How many employees do your supervisors manage? Has your organization considered the effects of what narrow or wide supervisory and managerial spans of control mean for your employees and the levels of support and empowerment they receive on-the-job? Have you considered how your decisions regarding the number of levels of reporting in your organization and span of control given to your supervisors and managers influence job satisfaction, communication practices, and your overall organizational culture? The structure of your organization matters for these reasons and more.
Defining span of control
Span of control refers to the number of subordinates that can be managed effectively and efficiently by supervisors or managers in an organization. Typically, span of control is either narrow or wide resulting in a flatter or more hierarchical organizational structure. Each type has its inherent advantages and disadvantages.
In ERC’s most recent study, the reported span of control among supervisors and managers was inversely moderately correlated (-.47) with the number of direct reporting levels in the organization, suggesting that as direct reporting levels increase, span of control decreases.
Optimal span of control
Three or four levels of reporting typically are sufficient for most organizations, while four to five are generally sufficient for all organizations but the largest organizations (Hattrup, 1993). This is consistent with ERC’s survey’s findings as well. An ideal span of control in an organization, according to modern organizational experts is approximately 15 to 20 subordinates per supervisor or manager. However, some experts with a more traditional focus believe that 5-6 subordinates per supervisor or manager is ideal. In general, however, optimum span of control depend on various factors including:
- Organization size – The size of an organization greatly influences span of control. Larger organizations tend to have wider spans of control than smaller organizations.
- Nature of an organization – The culture of an organization can influence span of control; a more relaxed, flexible culture is consistent with wider span of control; while a hierarchical culture is consistent with narrow span of control. It is important to consider the current and desired culture of the organization when determining span of control.
- Nature of job – Routine and low complexity jobs/tasks require less supervision than jobs that are inherently complicated, loosely defined and require frequent decision making. Consider a wider span of control for jobs requiring less supervision and a narrower span of control for more complex and vague jobs.
- Skills and competencies of manager – More experienced supervisors or managers can generally have wider spans of control than less experienced supervisors. It’s best to also consider to what degree supervisors and managers are responsible for technical aspects of the job (non-managerial duties).
- Employees skills and abilities – Less experienced employees require more training, direction, and delegation (closer supervision, narrow span of control); whereas more experienced employees requires less training, direction, and delegation (less supervision, wider span of control).
- Type of interaction between supervisors and employees – More frequent interaction/supervision is characteristic of a narrower span of control. Less interaction, such as supervisors primarily just answering questions and helping solve employee problems, is characteristic of a wider span of control. The type of interaction you want your supervisors and managers to engage in with their employees should be consistent with the span of control they are given.
In addition, special consideration should be given to the direct reports of executive and senior management levels. Typically, the number of direct reports for these individuals are lower than supervisors and managers as too many direct reports at these levels can complicate communication and lengthen response time for crucial decisions.
For additional resources related to this topic, please refer to the following:
- Surveys: Use ERC’s Department Sizes & Organizational Structure Survey to benchmark your organization’s practices surrounding size of departments, span of control, and levels of reporting.
- HR Resource Line (members only): Obtain sample organizational charts and other articles and information on span of control, reporting issues, etc. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- HR Consulting: Expert guidance and project assistance on any of your strategic organizational structure and workforce planning needs is available. Please contact email@example.com for more information on how ERC can help you.
- Professional development: To enhance the skills and competencies of your current supervisors, consider enrolling your supervisors in ERC’s Supervisory Series.
- Bell, R. R. & McLaughlin, F. S. (1977). Span of control in organizations. Industrial Management.
- Davison, B. (2003). Management span of control: how wide is too wide? Journal of Business Strategy.
- Gupta, A. (2010). Organization’s size and span of control. Practical Management: Transforming Theories into Practice.
- Hattrup, G. P. (1993). How to establish the proper span of control for managers. Industrial Management.
- Juneja, H. Span of control in an organization.