Span of Control: What factors should determine how many direct reports a manager has?

Apr 25, 2013
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The number of direct reports a manager has is referred to as his or her "span of control." The ideal number of direct reports who can be managed effectively can be elusive, though research and theories do exist, most notably those of V. A. Graicunas and Luther Gulick. Although no perfect ratio likely exists, span of control is critical in understanding organizational design and the behaviors within an organization, such as the approach used to interact with employees and the effectiveness of communication between each level within an organization. Therefore, many factors will need to be evaluated before determining the best ratio within an organization.

In terms of organizational design, a small number of direct reports will create a narrow span of control and a hierarchical structure, also known as a "tall" organization. Narrow spans of control are more expensive for organizations, but they allow managers to have more time with direct reports, and they tend to spark professional growth and advancement. In contrast, a wide span of control refers to a larger number of direct reports supervised by one manager, creating a "flat" organization. This approach increases the number of interactions between the manager and his or her direct reports, which could cause managers to become overwhelmed but can also provide more autonomy.

Some key factors to review when determining the appropriate span of control within an organization include the following:

  • Organizational size. Large organizations tend have a narrow span of control, whereas smaller organizations often have a wider span of control. This difference is usually due to the costs involved with more managers and the financial resources available to an organization. Communication may be slower with narrow spans if it must pass through several levels of management.
  • Workforce skill level. The complexity or simplicity of the tasks performed by the employees will affect the number of desirable direct reports. Generally, routine tasks involving repetition will require less supervisory control of a manager, allowing a wider span of control, whereas complex tasks or dynamic workplace conditions may be best suited for a narrower span of control, where managers can provide more individualized attention.
  • Organizational culture. Organizations need to determine the desired culture when designing their span of control. Flexible workplaces usually have a wider span of control because employees are given more autonomy and flexibility in the production of their work.
  • Manager's responsibilities. Review whether the organizational expectations allow the managers to be effective with the number of direct reports they have, especially related to individual responsibilities, departmental planning and training. For instance, executives often have fewer direct reports than other managers in the organization.

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