CEO Insider

Bottom-Up or Top-Down: What Shapes Organizational Culture?

Andrew Rahaman

Combining top-down and bottom-up management methods allows leaders to embody a leadership style that prioritizes shared power and put the needs of employees first to drive performance. There are three traits, in particular, that you should embody to successfully implement a management style that lends itself to effective workplace culture.

Your business’s culture is the set of values, beliefs, and assumptions shared by all members. Because not one person gets to decide values, beliefs, or personality standards, it can be challenging to design an effective and inclusive company culture.

So should you design company culture from the top down or bottom up? Who would be the best fit to be in charge of setting the tone for the business — the leader or the employees? After all, a successful company culture attracts motivated and more engaged employees, resulting in a 33% increase in revenue.

There is no definitive answer to this question, though most companies find it effective to use a combination of both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Every Organization Has a Unique Company Culture

A strong work culture might be characterized by a flat organizational structure, employees hanging out after work, and an emphasis on team success. Yet these traits don’t necessarily determine that one company culture is better than others. Values vary from business to business, and some organizational cultures are more effective than others. Creating a culture that promotes the growth and development of the company as a whole requires the concerted effort of everyone involved, from the C-level to the individual contributors.

Every organization has different operating methods, goals, values, and people from diverse backgrounds. Therefore, it’s expected that organizational cultures vary from organization to organization. For example, a culture that is successful for a startup might not work for a Fortune 500 company.

However, each company can start to create the culture it wants by identifying the values and behaviors that support individual business goals. When viewed through the lens of workplace behavior, these values bring considerable clarity to how the organization operates when empowering others, aligning strategies across functions, prioritizing customer focus, and enhancing team development.

The Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Culture: How Do They Differ?

While cultural tone starts at the top of an organization, culture itself is a shared belief system reiterated over time by what is acceptable and what is not.

The top-down approach to management means companywide decisions are made by leadership at the top, and the rest of the employees are expected to follow.

A bottom-up culture happens when all team members have the opportunity to be included in, participate in, and contribute to the final product or service. It starts with employees solving real issues and codifying those behaviors at every level to get the job done. It also includes how people communicate and interact. Everyone is expected to do their part, hold one another accountable, and provide feedback on what works. When you have a culture of accountability, you get results.

Below is a more detailed view of how the two methods differ.


  • Senior executives create goals and objectives for the company.
  • Employees are given specific tasks to complete.
  • Tasks are assigned by upper management.
  • There is little flexibility.
  • Bureaucracy reigns supreme.
  • Processes, such as such as who communicates with whom, are imposed.
  • There is zero moral motivation because employees feel like their opinions don’t matter.


  • Employees contribute ideas and have control over decisions.
  • Employees work together across the company.
  • Completed tasks are sent to higher-ups.
  • There is flexibility.
  • Agility is prevalent.
  • Processes are team-driven.
  • Employees are highly motivated because they get to contribute to project development.

Is There a Middle Ground Between the Methods?

The short answer is yes. Thriving, as opposed to “simply surviving,” organizations successfully use a highly effective combined approach of top-down and bottom-up management. This process involves coordinating between top management and operational levels to effectively eliminate individual method disparities and solve real organizational issues.

For example, in a top-down approach, the management communicates the big picture, budgeting, and long-term goals to employees. With a combination of top-down and bottom-up management, team members have a seat at the table to revise and edit those plans, provide operational advice, and send suggestions or conclusions to senior leadership for approval. This bilateral approach allows all members to have a say in organizational affairs and presents an opportunity to streamline convoluted processes.

Although utilizing a combination of methods might feel like there’s less control than top-down management alone, it’s easier for large organizations to implement. A combined approach to management also helps employees feel empowered to make decisions and manage career growth.

Combining top-down and bottom-up management is about more than just financial gain for shareholders. It’s about improving overall efficiency and productivity while simultaneously aligning an organization’s behaviors, mindsets, resources, goals, and purposes. It creates a sense of belonging to and engagement with the core business, thus helping contributors at all levels connect to the organization versus seeing it as something separate from themselves.

Challenges and Solutions When Altering Company Culture

Managing organizational culture change in the workplace can be challenging. Some challenges include employee resistance, complacency, and a lack of clarity. However, there are ways to make big changes easier while still helping you stay sane — namely, organizational development training. Investing in organizational development can enable a company to run more efficiently and help leaders manage the organization better. Some examples of training opportunities include collaborative learning circles, team coaching, job analysis, techno-structural changes, and enterprisewide strategic planning.

Driving change from the senior levels is often a one-way street that results in a lack of buy-in and frustration across the organization. It also costs the business valuable time, money, and productivity. Therefore, creating an organizational north star and empowering change from middle and lower levels is essential to promote general comprehension of why the change is necessary.

Remember, culture change is a process. It takes time and requires learning, patience, and perseverance. However, designing an intervention, leading change, creating buy-in, and evaluating adjustments are all necessary steps to ensure organizational culture is set up for overall business productivity and profitability.

How Your Leadership Style Fosters Organizational Culture

Building an effective management method requires a senior leadership style that fosters transparency in the way the organization is led from the top. This means CEOs, managers, supervisors, and other leaders have to be accessible to one another. For some organizations, this actualizes in town hall meetings where all senior leaders are there to take questions and hear issues directly from employees.

In this method, employees are seen, feel heard, and ultimately contribute to an inclusive workplace culture. Combining top-down and bottom-up management methods allows leaders to embody a leadership style that prioritizes shared power and put the needs of employees first to drive performance.

The following are three traits you should embody to successfully implement a management style that lends itself to effective workplace culture.

  1. Perseverance
    No matter your business goals or objectives, you must ultimately work hard and contribute much time and energy to see the company’s success. Leadership comes with many challenges, and perseverance helps you work your way around the obstacles. For example, there will be times when your employees feel like they aren’t making progress. Fortunately, by embodying perseverance and working with individuals through difficult situations, you can help your team members learn from your example and create a company culture of dedication to growth.
  2. Motivation
    Emphasizing employee motivation and creativity directly results in increased organizational growth and productivity. As a leader, you must encourage your employees to think outside the box and develop innovative solutions to problems as they arise. Instead of suppressing your team’s creativity by micromanaging them, give them the freedom to express their ideas and the motivation necessary to succeed.
  3. Trust
    You should allow your employees to control their projects and the outcomes without monitoring their every move. According to a survey, 69% of employees have considered quitting their job because they felt like they were being babysat. Instead, let your team members feel that you trust them by providing them with projects and more opportunities for growth, listening to their feedback, and implementing their suggestions. In doing so, you will be amazed at the culture of productivity that grows.

Final Thoughts

Building the right culture for a company or organization takes time and careful planning. There is not a single, straightforward solution to fostering organizational culture because it varies depending on diverse company missions and values.

What is clear, however, is that all successful companies share similar behaviors, such as coordination across functional lines, strategic alignment, individual and team development, empowering others, and creating psychological safety that allows all members to flourish.

Fortunately, this process of change starts at the top. As a leader, you must be clear about the behaviors you want to see to effectively drive organizational performance. Remember, embodying certain traits will encourage employee productivity, reinforce a positive culture, and enhance creativity and motivation. No matter which organizational culture you choose, ensure it speaks to the employee experience, which positively increases when positive culture is shared.

As one CEO said, “You will create the organizational culture you want for performance, or the existing culture will create you and the performance you get.”

Written by Andrew Rahaman.
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Andrew Rahaman
Andrew Rahaman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of bluSPARC, a coaching and leadership development organization focused on enterprise learning. He is a senior organizational development consultant with extensive executive coaching and leadership development experience.

Andrew Rahaman is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn.