2023 · 10 min read

Top down vs. bottom up management: Which style is better?

Top down vs. bottom up management: Which style is better?

What makes a good leader? Is it engaging communication, collaborative relationships, or the ability to make tough decisions?

Whatever the answer is, a 2023 study by Gallup found that leaders aren’t getting it right.

Based on the survey, only 24% of employees strongly agree that their leaders act collaboratively. While only 21% say they actually trust their leaders to do the right things.

Managing people (and projects) is no small task. But the good news is that, if you’re new to your project management role, there’s a lot of room for improvement as you develop your leadership style.

One of the big decisions you’ll need to make early on is whether to go for a top-down approach (by directing your team’s strategy and decisions) or a bottom-up approach (by collaborating on goals, objectives, and targets).

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In this guide, we’ll explain the differences between these two management styles, show how they apply to project managers, and give you the tools to help develop your own unique approach to leadership.

What is top-down management?

Top-down management - sometimes called command-and-control or autocratic leadership - is where the power, control, and decision-making sits at the top of the organization.

In project and product teams, this means the project manager makes all of the decisions regarding the product’s vision, strategy, and execution and directs the wider team to carry out the plan.

Another way to think of this is “leading from the front” vs. “leading from the back.” In a top-down management situation, there is always someone in front who not only makes the decisions, but is the first one to run into whatever lies ahead.

Leading from the front or from the back?

When and who should use the top-down management style?

When most people think of top-down management, they think of organizations like the military with its strict power hierarchy and chain of command. This works because, in life and death situations, tough decisions need to be made quickly and without question.

But it’s not just the military that relies on top-down management. Many other companies often adopt this approach, including financial services, construction, and emergency services.

What many of these organizations have in common is:

In these situations, someone needs to be making the final decision or else the whole thing falls apart.

The pros and cons of being a top-down company

Like any management style, there are pros and cons to operating in a top-down fashion. Here’s what you should know before taking the lead on your team:

Pros Cons
Decisions are made quickly Implementing decisions takes longer
Provides clarity and focus for employees Employees can feel demotivated
An organization’s strategy and vision are easily aligned Organizational creativity is stifled
Less risk to the business and its customers Companies are slow to react to challenges
Lower costs across the organization Employees are disengaged and less productive per person

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that top-down management allows for more control but less space for creativity and ownership. While you might sleep better at night knowing that your team is following your directions, you could be missing out on opportunities for more creative and inventive ideas.

While you might sleep better at night knowing that your team is following your directions, you could be missing out on opportunities for more creative and inventive ideas.

What is bottom-up management?

On the other hand, bottom-up management centers around the inclusion and collaboration of the whole team. This management style brings together everyone’s ideas and opinions to build consensus and make the most informed decisions.

In project and product teams, this would mean the project manager takes on more of a servant-leader approach, enabling the team to co-create strategy, vision statements, plans, and task lists before empowering them to deliver them.

When and who should use the bottom-up management style?

In recent years, bottom-up management has mostly become associated with technology organizations that work within an agile project management methodology.

Agile teams have a philosophy of self-organization and collaboration and believe that moving at speed is only possible when everyone has the autonomy to complete their work without blockers.

Organizations in sectors such as marketing, communications, digital, and media also work in this way, as their work has the following characteristics:

For companies that rely on creativity and unique ideas, bottom-up management can be a great way to give your team more autonomy and decision-making power.

The pros and cons of being a bottom-up company

Collaborative, people-first management may sound great on paper - but it isn’t always the ideal approach. Here are some of the pros and cons of taking the bottom-up approach:

Pros Cons
Teams can react to changes quickly It takes time to gather everyone’s opinion and viewpoint when decision making
Employees feel engaged in the process Employees can become too invested in their work, leading to burnout
Delivery is often of a higher quality as more opinions, knowledge, and expertise is involved More people + more time = more cost
Customers and stakeholders are better represented in the work A risk that ‘too many cooks’ cause friction within teams
Employees are happier as they have more meaning and fulfillment If teams are too independent, managers can lose control

In the end, bottom-up management offers a ton of pros, but still requires a nuanced hand to make sure teams stay focused and hit their goals. Without someone “leading from the back,” these teams can spiral out of control.

Top-down vs. bottom-up management for project managers

So, we’ve got the top-down and bottom-up management approaches - but which one is best to maximize team effectiveness for project managers?

The truth is that there isn’t a straightforward answer to this. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet or a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to managing people or projects. Instead, the best management style is a mix of the two, depending on:

For example, you might be a natural extrovert who enjoys hearing other people’s ideas and opinions before making a decision. But, you might have inherited a junior team who isn’t experienced in the work to come.

In this scenario, you’d need to blend your management styles.

First, you’d want to lean into your strengths, encouraging everyone to get involved and share their ideas (bottom-up). But then, if the ideas put forward by the junior team aren’t sufficient, you may need to push ahead with your own solution and direct the team accordingly (top-down).

Blend your management styles

Mixing styles is also essential to effectively manage your project’s risk. That’s because:

Ultimately, as you gain experience, it’s all about finding the style that works for you. Here’s how to do that.

How to find your individual leadership style (hybrid management)

The best leaders and managers are the ones who take the time to invest in themselves and their capabilities. After all, how will you ever lead, motivate, and inspire those around you if you aren’t armed with the right tools and techniques?

While there are 101 different leadership quizzes out there, ultimately, it comes down to understanding yourself and those around you to get the best results.

Here are some steps to help you get started:

Take stock of your natural strengths and weaknesses

While you can study great leaders such as Bill Gates, Tom Brady, or Oprah Winfrey, Your leadership style must be unique and authentic.

The best way to begin developing your leadership and management style is to understand your strengths and weaknesses. During this process, focus on soft skills (e.g., interpersonal and communication skills) and hard skills (e.g., languages, planning, technology) to get the complete picture.

Then, while you may be tempted to only focus on improving your weaknesses, it’s just as important to maximize your strengths.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an excellent verbal communicator, strong with numbers, or you speak multiple languages, whatever your strengths are, leverage them to connect and lead those around you.

Resources and tips to help:

A real-world example:

Hardeep is a new project manager working in a tech startup, leading a team of six software developers. Hardeep is keen to understand his management style and identifies that his strengths are his fast execution, ability to stay calm under pressure, and written communication.

Write down how you like to work with others

Now that you know what you can give others, consider how other people can help bring out the best in you. Leadership and management is a give-and-take process, and if you and your team don’t gel together, you’ll soon burn out.

Once you’ve understood these, write them down to help crystalize your thinking and be prepared to share them with those around you.

Resources and tips to help:

To understand your working preferences, ask yourself these questions:

A real-world example:

Hardeep takes some time to consider his own preferred working styles. Hardeep is a reflective leader who likes to consider problems, review data and opinions, and make a decisive choice. He prefers to communicate over emails or chat and wants to receive feedback when he asks for it, rather than it coming out of the blue.

Leadership and management is a give-and-take process, and if you and your team don’t gel together, you’ll soon burn out.

Talk to other leaders you’d like to emulate

While everyone’s leadership style is different, there’s no harm in finding another leader that you admire, asking them for advice, and then emulating proven tactics and techniques they pass on.

Great leadership also comes with experience, and you’re bound to make mistakes. But, talking to other leaders can unlock insight that helps you avoid those common pitfalls and spend more time driving success.

Over time, these leaders can even become mentors, helping you further develop your style, identify training opportunities, and critique what you do well and where you can improve.

Resources and tips to help:

A real-world example:

Hardeep speaks with Jack, a senior project manager he heard speak at a professional networking event. Hardeep admires Jack’s ability to communicate verbally and his collaborative and open approach to solving problems. Jack provides Hardeep with some tips on how to improve some of his bottom-up management style skills.

Understand your company’s leadership culture

A lot of the time, the best leadership approach to take depends on the situation you’re in. A big factor in this is the overall leadership culture of your organization.

As we covered earlier in this article, public sector and financial service organizations tend to have a more top-down approach, with tech and marketing companies favoring a bottom-up style. While this is a generalization, you need to understand the leadership style within your organization to align your actions with the norm.

Resource and tips to help:

A real-world example:

Hardeep identifies that his organization has an Interdependent style, with an ethos that leadership is a collective activity designed to benefit everyone. The organizational values are also aligned with collaboration, agility, and customer value, which are very bottom-up in their approach.

Identify what the team will respond to

Every team, and in fact, team member, needs a specific type of leader to get the best out of them. As you develop your style, take the time to understand what kind of leadership and management approach will work best for your individual team members.

Identify what your team will respond to

This will help you develop the right style and help the team relax into their roles, feel engaged and accepted, and help to build some initial psychological safety.

Resource and tips to help:

The best leadership approach to take depends on the situation you’re in.

A real-world example:

Hardeep sits down with his team members in a one-to-one meeting to get to know them better. As part of this, Hardeep asks the team what they would like to see from him, with many asking for a mix of open communication and clarity in their roles, responsibilities, and tasks.

Test, learn, and adapt your style moving forward

Like many things in project management, you won’t get your leadership style right from day one. But that shouldn’t stop you from getting stuck in and leading your team, and your project, forward.

The key is to keep testing new techniques and ideas, continue learning (either formally or through mentoring from other leaders), and then adapting to new situations, new team members, and new organizations.

Resource and tips to help:

A real-world example:

Hardeep takes all the information and learning he has gathered to develop his own leadership style. He aims to capitalize on his reflective thinking and decisive action-taking strengths and takes a top-down approach to decision-making.

But, recognizing his weaknesses, the advice of his leadership mentor, and the needs of his team, he decides to also focus on creating a collaborative and open environment for solution building that’s aligned with a bottom-up approach.

He’ll take feedback from his team in one-on-one meetings to help him improve going forward.

The 3 core characteristics of great leaders

While great leaders come in many different shapes and sizes, they’re all underpinned by a common set of characteristics.

While you’ll develop your own management style, it’s worth focusing on developing these underpinning characteristics:

1. Communication

All great leaders are great communicators. To lead successfully, you need to let people know where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and why they should come along for the journey.

That doesn’t mean you need to master public speaking, so long as you find the communication style that’s right for you and your team!

Find the communication style that fits your team best

2. Creativity

The best leaders can come up with ideas, either by themselves or by empowering a superstar team around them. While many will argue you’re either creative or not, we’d disagree.

To prove it, we’d recommend checking out our 19-step guide on becoming more creative.

3. Dependability

If you’re going to follow someone, you need to know they’re dependable, and dependable people are usually organized. After all, if you’re going to lead a team, you need your own ducks in a row first.

That’s where tools like Planio come in, helping project leaders and project managers everywhere keep their teams informed, inspired, and up-to-date, thanks to the magic of project management software.

Agile board in Planio showing issues coloured according to their priority

With communication, task management, document storage, and collaboration features, Planio is the friend you need to take your leadership and management to the next level.

Style out leadership and management in your own way

The success of many projects lies in the quality of the team’s leadership. Despite the data showing that modern leadership may not be up to scratch, if you’re new to a project management role, now’s your chance to make a difference.

Getting the right blend of top-down and bottom-up management is essential to help you strike a balance between delivering your objectives and engaging the team. Many agree the hybrid approach is the best, so why not try taking the best bits of both to build your own unique style?

And of course, when the going gets tough, we’d always recommend using a project management tool like Planio to keep your team planning, documenting, and collaborating their way towards projects success.

Try Planio free for 30 days – no credit card necessary.