Should company culture come from the top-down or the bottom up?

By John Stevens

Company culture is effectively an organisation’s personality and in many ways it can be as unique and complex as any individual. Just as our own personalities evolve and shift according to a whole host of environmental factors, it is likely that your business culture will also incur changes over the years as it grows, or market conditions change, or older team members retire and younger workers move up the ladder.

Whilst, to some degree, this process will be organic, there is a risk that if you don’t take a strategic and proactive approach to your company culture, you could find that it is working against you rather than for you – and, if you get it right, it can go a long way to supporting the overall goals and vision of the company.

We have previously set out some of the many benefits that being strategic can bring, but when looking to design or change company culture, who should lead the charge? Should you adopt a ‘top-down’ approach, where it falls to the business leaders to set the tone; or should you look to be led from the ‘bottom-up’, where employees – the people for whom it is most likely to impact on a day-to-day basis – are at the helm?

The truth is, there is no one answer to this, and most businesses will find that a combination of both approaches is the most effective way to ensure your company culture works for you. Here, we explore some of the ways that either party can help or hinder the process.

Advantages of a top-down approach
Given that business leaders are closer to the over-arching strategy of the company, they are inevitably best-placed to define certain aspects of its culture. Having an in-depth knowledge of the organisations’ goals, objectives and challenges, business leaders are involved in the ‘behind the scenes thinking’ that most employees will not be aware of and can therefore offer valuable insight into how employee culture can best complement the corporate strategy. It is they who will understand whether a culture of teamwork or competition would best work to achieve the businesses goals; and they who will know whether a culture of flexible working will suit the business model. Ultimately, it is also those at the top who have the most to lose from an unhealthy culture, as recent high-profile scandals have demonstrated. With more at stake, it is likely to be business leaders who will invest the time and effort required to shape an employee culture that is good for the organisation’s employees, as well as its overall success.

Disadvantages of a top down approach
Much has been written about diversity in the boardroom – or rather, the distinct lack of it.  Whilst it is clear that efforts are being made to address this situation and it is starting to improve, the fact is that traditionally most boardrooms have looked very white and very male. There is therefore a good chance that the culture of the business has been designed through this lens; with the cultural norms of this somewhat narrow group more in mind.

This has wide-reaching implications as it has long been accepted that diversity drives success, and a culture that suits just a narrow proportion of your workforce risks alienating anyone who sits outside of it. For example, it may be that insufficient attention has been paid as to how your culture supports the specific challenges facing working mothers; or social events may be geared towards activities that involve drinking, ignoring the members of the workforce who do not consume alcohol. There are any number of ways in which an employee culture solely designed and implemented from the ‘top-down’ can leave a large part of your workforce feeling unrecognised – and therefore potentially unmotivated.

Advantages of a bottom-up approach
It clearly follows that one of the main advantages of employee culture being led from the ‘bottom-up’ – i.e. with employees in the driving seat – is that you are more likely to have a culture that works for everyone. Inviting people to shape the environment and behaviours of the workplace they spend so much of their time in will help them feel recognised and valued. And it should also help create a place that they want to come to, a place that they can be most productive in. Creating a bottom-up approach where people can feed back their experiences at work and be honest about what they need – for example, a place where it is safe to be open about mental health challenges – helps business leaders understand what staff really want, and then put into place appropriate measure to support and retain them, rather than having to second-guess. This approach – often referred to as ‘personalisation’ – is particularly helpful when considering how your  reward and recognition programs should look, as it enables you to offer people things that that they will really value and engage with.

Disadvantages of a bottom-up approach
Whilst it is important that an organisation’s culture reflects all of its members and can be somewhat fluid and organic according to the pressures of the day, it also needs to continue to accurately reflect the brand and specific values and goals of the company. An approach that is too open and flexible risks descending into chaos, and can leave people unsure where the boundaries are, what they can have a say in and what needs to be dictated from above. For example, developing a relaxed and informal environment can be a good thing – but it’s worth remembering that everyone has different ideas about what is acceptable behaviour, and certain rules should be clearly defined and communicated to avoid potential problems.

To make lasting changes to any company culture, you need buy-in from all those that it will impact and there is merit in involving everyone, at every level of the organisation, in this process. Just be sure that you have a clear sense of what each party is bringing to the table.

Employee recognition can help create a healthy company culture. Download our free e-book to find out more about how to build an effective recognition strategy.