Successful businesses thrive, in part, because they have effective internal communication systems and processes in place. When information is sent down the chain from management to lower rungs on the ladder, it helps everyone to be on the same page and understand the company’s goals and objectives. This top to bottom approach - formally known as the top-down communication model - helps businesses to succeed.
What are top-down and bottom-up communications?
The top-down communication approach is literally what it sounds like: information, news, instructions, and other communications are sent to other parts of the business through a hierarchical structure. The information is sent from the top either straight to everyone else or is sent to managers to filter down to their teams. It may be that different messaging on the same topic is sent to different groups of employees based on their seniority and status and relevance of the information to them.
If given a definition, bottom-up communication is a communication approach from the other end of the scale. It involves giving a voice to employees to share their ideas, perspectives, and opinions so that the company can inform its decision making.
Why is top-down communication important?
It’s all about leadership. Employees actually want to hear from the most senior managers in the company.
A 2019 report by PR firm 360PR found that 82% of employees think that regular communication with the organization from the head of the organization is important.
But almost half (44%) said the senior leaders in their companies weren’t visible.
And 40% only rated the communications abilities of their company’s leadership as “okay”, “poor” or “very poor”.
Communicating from the top-down helps your employees to stay informed, helps to build trust with leadership, increases transparency, builds a sense of connection and belonging, and gives employees the assuredness that they are hearing the correct information from a reliable source.
Benefits and drawbacks of top-down communication
By using a top-down communication approach, your company can take control of how information is distributed and shape the narrative about important issues.
Establishing and maintaining clear lines of authority
Decreasing the risk of misinformation circulating as a result of gossip and rumors. An example of where top-down communication is needed this way is situations such as an active COVID-19 outbreak in your organization.
Reducing mistakes by providing clear, consistent information to everyone
Better quality control
Improved employee engagement
Helping to break down information silos and align different teams so everyone is working towards a common purpose and goal
Reassurance that important information is reaching everyone, regardless of how well or how poorly specific middle managers perform as communications.
On the other hand, there are some drawbacks that need to be navigated if your company is going to move towards using top-down communication:
The risk that information will be lost in translation if management is using corporate jargon that doesn’t mean anything to the average worker in their company
A lack of intricate details when information is communicated en masse to a homogenous group
Risks with sending proprietary information to the entire company – information could be leaked to competitors
Confusion when there are multiple voices – ie, all senior leaders – sending information to employees. Particularly when they are not subject matter experts.
How to improve top-down communication
1. Communicate regularly
The best starting point is to communicate with employees regularly. You can’t increase the visibility of senior leadership if they appear to be absent from the day-to-day running of the company. Devise a communications plan that sets out a schedule of regular communications on important topics.
When there is something new to tell employees that is time-sensitive, send the information as soon as you can. Don’t wait days or weeks or months – this is a really bad way to communicate with employees. Particularly when the information you need to share with them might be already known externally – or, at least, partly known. Top-down communication allows you to establish a single source of truth. When you don’t share information quickly, gossip and rumours can take their place and misinformation can take hold.
The PR360 study found that 38% of employees say they first heard about an important story concerning their company through the media before they heard about it internally.
This can also have a significant impact on employee morale and engagement.
3. Use different communications channels
Many organizations do themselves a disservice in using the wrong internal communications channels for their top-down communications. Sending an email from the CEO is often not enough to cut through and make an impact to improve the flow of information. Many employees get so many emails in their inboxes every day they don’t open and read everything. And email isn’t everyone’s preferred communication method.
Think outside the box. Distribute video content where the CEO addresses employees straight to computer screens using innovative pop-up messaging. Or you can use scrolling desktop tickers with hyperlinks to your intranet where people can read information from the CEO.
4. Make sure your information is easy to understand
If the information you’re sending to employees isn’t clear, concise and easy to understand, you’re undermining your own efforts to improve internal communication. There’s no point doing anything at all if people can’t understand what you are telling them. Make sure your content uses plain language, free from jargon, and is spelled correctly. Be especially aware of acronyms that don’t have an accompanying explanation – don’t assume that everyone will know what they are.
5. Train managers to be better communicators
Some people are natural born communicators and others struggle with it. Unfortunately, this means that in your organization, the quality of information that employees receive is not going to be consistent when you are filtering information down to middle managers to communicate with their teams. Some will do it well, and some will do it terribly. Communication is a skill-set like anything else: provide your managers with training to help them understand best practices and why they need to use them.
6. Get feedback from employees
To determine how well your top-down communication is working, you need to actually ask your employees. Do they think it is effective? Do they think they have the information they need? Do they find it easy to understand? Communication should be a topic in employee satisfaction surveys, and you can also send shorter pulse surveys around it to gauge how it is working. Feedback can then be used to make improvements.
Using the McKinsey Pyramid Principle
The McKinsey Pyramid Principle is a tool developed by consulting firm McKinsey that is used in many organizations to structure the way that they communicate from the top down.
The principle dictates that communicators structure the information they send in a hierarchical way that gets straight to the point in the information that is sent to ensure that the audience’s attention is captured immediately.
Under this principle, you start with the key point you need to communicate.
The second part of the communication needs to put arguments together that summarise the main points of what people need to know.
The third stage should include the information of any supporting ideas and details in a way that is logical.
How to determine and implement the best style of communication for your company
There is no universal one-size-fits-all approach to internal communication. Every company is different and has its own needs and priorities. For some companies in highly competitive industries, the top to bottom communication approach will work best – there’s often little room for error when it comes to customer service and satisfaction.
Other companies may find that the bottom-up approach to communication works better as the way they are structured relies on employee ideas, innovation and feedback.
Taking control of how information is shared in your organization and establishing clear lines of communication can help your company operate more smoothly and efficiently. Using a range of tools designed to help top-down communications will also increase the benefits.