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Organizational Structure: What is The Ideal “Span of Control”? - HRDQ

Organizational Structure: What Is the Ideal “Span of Control”?

According to Harvard Business Review, the average span of control of CEOs doubled between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s. Measured by the number of direct reports, this finding is particularly remarkable when considering how modern companies are far more complex, scrutinized, and globally dispersed than in preceding decades.

To balance efficacy, efficiency, and costs, every organization should strive to find its ideal span of control. How exactly, though, are you supposed to find the organizational structure that works best for your company?

There is no exact science to determining the proper managerial span of control for your organization, but rather several essential factors that you will want to consider when mapping out the structure of your brand.

Let's take a look at what you need to know about the managerial span of control and how to find the sweet spot for your company.

What Is Span of Control?

A span of control is a term that refers to how many direct reports or subordinates a supervisor is responsible for managing. This is a notion within the realm of a chain of command in which the number of workers under a manager's control is specifically outlined.

Most well-designed hierarchical organizations will have well-defined boundaries so that each supervisor has a clear sense of who is within their span of control.

Supervisor Managing Team

However, confusion can arise when it is unclear where these boundaries lie. Not only can it create issues for the subordinates, but it can also create conflicts at the managerial level.

When there is a clear understanding of each manager's span of control, it allows them to delegate tasks to their team in a straightforward way that results in predictable outcomes. They can use their knowledge of each team member's skills and experience to ensure that each task gets done in the most effective and efficient way.

Learn the most effective way to lead in any situation: What's My Leadership Style

The Dimensions of Control in an Organization

There are two primary dimensions that you will want to consider when it comes to the hierarchy of control within your organization. These are vertical and horizontal.

Vertical Dimension

The vertical dimension, sometimes called the depth of control, refers to the number of levels under direct management.

Vertical Dimension Example

When considering organizational control from a vertical perspective, you are considering to what extent the direction of supervisors passes down to the organization's lowest levels. At this level, you are considering the number of workers that are indirectly managed or supervised by a particular manager.

Horizontal Dimension

The horizontal dimension, often called the span of control, refers to how many employees directly report to a specific manager.

Horizontal Dimension Example

The more employees that report to a specific manager, the wider their span of control.

What Are the Factors That Influence Span of Control?

In the modern organizational school of thought, it is recommended that organizations have about fifteen to twenty employees working directly under each manager or supervisor. However, experts with a more traditional focus often believe that the ideal number of employees reporting to each manager is between five and six.

Organization Span of Control

In reality, the right number for your organization will hinge on several factors.

Size of Organization

In general, smaller organizations will have a narrower span of control than larger ones.

The size of your organization will have a significant impact on the span of control that makes sense within your hierarchy.

That being said, you shouldn't automatically assume that your span of control should directly reflect the size of your company.

Small Organization Size

Let's take two large corporations to illustrate this point: Google and KFC. While both of these organizations have several levels of managers that have subordinates, their span of control is a notable difference.

At Google, a single supervisor is expected to be able to oversee about ten employees. At KFC, however, there is a much narrower span of control with a supervisor in every branch who oversees cashiers and cooks.

While these are both massive organizations by every measure, the primary reasoning behind the difference in the span of control can be explained due to the nature of the organization and the type of work.

In the case of Google, the employees are expected to be skilled enough that they can work with minimal amounts of supervision. However, for KFC, the work being performed by cashiers and cooks isn't nearly as highly skilled as a job in the tech industry. Supervisors at KFC likely expect to have more employee turnover than managers at Google, meaning that they are more often responsible for training and fielding questions from relatively inexperienced workers.

Nature of Organization

Another factor influencing the ideal span of control is company culture and the industry that your brand serves.

Typically, a hierarchical culture will have a narrow span of control, while a more flexible, relaxed culture will have a wider span of control.

If your brand prides itself on its flexibility and culture that promotes employees' autonomy, a wider span of control might be more appropriate. In the best-case scenario, workers can feel empowered to work and make decisions without supervision while also having more access to senior leaders.

Wider Span of Control

Company cultures that are more formal and authoritative typically have narrower spans of control. In these instances, workers are supervised closely and have to follow a fairly strict "chain of command" when submitting work and communicating ideas.

Some examples of organizations that typically utilize a narrower span of control include governments, the military, and hospitals.

If your organization already has a company culture that is healthy and thriving, you might be careful to make changes to the span of control in a way that could alter and compromise the organic culture. However, if you feel that the culture is problematic and lacking, you can utilize changes to the span of control to help reshape the culture in a better direction.

Nature of Role

Different jobs also require different considerations regarding a span of control.

When jobs are more complex and specific, it can make sense to have a narrower span of control. For jobs that require less supervision and are of low complexity, a wider span of control is often appropriate.

Let's say, for example, that you run a call center. An environment like this is often highly structured and involves work activities that don't have much variation. In this instance, a manager might be able to supervise twenty or more workers simultaneously.

Highly Structured Work Environment

Because many of the required job tasks are predictable and clearly ordered, supervisors and managers can reasonably expect that they won't have to spend additional time coaching and training their employees. Even when workers need assistance, the type of help managers give will usually be brief.

For other roles where the duties of employees are more varied and less predictable, however, a narrower span of control might be more appropriate.

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Managerial Skills and Competencies

Managerial skills and competencies are essential for effective organizational leadership, and the specific attributes of each manager play a crucial role in determining their success.

For example, less experienced supervisors might be best suited for a narrower span of control, reflecting the number of subordinates they can effectively manage. On the other hand, a supervisor with more experience can typically handle a wider span of control due to their wealth of experience. It's also essential to consider the specific duties of the managers and supervisors to determine the proper span of control for their position.

Manager Performing Duties

In some managerial roles, supervisors spend most of their time dealing with managing other people. However, some are "producing managers," which means they split their time between doing their own work and actively managing their subordinates.

You may find that a highly-skilled, highly-experienced manager can handle a wider span of control even though they have additional duties beyond supervising others. That being said, even the most experienced manager will have a limit to how many direct reports they can reasonably deal with sustainably. Balancing competence, experience, and the nature of managerial duties is key to optimizing the span of control for effective leadership within an organization.

Employee Skills and Abilities

Your span of control will shift depending on the skills and seniority of your team members – it’s not a one-size-fits-all concept. A manager’s ability to effectively lead their team with the optimum span of control is linked to the collective knowledge of each team member.

If you have a team of experienced employees who don't require much direction and training, a wider span of control can be the best allocation of your resources. For teams composed of less experienced workers who need more direction and training, a narrower span of control is often more appropriate.

Skilled Organization Employee

For example, a supervisor responsible for managing entry-level hires or interns might want to have a narrower span of control, because the new hires are at the starting point in their careers and have much to learn. On the other hand, a supervisor managing employees with an average of 10 years of experience in their field might want to have a larger span of control.

Type and Frequency of Interaction Between Employees and Supervisors

Supervisor Interacting With Employee

There might be a relatively low level of interaction between employees and managers in some organizations where fewer direct reports are needed. In these instances, a wider span of control can make perfect sense. However, if managers are highly involved in the day-to-day activities of their subordinates and frequently answer questions and interact with employees, a narrower span of control can ensure that your organization functions effectively and efficiently.

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What Is the Ideal Span of Control?

As mentioned above, the ideal span of control will depend on many factors specific to your organization. That being said, there are some pros and cons to having a narrower vs. a wider span of control.

Organizational Span of Control

The advantages of having a narrow span of control include:

  • Creating more opportunities for growth, development, and advancement.
  • Allowing managers to supervise employees more closely.
  • Allowing managers to spend more time with employees.
  • Having a more hierarchical organization due to having more levels of reporting.

The disadvantages of having a narrow span of control include:

  • Employees can feel less empowered and more micromanaged when there is more supervisory involvement.
  • It's more expensive due to requiring more office space and more management staff.
  • It can create too much distance between the higher and lower levels of an organization which often results in communication issues.

On the flip side, you can choose to implement a wide span of control in an organization. The advantages of this approach include:

  • Empowering employees by giving them more decision-making power, responsibility, and ability to delegate.
  • Creates a more flexible organization due to having fewer levels of reporting.
  • Can work well for managers that primarily focus on helping to solve employee problems and answering questions.
  • Can produce greater efficiency in communication.

Of course, there are also disadvantages to having a wider span of control. These include:

  • Can lead to management being overloaded if employees, in practice, require a lot of support, supervision, and direction.
  • Produces less distance between the higher and lower levels of an organization.
  • Can result in decreased job satisfaction and morale if employees don't feel they receive adequate support.

Your Leadership Style Can Impact Your Ideal Span of Control

As mentioned above, the company culture and the experience and skills of its employees can significantly impact the ideal span of control for your organization. If you're a business owner or a manager, you'll also want to consider your leadership style. Depending on where your strengths and trouble points lie, you might find that a narrower or wider span of control is more appropriate for your company.

However, sometimes it can be hard to assess ourselves objectively regarding our leadership style. For this reason, it can be beneficial to enlist the help of assessment tools to receive straightforward feedback about your leadership style.

Organization Leader

That's why we created What's My Leadership Styleso organizational leaders, supervisors, and managers can gain valuable insight in order to become the most effective leaders they can be.

Do you have any questions or concerns about what the ideal span of control is for your organization? If so, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment and question we receive, and we'd be more than happy to assist you however we possibly can!

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.