Company leadership misses out on safety, process, and innovation insights when there isn’t a system for bottom-up communication.
We tend to think of organizations like a ladder because they have a natural hierarchical structure. It’s an apt comparison — but one that’s completely misunderstood. Why? Because with a ladder, everything important is at the bottom, and the hard part is getting it to the top. It’s a bottom-up effort.
Many organizations operate as if the reverse was true; information and guidance flow from top to bottom and only move in one direction. That kind of approach makes sense when a company needs to rally the troops or articulate a bold strategy, especially during times of crisis. However, it’s the wrong approach for leadership, communications, and company culture to take at all times. Like a ladder, things must move in two directions — otherwise, the structure falls apart.
The Benefits of a Bottom-Up Approach
Bottom-up communication means that frontline employees have a way to communicate with the leadership above them, from their direct manager all the way to the C-suite. And it’s more than just an invitation: There’s a channel that directs information from the bottom rung of an organization to the top. That way, the employee experience factors into every decision leadership makes.
Why don’t more companies encourage bottom-up communication? It generally comes down to fear and control. Frankly, there isn’t a good case against bottom-up communication. Executives assume that when employees have access to a streamlined communication channel, through a smartphone or a tablet, it will become a distraction or a way to air petty grievances. But we’ve noticed over the years that, in reality, these objections are unfounded — and the benefits far outweigh any potential negatives. The objections also betray a bias for the input of desk workers over everyone else.
The case in favor of bottom-up communication is much stronger, particularly in industries like manufacturing where there’s a deep disconnect between the factory floor and the C-suite. Soliciting insights from factory workers gives them a sense of ownership, translating into higher morale and better collaboration across the organization. And once information flows more freely, manufacturers unlock the opportunity to crowdsource solutions, foster innovation, and improve the customer experience. More than just a way to make people feel heard, bottom-up communication helps manufacturers engage their whole workforce and do almost everything in a safer, more efficient manner.
Less optimistically but just as important, when organizations prioritize the free exchange of information, they make themselves more resilient to disruption and change. Leaders can thoroughly educate employees about new policies, strategies, or technologies. In turn, employees can inform leadership about how those changes are going — the good and the bad. Together, each rung of the ladder can find ways to make adoption work organically.
Enlisting Ideas From Everywhere
Bottom-up communication might not be the norm in manufacturing, but the case for it is clear. In a time when adaptability and resilience are vital for companies, the need for bottom-up communication has never been more apparent. Use these strategies to create an information channel that runs to all points inside an organization:
- Gamify innovation. Incentivize employees to contribute their ideas by gamifying processes. State a problem that needs a solution, then offer a prize to whoever submits the best idea. The reward could be a gift card or something more personalized to your company’s culture. But the next step is important: Leadership must publically recognize the idea, giving credit to the person who contributed it. Perhaps leadership could celebrate the ideas they plan to implement once a quarter. People are a lot more likely to speak up about their good ideas if they see some personal value in doing so.
- Survey regularly. There are virtually no problems where frontline perspectives won’t be helpful, so ask for feedback frequently. Surveys offer a fast, easily digestible way to gauge what employees are thinking or feeling. People can also complete surveys anonymously, which encourages honesty.
- Connect directly. Avoid having bottom-up communications turn into a “comment box” scenario where management requests feedback but never pays attention. Let employees speak face to face with leadership — perhaps at a monthly luncheon or factory visit — and prove it’s a true dialogue and not an empty gesture. This is the chance for leadership to demonstrate they’re listening and truly value the input of frontline staff.
- Leverage technology. Use technology such as an internal communications platform to keep bottom-up communications organized and recognized. Putting actual tools in place signals that this is a serious initiative by a company that trusts employees and values autonomy.
As manufacturers search for ways to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, bottom-up communications will supply essential insights. All leadership has to do is choose to listen.
Daniel Sztutwojner is Chief Customer Officer and Co-founder of Beekeeper, the single point of contact for your frontline workforce. Beekeeper’s mobile platform brings communications and tools into one place to improve agility, productivity, and safety. Daniel is passionate about helping businesses operate more efficiently. He has a background in Applied Mathematics and more than eight years of experience in sales and customer success.