Employee Engagement: Bottom-Up or Top-Down?

In most organizations, a few people at the top of the hierarchy make all the major decisions. It has been this way for as long as anyone can remember, whether in business or politics. But this top-down approach has one major flaw – how do those at the top understand the needs of those at the bottom?

Why the top-down model doesn’t work for engagement

In top-down business structures, information flows down the chain of command, but rarely the other way. Those at the bottom receive instructions and feedback from above, and decisions that affect their work are made without their involvement.

While this can be an effective way of directing the overarching business strategy, when it comes to issues that concern people – such as employee engagement, workplace culture, and the customer experience – it often fails to deliver.

Why? Because those making the decisions are disconnected from those they affect. How can C-suite executives truly understand how the average employee feels, or the myriad factors that combine to make people engaged or disengaged?

In an attempt to better understand their workforce, top-down organizations resort to outdated engagement surveys, which ask every employee the same questions in the same impersonal way. The results are then collated, and the data is used to draw conclusions about the workforce as a whole. The decision-makers then introduce blanket policies or perks designed to please everyone (that’s assuming they take action, as many businesses admit that they discuss at board level only and it doesn’t go any further!).

Employee engagement cannot be fixed this way. The workforce is not a single entity, but a group of individuals, each with their own unique needs and wants. We all work and learn differently; we all have different ambitions. Top-down approaches to employee engagement can never address the individual nature of the issue. What’s needed is a new approach – one that turns the system on its head.

The bottom-up approach to engagement

Employee engagement is a human issue. It’s also a personal issue. As such, fixing it requires a human, personalized approach. Engagement surveys may be able to show you broad trends within the company, but they can never provide you with the personal stories that really matter.

To fix engagement, we must build our strategy from the bottom-up, starting with the individual. That means understanding each employee’s unique needs – what motivates them, how they learn and work, and the conditions in which they are at their best.

The best way to do this is through regular check-ins, where employees can talk openly with their manager about their experience of work. Check-ins are the polar opposite of engagement surveys – instead of an impersonal HR process, employees get to have real conversations about the way they feel about work.

These conversations are the first step towards finding a solution. Once issues have been identified, the manager can work with the employee to make changes. This could involve targeted learning and development to improve certain skills, clarification around goals and future opportunities, or flexibility around how, where, and when the employee works.

Over time, this combination of regular check-ins and resulting actions allows your employees to fine-tune their experience of work. This results in improved engagement, productivity, and retention levels.

With a bottom-up engagement strategy, no decisions need to be made by those at the top – other than to allow this approach in the first place. In fact, there is no decision-making process to consider, as no business-wide changes need to be made. Instead, change happens in an organic way, at a personal level.

This process is dependent on good people managers. Managers facilitate the process of change, and for this to work, employees must feel comfortable talking to them in an honest and open way. After all, check-ins are not like outdated performance reviews – the manager’s role is not to tell, but to listen, help, and advise.

Keep it simple

The beauty of the bottom-up approach to employee engagement is its simplicity. Rather than a handful of people trying to figure out how to fix a complex issue they don’t understand, you go straight to the people with all the answers – your employees.

This is a process that runs itself – all you need are good people managers and a willingness to be flexible. And unlike the old-school top-down model, it really works. When we listen to what individual people need, rather than assuming we already know based on high-level surveys and impersonal data, we can make each person’s experience of work better. And when that happens, businesses thrive.


Nick Edwards - http://www.praguecopywriter.com/

Nicholas Edwards is a freelance writer and editor based in Prague, the Czech Republic. When he's not helping local businesses master the English language, he loves writing about the future of work for People First. 

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