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Top-down communication: how to get it right

January 14, 2020
5 minute read
Last updated January 14, 2020

Top-down communication is critical for keeping employees aligned and on-track to reach strategic goals.

However, this communication is often poorly executed, resulting in employees feeling as though changes are being imposed on them. This can lead to push back—and even disengagement.

Why does this happen—and how can you improve top-down communication?

Why top-down communication is important

The No. 1 reason to provide top-down communication is also a simple one: It helps show you listened to the frontline troops. To be successful at top-down communication, you must first engage in bottom-up listening.

It also helps you establish emotional connection with your employees. Leaders have a megaphone by default. Some use it to talk down to people, others don’t use it at all, and the best leaders use it to build emotional buy-in to the company’s mission.

Finally, it helps gain employee alignment. Getting everyone aimed in the same direction allows your organization to work more effectively.

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Why top-down communication often fails

There are four main reasons this communication strategy fails:

  • Lack of pre-work
  • Hypocrisy
  • Complex messaging
  • Avoiding problems

Let’s look at each more in-depth.

Lack of pre-work

Good communication from the top only happens after tremendous homework. It’s necessary for leaders to understand the pulse of the organization and its unspoken fears. For this to happen, they need to have hundreds of face-to-face conversations with employees across the organization, conduct engagement surveys, engage in strategic workforce planning, and more. 

Hypocrisy

These types of leaders communicate based on how they wish their company operated—not the decisions leadership actually made

They say things like “employees first” but there’s ample evidence that wasn’t a focus last quarter. They say “culture matters” but tolerate employees who are belittling and demeaning to others. They say it’s a meritocracy, but the CEO has a dedicated parking spot in front that sits empty half of the time. This extends beyond top-down communication into just being a good leader.

Complex messaging

Too much of top-down communication consists of buzzwords and MBA language. The more complex the organization is, the simpler the messaging needs to be. 

A few common goals are critical to a well-aligned company. It’s hard to synthesize a number of competing demands into a concise, clear message. It’s much easier—and more effective—to put a list of bullet points onto a page for quick distribution.

Avoiding problems

Many leaders put a strong focus on celebrating success but fail to call out what went wrong. 

Celebrating success is important—but so is pointing out failure. By pointing out what went wrong, you can learn from your mistakes—and come out better because of them. By contrast, avoiding those conversations will only erode confidence and trust in your leadership.

How to build leadership capacity across an organization The Predictive Index

6 best practices for top-down communication

There are a few simple keys to getting top-down communication right.

1. Understand where your audience is at relative to the message you’re delivering.

Not every employee needs every piece of information about your organizational strategy or corporate initiatives. Consider who you’re talking to, what information is relevant, and tailor your communications accordingly.

2. Use imagery, analogies, and stories.

Think about how many of business’s greatest writers convey key business lessons: They do it through story. Anecdotes, imagery, and analogies paint a picture—which is a lot easier to remember than a wordy strategic document. How can you convey your message using these tactics?

3. Build the message with your direct reports.

Your direct reports will be your line of communication down the organization, so they need to be clear on the message. Communication isn’t about what’s said; it’s about what’s understood about what’s said. To ensure the correct message is proliferated, work with your direct reports on the story they’re telling.

4. Be honest and humble.

Whether you’re talking about life or business, nobody likes being talked down to or being lied to. When you’re communicating a message, ask yourself: Am I being completely honest in this message, or am I skirting around issues? Am I speaking down to them or treating them as equals?

5. Let people ask questions.

Remember when you were little and your parents told you to do something, you asked why, and they said, “Because I said so?” It likely didn’t sit well. The same goes for top-down communication. While not everyone’s opinion needs to be considered, giving employees the opportunity to voice their opinions or share concerns can help them feel heard—and potentially provide opportunities to further refine your strategy.

6. Repeat.

We train people in how to expect us to act through what we do consistently. If your approach varies each time you communicate, employees will become confused and distrusting. 

Proper planning goes a long way.

You have the ability to assemble and disseminate a consistent message—this is paramount in times of change. 

As a leader, you get to frame the conversation and the narrative. When you take the time to think through how you relay messages throughout your organization, you can mitigate wrong interpretations, rumors, and fears—or, at the very least, put them into context.

Misalignment at the top leads to chaos at the bottom.

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