Self-Direction vs Managerial Direction

Traditionally, companies are organized top-down, in a pyramid structure with the CEO at the top. Workers down at the bottom of the pyramid are like cogs in a machine rather than individuals with thoughts and ideas. Input comes from the top and trickles down. This model has been around for many years. 

Recently however, the movement for self-directed work or a bottom-up organization has been gaining ground. Rather than a single manager delegating tasks to everyone, employees are split into teams and assigned projects. How they divide labor for those projects is up to the team rather than a central authority. Those advocating for this organizational structure tend to depict the top-down hierarchy as a dictator directing their minions, and show aversion to anything resembling hierarchy. 

The truth is that both models have their advantages and disadvantages. In some cases, a top-down structure will work best; in others, self-directed teams will create far better results. And sometimes it’s a combination of both. So here’s a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of either camp–you can decide for yourself what’s best for your situation.

Self-Directed Work Teams

One of the biggest advantages of self-directed teams is the ability for employees to take ownership of their work. This can give employees a greater sense of fulfillment in their work. Coworkers come closer together because of how they must rely on one another. Every employee is dependent on their coworkers, and it is that teamwork that brings success. 

Self-directed teams can also be less costly for a company, since the role of manager is divided among members of the team. Team members are more likely to cover for one another in cases of illness or vacation time. This lets self-directed teams benefit not just individual employees but the company as a whole. 

However, there can also be disadvantages to such a structure. It’s hard for individuals to define their roles, which can lead to the occasional misunderstanding. And there is no supervisor or authority to make a final decision–employees must resolve their conflicts between one another. Opportunities for promotion or advancement are also limited because more of the employees are on equal footing. 

Additionally, the self-directed model can overload individual employees because those duties once assigned to a specific manager are now split and added onto everyone’s other tasks. This can result in higher stress levels, particularly if communication is not maintained between team members. 

This structure works best with employees who are well-qualified and mature, who want to take ownership of their work and build a career. Employees need to be responsible and hard-working, as well as willing to communicate and collaborate with their team. 

Top-Down Structure

The hierarchical structure of traditional companies has been occasionally demonized by the proponents of self-directed teams. It has been depicted as a dictator or a CEO rolling in money while their employees suffer. These kinds of companies do exist. However, not all companies using the top-down model are bad. This structure does provide some benefits. 

Since decisions are centralized, employees of a top-down company are given clear expectations. They know what their duties are, and where their duties stop, making it easier to set boundaries between work and their own lives. It’s easier to progress and gain promotions. Additionally, conflicts between employees can be taken to a manager or other higher authority, which can ease friction between individuals who don’t mesh well. 

This top-down leadership does have disadvantages as well–employees feel less ownership of their work, less committed, because they are simply following directions. They may feel expendable rather than valued, and any good idea a lower-level employee has is likely to be discarded completely. It also takes longer for information to be transmitted between employees and those up top. 

One area in which this structure works well is in workplaces with high employee turnover rates. When the decisions are centralized, lower-level employees can come and go without the company losing any vital skills or information. This benefits both the employer and any individuals who are simply looking for temporary work. 

Mixing the Two

The truth is, every organization needs some structure and hierarchy–but also needs to give their employees the flexibility to use their skills to everyone’s advantage. In a software company, for example, those employed to answer calls on the helpline may not need much training or to be part of a self-directed team. There is likely a higher turnover rate among these individuals. On the other hand, the software engineers employed by this company may produce better work and feel more fulfilled in self-directed teams. These engineers are likely to stay with the company for multiple years, and will have both skills and ideas that can benefit the company as a whole. Allowing these individuals more freedom can be extremely beneficial. 

But remember, every organization is unique. Every employee is unique. Some people work best under structure with clear managerial instructions, while others do best when given a project and left to their own devices. The best way to handle your situation will be to do your research and know your employees’ needs. 


Cody, Jim. “Self-Directed Work Teams are More Productive.” LinkedIn, 24 February 2016.

Quain, Sampson. “Traditional Vs. Contemporary Organizational Structure.” Chron, 19 October 2018.

Sisney, Rex. “Top-down vs. Bottom-up Hierarchy: Or, How to Design a Self-Managed Organization.” Organizational Physics: Structure and Design Consulting for Scaling Companies, 13 October 2016.

Comment (1)

  1. Links to Published Articles – Erin Lee Writes

    […] Self Direction vs Managerial Direction (for The Council for Corporate Transformation, 2021) […]


Loading ...