Top-down communication is critical for keeping employees aligned and on track to reach strategic goals.
However, this internal communication is often poorly executed, resulting in employees feeling as though changes are being imposed on them. This can lead to pushback—and even disengagement.
Why does this happen—and how can you improve top-down communication?
What is top-down communication?
Top-down communication is a style of organizational communication in which information flows from senior leadership on down through the business.
When important business decisions are made at the highest level, organizations need an efficient way to communicate the decision throughout the entire company. So, many organizations will use top-down communication to ensure a clear flow of information from upper management to IC-level employees.
Top-down communication can be extremely effective—when done properly. At its best, it can break down silos and ensure team members feel equipped to succeed in the organization. At its worst, it can stifle productivity and force employees to adhere to an overly hierarchical structure.
What is bottom-up communication?
Bottom-up communication is an organizational communication style in which information is relayed from lower-level managers and team members up through the business.
While typically not as common as top-down communication, a bottom-up approach can be extremely powerful in the right organizations. Not only does it empower employees to contribute to higher-level decision-making, but it also allows people to share feedback and trust that it’ll be relayed to top management.
“Managing up” is always a tricky proposition for those in less senior roles. By encouraging bottom-up communication across the organization, leaders can create a work environment where team members feel comfortable engaging in healthy two-way communication with their managers. And this can pay dividends for employee performance and retention.
Why top-down communication is important
The No. 1 reason to provide top-down communication is also a simple one: It helps show you listened to the frontline troops. To be successful at top-down communication, you must first engage in bottom-up listening.
It also helps you establish emotional connection with your employees. Leaders have a megaphone by default. Some use it to talk down to people, others don’t use it at all, and the best leaders use it to build emotional buy-in to the company’s mission.
Finally, it helps gain employee alignment. Getting everyone aimed in the same direction allows your organization to work more effectively.
Why top-down communication often fails
There are four main reasons this communication strategy fails:
- Lack of pre-work
- Complex messaging
- Avoiding problems
Let’s look at each more in-depth.
Lack of pre-work
Good communication from the top only happens after tremendous homework. It’s necessary for leaders to understand the pulse of the organization and its unspoken fears. For this to happen, they need to have hundreds of face-to-face conversations with employees across the organization, conduct engagement surveys, engage in strategic workforce planning, and more in order to inform decision-making, which can often slow down problem-solving.
These types of leaders communicate based on how they wish their company operated—not the decisions leadership actually made.
They say things like “employees first” but there’s ample evidence that wasn’t a focus last quarter. They say “culture matters” but tolerate employees who are belittling and demeaning to others. They say it’s a meritocracy, but the CEO has a dedicated parking spot in front that sits empty half of the time. This extends beyond a top-down approach to communication, to just being a good leader.
Too much of top-down communication consists of buzzwords and MBA language when communicating company goals. The more complex the organization is, the simpler the messaging needs to be.
A few common goals are critical to a well-aligned company. It’s hard to synthesize a number of competing demands into a concise, clear message. It’s much easier—and more effective—to put a list of bullet points onto a page for quick distribution.
Many leaders put a strong focus on celebrating success but fail to call out what went wrong.
Celebrating success is important—but so is pointing out failure. By pointing out what went wrong, you can learn from your mistakes—and come out better because of them. By contrast, avoiding those conversations will only erode confidence and trust in your leadership.
6 best practices for improving downward communication
There are a few simple keys to getting top-down communication right and building trust in your management style.
1. Understand where your audience is at relative to the message you’re delivering.
Not every employee needs every piece of information about your organizational strategy or corporate initiatives. Consider who you’re talking to, what information is relevant, and tailor your business communication channels accordingly.
2. Use imagery, analogies, and stories.
Think about how many of business’s greatest writers convey key business lessons: They do it through story. Anecdotes, imagery, and analogies paint a picture—which is a lot easier to remember than a wordy strategic document. How can you convey your message using these tactics?
3. Build the message with your direct reports.
Your direct reports will be your line of communication flow on down through the organization, so they need to be clear on the message. Communication isn’t about what’s said; it’s about what’s understood about what’s said. To ensure the correct message is proliferated, work with your direct reports on the story they’re telling.
4. Be honest and humble.
Whether you’re talking about life or business, nobody likes being talked down to or being lied to. When you’re communicating a message, ask yourself: Am I being completely honest in this message, or am I skirting around issues? Am I speaking down to them or treating them as equals?
5. Let people ask questions.
Remember when you were little and your parents told you to do something, you asked why, and they said, “Because I said so?” It likely didn’t sit well. The same goes for top-down communication. While not everyone’s opinion needs to be considered, giving employees the opportunity to voice their opinions or share concerns can help them feel heard, increase employee engagement, and potentially provide opportunities to further refine your big-picture strategy.
We train people in how to expect us to act through what we do consistently. If your approach varies each time you communicate, employees will become confused and distrusting.
Examples of top-down communication
There are plenty of instances where organizations can benefit from top-down communication.
Say you lead a tech company responsible for delivering products across many verticals. Each product may have its own team—including engineers, UX designers and researchers, marketers—led by a product manager. These teams, while agile and autonomous, run the risk of working in silos. But by participating in top-down communication, you can ensure all PMs receive standardized information, which can make for smoother project management on the whole.
Another particularly salient example: post-COVID return-to-office policies. At a time when many employees may feel confused or anxious about the future, top-down communication can provide a crucial sense of direction. By providing clear guidelines on workplace policies—What’s the timeline for returning to the office? Will a hybrid work model will be allowed?—leaders can ensure all employees are aligned moving forward.
Ultimately, whether or not you adopt a top-down type of communication depends on your organization. Think about the communication needs of your people, and create a plan that caters to those needs. A smart communication strategy pay dividends in the long term.
Proper planning goes a long way.
You have the ability to assemble and disseminate a consistent message—this is paramount in times of change.
As a leader, you get to frame the conversation and the narrative. When you take the time to think through how you relay messages throughout your organization, you can mitigate wrong interpretations, rumors, and fears—or, at the very least, put them into context.
What are the advantages of top-down communication?
Top-down communication is an effective way to:
- Disseminate critical information quickly.
- Clear up confusion and break down silos.
- Communicate with a large number of employees at once.
What is top-down listening?
Top-down listening is a communication system in which senior leaders gather feedback from their direct reports—and so on, down through the organization. Methods of top-down listening include:
- Holding listening tours
- Hosting employee town halls
- Soliciting anonymous feedback (via engagement surveys, Google Forms, etc.)