n. Top-down and Bottom-up representation

Top-down / Bottom-up Representation

The command component of an organisation can be selected by bottom-up or top-down representation, i.e., by subordinate components or by the command component of parent or grandparent organisations.

Ultimately, each organisation is led by a single individual, although that individual may be beholden to the leader of a parent or grandparent organisation. Thus, organisations have a command hierarchy whose size is proportional to the size of the organisation.

Top-down representation permits greater focus on the objectives of the relevant organisation and its stakeholders, but this focus can be redirected in the personal interest of the leader. Bottom-up representation, on the other hand, allows greater flexibility in selecting the appropriate command style for the prevailing circumstances, but can result in a focus on the personal objectives of subordinates. Ideally therefore, those who populate command components should be selected by negotiation between the two interests, and both should monitor the decisions and commands of leaders to ensure that they are aligned with communal interests.

It is notable, however, that top-down hierarchies corrupt bottom-up democracies. In the UK, voluntary organisations tend to be run “democratically” by committees or boards of elected lay members. They also employ staff to support them. Whilst the lay side is democratic, the staff side comprises a hierarchy with a single leader at the top, much like a typical business. Despite the existence of a democratic lay side and claims that these organisations are run by the membership, in practice, the single individual leading the staff side almost always runs the organisation and sets its agenda. Obviously, he or she controls the staff side, and via leader/ follower trading arrangements, they become compliant to his or her wishes. The staff side also develop strategies to persuade lay members to support their leader’s agenda. They learn what a lay member wants, typically, this is position and status, and use their influence in the organisation to provide it in return for support. In this way, lay members obtain leadership positions which are beholden to the top-down structure of the staff side and bottom-up democracy is diluted or lost.

I have personal experience of this process in two entirely different voluntary sector organisations. One is a trade union. Unsurprisingly, most UK unions have now merged into very large, centrally controlled organisations with highly paid, high-profile leaders. This is a far cry from the original, small, local, and genuinely member led organisations that trade unions once were. The other was a medium sized ethical society where the same process was steadily taking place. This problem is scalable to government, where top-down business hierarchies can influence bottom-up government in a similar way. Bottom-up representation cannot survive contact with top-down representation, unless strong controls such as transparency, and a genuinely policed code of ethics are in place.

Message from the Author

From the examples given in this and the preceding articles, there is no doubt that General Systems theory is potentially an extremely powerful tool for understanding human nature and society. It can enable us to discover the root causes of the social and environmental problems we face and can help in identifying solutions. However, the subject is not as well developed in Rational-Understanding’s area of interest as I had hoped. Much work is required before I can make further posts on the topic.

I will, therefore, now move on to the next topic, “How Organisations and Hierarchies Arise”. In parallel, I plan to put in the necessary work on General Systems Theory and will publish pdfs on the website as this progresses. I will, of course, let you know when a pdf has been published and will provide a link. The links will also be added to the website index page.

i. A Systems Model of Human Organisation (Part 3)

A Systems Model of Human Organisation (Part 3)

This post is the final part of the article posted over the last two weeks. Due to its length, I have split the article down into three posts, but if you would like to read it in one sitting a copy can be downloaded here


The components of an organisation have designated functions and act together to achieve its overall purpose. Organisations which have evolved frequently contain redundant components which compete with one another. Although this competition leads to inefficiencies, redundancy does make an organisation more resilient. Furthermore, competition, if positive, can reveal which component is best suited to a role. Because we aim for efficiency, an organisation which has been designed rarely contains redundancies. It is also the case that subsequent design often eliminates them, but there is of course, a downside.

This also applies to the command component. In some cases, there is redundancy of potential command, i.e., alternative command components that can step in when necessary. In other cases, there is none. In a democracy for example, there is considerable redundancy of potential command in the form of political parties and much competition between them. However, this allows the selection of a command style suited to the circumstances, or the replacement of an ineffective one. In an authoritarian state or other organisation, there is often little redundancy of potential command. This makes the organisation less adaptable to changing circumstances.

Top-down & Bottom-up Representation

The command component of an organisation may comprise individuals selected by:

  • the individual who ultimately leads that organisation; or by
  • the command component of a parent or grandparent organisation.

This is top-down representation. Alternatively, it may comprise individuals selected by those in a subordinate position, i.e., bottom-up representation. There are advantages and disadvantages in both methods. The former permits greater focus on the objectives of the relevant parent organisation, but this focus can be redirected in the personal interest of the leadership. The latter allows greater flexibility in selecting the appropriate command style for the prevailing circumstances but can result in a focus on the personal objectives of subordinates. Ideally, therefore, those who populate command components should be selected by negotiation between the two interests.

Decision Making Style

The decision-making style of a command component can vary on a scale from consultative to authoritarian. The consultative approach yields the best decisions, albeit more slowly and with greater effort. However, consultative leaders can become authoritarian for two main reasons.

  • Out of efficiency. It is quicker and easier to issue instructions than to consult and negotiate.
  • To resist replacement. Leaders have their own personal goals, as well as the goals of the organisation in mind. They may rely on status to achieve the former which can conflict with the latter. In resisting replacement, they may provide misinformation to sub-ordinates, select supportive subordinates, and engage in negative competition with potential rivals. In the case of government, a new human right may be a way of preventing top-down misinformation.

Finally, a style of command can become established in the culture of an organisation, whether a business or a nation. Once established, there is a tendency for the organisation to revert to it after a change in command, i.e., command style can be subject to homeostasis.

Use of the Model

This model can be used to understand human interactions in specific circumstances. Owing to complexity, it is not able to predict those interactions, however. It can also be used to identify behavioural changes which might lead to social improvements, such as the prevention of conflict and the alleviation of poverty.