Span of control—the number of employees managed by a single supervisor—varies from company to company, and also from team to team within the same company. In some organizations, many will report to the CEO or president; in others, there may be many reporting levels and fewer direct reports to each leader.
There’s no perfect number of employees each person must manage. A recent study by Deloitte found that, on average, a supervisor today manages 10-11 employees. However, the sweet spot for managerial span of control can certainly be fewer than 10 employees, and it can also be more. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, reportedly has 17 direct reports.
Before determining the span of control that makes sense for the managers within your organization, it’s a good idea to consider the options. Organizations and teams can possess either a wide or a narrow span of control, and each has its advantages and drawbacks:
Wide span of control: Often found within a flat organizational structure, a wide span of control allows managers to have more direct reports and, therefore, more control over the work they produce. Although a wide span of control requires fewer managers and may facilitate an easier delegation of responsibilities, having a large number of direct reports can be overwhelming for managers, and it can also create confusion around team and individual accountability.
Narrow span of control: More common in a traditional organizational hierarchy, a narrow span of control provides each manager with fewer individuals to manage as well as more layers within the organizational structure in general. A narrow span of control provides managers and employees with more time for one-on-one communication as well as more opportunities for employee advancement, but it can also create more opportunities for delayed decision-making, increased bureaucracy, and the formation of silos.
Within each organization, there is an ideal number of direct reports each manager can capably handle, but the reality is that the need for a wide or a narrow span of control varies depending on a number of factors. To determine what makes sense for each manager and team, you’ll need to consider the following:
Managers who supervise individuals performing highly structured, invariable work activities—in a call center, for example—may be able to manage 20 or more individuals at once. In such roles, many job tasks are clearly ordered and predictable in nature, ensuring that managers do not have to spend much extra time training or coaching employees throughout the workday. When employees do need help, the nature of the work is such that supervisors can quickly provide assistance in short bursts and ensure adequate attention is given to a larger number of direct reports.
On the other hand, managers supervising those who perform roles in which there is more room for individual judgment and special situations arise may be more suited to manage fewer direct reports. In such roles, individuals may require more on-the-job coaching and support, particularly when there is ambiguity regarding how to resolve conflicts or there are many moving parts.
Some managers spend the majority of their time managing others, whereas others are “producing managers” who must split their time between actively managing the work of others and doing their own. For example, a sales manager who has her own personal sales targets to meet each month will not be able to spend as much time managing sales reps as the sales manager who does not also have personal sales targets to meet. In such cases, managers must often look for opportunities to delegate certain responsibilities so that they can capably balance their ongoing personal job responsibilities with the need to spend the appropriate amount of time managing others. Some other examples of time management constraints that can impact a manager’s ideal span of control include:
Managers who work part time or on some kind of alternative work schedule
Teams with individuals dispersed among different locations and time zones
Managers who are leading large projects or task forces while also managing others
Employees who are new to their roles require more involvement from their manager than individuals who are more experienced. Therefore, teams with less experienced employees may require a narrower span of control, giving them more access to a manager who can provide regular coaching and guidance as they build experience. Examples of employees who might require a narrower span of control based on their experience level include:
New transfers to a team from another department
The cultural backdrop of an organization can influence whether the span of control for its managers should be wider or narrower. For example, company cultures that are informal and flexible may encourage a wider span of control that gives employees more autonomy to act. In a less formal culture with fewer levels of management, employees have more access to senior leaders and are likely to be more empowered to work without supervision.
Conversely, in company cultures that are more authoritative and formal, a narrower span of control may be more common. Employees are closely supervised and must follow the hierarchical structure, or “chain of command,” when communicating ideas and submitting their work. Organizations in which the culture drives a narrower span of control include the military, governments, and organizations that must adhere to specific emergency protocols, such as hospitals.
Managers who are new to supervising others or have not grown in their management capability over time will find it difficult to manage a large number of employees, no matter the type of work, company culture, or experience level of the people they are managing. Therefore, a narrow span of control may make sense for new managers, lest they quickly become overwhelmed with the routine challenges of managing and leading others.
Highly skilled managers will be more likely to successfully manage others and can handle a wider span of control. Managers who have mastered the art of setting expectations, providing feedback, and coaching others will be more capable of jumping in and helping multiple direct reports than a less skilled manager. However, it’s important to note that there is a limit to how many direct reports even the most experienced manager can supervise successfully. The experience level of the manager must be taken into account along with other factors, such as the nature of the work and the experience level of the employees, to determine the ideal number of direct reports a manager can handle before becoming overwhelmed.
Like the other factors, the use of technology can have a great impact on managerial span of control. Technology helps managers do more, see more of the work their direct reports are doing, and communicate more efficiently across locations and time zones. Collaboration technology, videoconferencing with remote employees, and a live org chart that helps managers connect with their team can allow managers to widen their span of control while still ensuring employees have the supervision, communication, and coaching they need.
There are only so many hours in a day. And there are many variables that can help you determine the ideal number of employees any given person should manage. Whether a manager is best suited to have three direct reports or 13, it’s important to consider all of the factors that will determine the ideal span of control for your situation. Check out our span-of-control planning template, with an example, to help guide you as you determine the right number of direct reports for company managers:
When it comes to span of control, there is no secret number that works best for every manager, team, and company. Many factors will help you determine if managers and employees will benefit more from a wide or a narrow span of control. When you take into account all of the factors and leverage available technology to help managers lead others more efficiently, the whole organization benefits.