Skip Navigation

Principles in Brief

Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down

For all the millennia of human existence, life was miserable. Nearly everyone was born into poverty, lived in poverty and died young. As recently as 200 years ago, 90% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. But then something remarkable began to happen: life started to get better and better for more and more people. The flat line representing average well-being became a hockey stick, suddenly and sharply improving – and it has not stopped. Today, less than 10 percent of people live in extreme poverty, even though the world’s population is now almost eight times what it was 200 years ago.

What happened? In short, certain societies haltingly but increasingly began to move from top-down – where a few people controlled the many – to bottom-up, where more and more people enjoyed greater opportunity to live as they saw fit, although it has been an uneven process that remains incomplete. They were more fully able to apply their abilities and knowledge to better their lives and the lives of others.

A top-down approach assumes those in control know what’s best for everyone else. Those at the top typically seek power, rely on one-size-fits-all approaches and use detailed rules and coercion that stifle others. No matter how well-intentioned, a top-down approach only benefits those at the top.

A bottom-up approach respects the inherent worth of each person and unleashes creativity, initiative and talents, resulting in beneficial outcomes beyond what anyone could have planned or predicted. People and society benefit when behavior is mostly governed by general principles rather than detailed rules, freeing individuals to use their gifts and knowledge to tackle problems and pursue opportunities.

In an organization, a bottom-up approach does not mean decentralizing all decisions or equally distributing authorities. Leaders play a vital role in making decisions for which they have the comparative advantage. For example, a facility manager is most likely in the best position to make decisions that affect the whole facility. With a bottom-up approach, the manager seeks and uses the input and challenge of those who have relevant knowledge. However, with a top-down approach, managers simply impose their decisions, which undermines the culture and leads to worse results. They are guilty of “the fatal conceit.”

Bottom-up does not mean employees are free to do whatever they feel like. We strive to create the conditions where employees are motivated to do what is beneficial for Koch and themselves. The responsibility of every supervisor is to enable their employees to understand how, and be motivated, to maximize value in harmony with our principle-based framework. This bottom-up approach benefits everyone – employees, Koch and society.