Employees in company working with feedback

By Nils Reisen | 6 minutes reading time

Most employee surveys are run with a similar top-down approach: a person or a small team designs the survey, analyses the results and reviews the results together with the management team. This is great for certain applications but much less so for others, where a bottom-up approach is the better choice. In this article, we explain both approaches in detail and show which approach is best in which situation.

You have probably experienced a few employee surveys in your professional career. In particular in recent years and with the advent of pulse surveys, they have become much more frequent and – luckily – also shorter. This is good news as they concentrate more on the current circumstances and not on what happened two years ago. One thing, however, has not changed in most cases. The vast majority of employee surveys are done with a top-down approach.

Now you might ask: What does this mean? And: is this a good thing? For certain applications, top-down approaches are the right choice. For others, much less so. Let’s have a closer look at both types of employee surveys and the situations in which they work best.

Top-down surveys provide answers to research questions

The top-down approach is the most used type today and corresponds to what most people have in mind when talking about employee surveys. The goal of top-down surveys is to get answers to specific questions or to test hypotheses.

Similar to surveys used in academic research, they focus on gathering both quantitative and qualitative data on certain topics (e.g. stress) or constructs (e.g. employee engagement, employee satisfaction, employee loyalty) in a more or less scientific way. The “researcher” is usually somebody from HR who is responsible for designing the survey, analysing and/or interpreting the results and presenting the gained insights to the management team(s).

We call this approach “top-down surveys” for two simple reasons:

  • Results are communicated top down: results are analysed by the project team and/or external agencies and discussed with top management first. Only then are the insights communicated to the rest of the organisation. Often, which results are communicated and how they are presented to employees is chosen carefully.
  • Improvement measures are defined top down: based on the feedbacks, improvement measures are defined that address the most pressing issues on a company level. These are usually larger initiatives that need a significant amount of time and resources to complete.

One important characteristic of top-down surveys is that they are in almost all cases strictly anonymous. This is done to ensure that employees give honest feedback without having to fear repercussions. Many companies and survey providers have the opinion that surveys need to be anonymous to yield accurate insights. While this might be true for certain situations (e.g. topics such as mobbing, inclusion or leadership behaviour), anonymous surveys have some fundamental problems that are often overlooked.

Bottom-up surveys enable employees across the company to implement improvements

Bottom-up surveys work quite literally the other way around. Rather than simply measuring the status quo, their goal is to promote personal responsibility of employees and to create a culture of continuous learning and improvement. This is achieved by frequent and transparent surveys whose results are shared across the company. Employees are encouraged to not only give feedback but also to use it as a basis to improve their collaboration and to shape their work environment.

We dubbed this approach “bottom-up” because …

  • The results are visible to all employees so that they can have the greatest possible impact.
  • Employees discuss the feedback in their teams and implement measures where possible. Overarching issues that can’t be resolved within the team are communicated upwards or to relevant stakeholders who then take action or escalate even further up.

As opposed to top-down surveys, bottom-up surveys work best when their results are not (fully) anonymous. This makes it possible for everyone in the company to work with the feedbacks in a goal-oriented way by discussing them in detail with their colleagues.

Given the long history of anonymous employee surveys, this transparency is initially met with some scepticism by management and HR. In our experience, however, open feedback is generally welcomed by employees and has proven a very successful way to transform “elephants in the room” into opportunities for improvement.

The key difference: the users

The key difference between both approaches are the user groups. While the users of top-down surveys are mainly the survey team and line management, the main users of bottom-up surveys are the employees and teams.

Differences between bottom-up and top-down-surveys



This has a fundamental impact on both how the surveys are designed and run. Here are some typical characteristics of both types of employee surveys.

Top-down Bottom-up
Number of questions >10, often dozens <10
Question type Closed questions (measure precisely, test hypotheses) Open questions (learn as much as possible)
Data type Focus on quantitative data Focus on qualitative data
Topics Topics that are interesting for HR and management (“How are employees doing?”) Topics that are interesting for employees and teams (“What can we do to work/collaborate better?”)
User group Small (survey team, HR, management) Large (all employees participating in the survey)

Which approach is best suited for which application?

Top-down surveys are best for answering research questions about your workforce. They are a good choice if you want to …

  • Test assumptions or obtain quantitative data about a topic of interest for HR or (top) management (eg. leadership behaviour, employee satisfaction, employee loyalty)
  • Ask questions about sensitive topics (e.g. mobbing, inclusion)
  • Involve only a sample of individual employees (e.g. 10% of employees across the company)

Bottom-up surveys are ideal if you want to establish continuous learning and improvement on all levels.

Top-down surveys are the best option if you want to …

  • Enable continuous learning and improvement on both a local and global level
  • Promote personal responsibility for driving change
  • Establish a constructive feedback culture

That said, while bottom-up surveys focus more on the improve part of the measure-learn-improve cycle, they are still very well suited to measure at the team and company level. Typical topics are employee engagement and motivation or how employees cope with transformation and change.

Bottom-line

With Pulse, we aimed to create an employee survey that works. We chose a bottom-up approach because the top-down survey that was used at the company we worked for at the time failed to produce improvements that were felt by employees. This was mainly due to the fact that it was difficult to translate the survey results into meaningful measures. Pulse is met with a lot of enthusiasm by our customers and we have become big advocates of the bottom-up approach.

While some employees and managers might need some time to get used to the increased transparency, this open approach has huge advantages. With bottom-up surveys, you give employees the responsibility for taking ownership of their collaboration and work environment, enable them to drive change and promote a culture of constant learning and improvement.

In our experience, the bottom-up approach works very well for most topics (e.g. increasing employee engagement and motivation, driving company transformation and change, developing corporate culture). However, there are some situations in which top-down surveys are the better choice. This is in particular the case if a discussion of the feedbacks in the teams is not desired (e.g. too much workload), not possible (e.g. missing or sensitive information) or simply does not make sense (e.g. topics that can’t be discussed in a meaningful way in a team setting).

Both approaches have their merits. In the end, it comes down to what you want to achieve with your employee survey.

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