Steve Jobs famously led his company like a visionary. Passionate – even obsessive – about simple design, he set a clear direction for Apple from the very top.

And there’s a good reason why his name comes attached to the idea of top-down management and leadership: while he put people at the center of his company’s designs, those working under him noted that, “at new product launches, he, not the team, was the protagonist.” He was unquestionably in charge.

His case is on the extreme end of things. Not every company has a guru visionary at the helm, and you won’t exactly find business school textbooks suggesting the leaders of tomorrow should follow Jobs’ lead. But it does exemplify the central tenets of the top-down approach where executive marching orders move down through leaders and managers to all employees in the trenches. 

That’s basically how traditional knowledge management works, too. For sales, in particular, think playbooks 50, 60, even 70 pages long, meant to be a standardized, one-size-fits-all solution for everyone.

But there’s a second approach to leadership that applies here. Bottom-up management takes the people on the front line and puts them in the driver’s seat. Their knowledge and experience become the basis for making better-informed choices about the business.

Most discussions pit these two approaches against each other as if it’s a battle for superiority between fighters in the ring. But in terms of knowledge sharing at least, everyone comes out ahead when the contenders stop fighting and work together instead.

Sharing the sandbox

No surprises here: top-down and bottom-up approaches each have their pros and cons. Here’s the thing, though. When you meet in the middle, they balance each other out or even complement each other.

Trust and comfort: Top-down approaches work best when each person on the front line trusts in their leadership. One great way to foster that trust? Involve that in-the-field expertise to show you’re listening – a staple of bottom-up style.

Confidence: Bottom-up, on the other hand, works best when employees feel confident about speaking their minds in front of their peers and leaders alike. Not an easy ask for everyone, so a top-down approach can help get the ball rolling.

Timing: Ask a project manager and they’ll tell you that sourcing bottom-up feedback and weighing all the options takes a lot of time. Going top-down means decisions happen fast. The same goes for your knowledge – finding the best stuff takes time and effort without direction from the top.

Engagement: When employees see they’ve made a contribution, it fosters trust. It also helps them feel ownership over their work and get engaged. That’s a perfect counterbalance to the fact that top-down leadership can feel like an oppressive grind.

Clarity: That said, a top-down approach means clear organization in a system that might otherwise get muddled. If everyone used different tools for knowledge sharing, for example, how would you know where to turn when you have a question?

Conflict: Let’s face it: we don’t always agree on everything. Giving each employee an equal voice can quickly result in disagreements and conflicts. Chances are, leadership will need to set a few ground rules to make sure everyone gets along as best as possible.

Silos: We’ve talked about breaking down silos in your organization before. Your knowledge sharing style will affect how your team learns from others across your company. Going bottom-up opens those lines of communication, though it may take a concerted top-down effort to get all teams on board.

In the end, you want the best knowledge, no matter where it comes from. So that product information? Maybe best that it comes from the people who know the ins and outs of how it works. But how to make it resonate with that particular prospect? That’s where the whole team comes in with their know-how.

The bottom line in 2019 

It’s never been easier to source bottom-up knowledge. Collaboration tools are common in organizations, and knowledge sharing makes it easy for each employee to give input and feedback, in the way they feel most comfortable. On top of that, integrations between those systems mean we’re enabling our people better than ever. The possibilities for unlocking that roots-up tribal knowledge in your organization? Endless.

And as more organizations experiment with bottom-up management and leadership styles across the board, we expect this kind of approach to sharing knowledge will become mainstream in the not-so-distant future.

That said, there are still good reasons for the Steve Jobs way of doing things, and they shouldn’t be ignored. Sometimes working within systems fuels our creativity like nothing else. That box helps us think outside the box, and a clear vision from the top can unlock capabilities we didn’t know we had.

Like most things in life, the answer isn’t strictly black-and-white. Rather, it’s about thinking about the outcome we want – in this case, capturing and sharing great knowledge effectively – and using the strengths of both approaches when it makes sense.

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