Span of control: Everything you need to know

Span of control: Everything you need to know

Almost no organizational question is asked more often than 'What is the ideal span of control?' Evaluating the span of control is a good health check for all organizations. By visualizing spans and layers, organizations can quickly see where there might be opportunities for improvement or where the problems lie.


Simply put, a span of control refers to the number of subordinates under the manager's direct control. The span of control refers to the number of subordinates that can be managed effectively and efficiently by supervisors or managers in an organization. For example, a manager with five direct reports has a span of control of five. The number of direct reports within an organization can serve as a valuable indicator of its efficiency, provided that it is evaluated within the context of the organizational structure.


Haimann (1970) defines the span of control as the number of subordinates that a manager can effectively supervise. Effectively, in this instance, the subordinates must be made productive with little to no negative effect on the scope of supervision and desired outcomes.

How many direct reports can a manager have?

When looking at the span of control, there is no general optimal number for different companies. This is because the nature of work, the size of the organization, and the attention each subordinate requires need to be considered. For example, in a Call Center, a manager can have over 100 direct reports. In comparison, executive functions – with high degrees of collaboration and interaction – could productively tolerate no more than three or four direct reports. So, the nature of the work being performed and how much attention it requires should govern the assignment of personnel to a manager, and not some ideal one-size-fits-all proposition.

Related: The Ideal Span of Control

What is the ideal span of control?

As some say, there is no ideal span of control as it depends on several factors. It's a judgment call based on several factors. It also largely depends on how you define the span of control. While many define the span of control as the number of subordinates who report directly to a manager, others have looked at the span of control in any structure as the number of employees divided by the number of managers in the same structure. This calculation yields an average span of control.

Average span of control = number of employees/number of managerial notes in the structure.

Research shows that a one-size-fits-all span of control is not possible as the context largely affects the span of control.

Here are the factors that affect the span of control:

1. Level of specialization - This research paper focuses on the relationship between size, routineness, and the number of different specialities in organizations, specifically how they affect the span of control. The study shows that the number of specialities supervised has a decreasing impact on spans at lower and middle levels but an increasing impact at upper levels. Even more surprising is that routineness has minimal influence across all levels. In addition to this, the study found that size has little effect at lower levels. It has a positive effect at middle levels.

2. The span of control can vary by functional areas- A study found that the size of a manager's team depends on the functional area of control. The implication is that the span of control varies by functional areas, such as HR, sales and marketing, procurement, production, etc., even if they are at the same management level.

3. Industry type - The Centre for Evidence-Based Management summarises key findings on the span of control. It shows that managers' average span of control (SOC) varies widely, from 9 to 77. The SOC also varies depending on the domain (industry), type of manager, and type of service. For example, managers in human services tend to have larger SOCs than managers in technical services.

4. The level of autonomy and empowerment - Indeed, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies found that employee autonomy, empowerment, and SOC are related (Bloom, 2014; Hechanova, 2001; Lucas, 2008).

5. Use of information technology – Bloom (2014) notes that information technology allows for a larger span of control as most of the work is automated. Information-sharing technology has made it easy for managers to supervise many subordinates.

6. Level of competency – Generally, highly competent people need less supervision than less competent ones. When a manager has the right people in each role reporting to them, they will spend less time supervising them.

7. Work complexity – Highly complex work requires a lower span of control to ensure the work is supervised and done to the right level.

8. High-risk work – Work that entails higher risk if anything goes wrong requires a smaller span to allow the manager to supervise the work. Examples of such work are found in specialized hospitals and nuclear plants.

9. Geographical location – When subordinates are dispersed geographically, it makes it harder for the manager to supervise a large span of control.


Does the span of control matter?


Yes, the span of control matters, as research shows that a suboptimal span of control could affect performance. As the number of people a manager supervises increases, the amount of time spent coaching subordinates decreases, leading to poor performance and less development for the employee. When a manager is managing a blotted span of control, it affects their performance and that of the subordinates. The optimum span of control allows the manager to nurture productive relationships with subordinates as there is more communication between the manager and subordinates.

Generally, there is an inverted U-shaped relationship between the span of control and organizational performance. This is a pattern where having too few or too many people to manage negatively impacts performance. For this reason, there is an optimal span of control that maximizes performance. Too low and too high spans of control lead to decreased performance. The optimal span of control is likely to vary depending on the organization's specific characteristics, such as the complexity of the work, the level of expertise of the employees, and the availability of resources. One study also found that other factors such as communication, coordination, and motivation influence the relationship between span of control and performance.


Research shows a positive relationship between a manager's span of control (SOC) and turnover rate. Doran (2004) found that for every additional ten individuals in a manager's SOC, there was a 1.6% increase in staff turnover. Undoubtedly, the span of control varies based on several factors affecting an ideal span of control. For example, Gumusluogu (2001) and Naruse (2016) used a cut-off value of 8, while Krasman (2011) used 15, and Hoffer (2001) reported a mean large SOC value of 34. These findings highlight the importance of considering the specific context and criteria when evaluating the impact of SOC on turnover rate.


Several studies found that managers with large spans of control (SOCs) reported higher work demands, such as overload, conflict, and lack of control. Managers with large spans of control (SOCs) are more likely to be seen as inconsistent in their ethical leadership behaviors, which can make them less trustworthy to their subordinates (Bormann, 2018).

The Concept of Span of Control

It is important to look at the concept of span of control in the context of the organizational structure levels of hierarchy. Two factors in particular are of interest, that is the width and height of the organizational structure:

  •  Width: Organization structures can be described as wide (with a larger span of control) or narrow (with a smaller span of control.)
  • Height: As there are levels of management or hierarchy, an organization may be tall (with many levels) or flat (with fewer levels.). The recommended levels in most organizations would be no more than five levels.


Related: Types of Span of Control

Flat organizations have a 'wide' span of control and Tall organizations have a 'narrow' span of control. While there are pros and cons with both tall and flat structures, a company's structure must be designed to suit the business (the customer and markets) in a way that fits with the workforce's capability.


The tall span of control


  • Have more levels of reporting in the organization, resulting in a more hierarchical organization
  • More rapid communication between small teams
  • Groups are smaller and easier to control/manage
  • There's a greater degree of specialization and division of labor
  • More and better opportunities for employee promotion
  • Easy Access to Superior: the subordinate can quickly and easily speak to their superior whenever needed. This can create a sense for the employee that communication is better than with a wider span of control.
  • Closer supervision and greater attention to the employee's needs from the manager.
  • Less Skill Required: than if a manager is trying to control a much larger group of direct reports, each with more autonomy.


  • More expensive (high cost of management staff, office, etc.)
  • This tends to result in communication difficulties and excessive distance between the top and bottom levels of the organization.
  • Communication can take too long, hampering decision-making
  • Silos may develop and prevent cross-functional problem solving
  • Employees may feel lost and powerless
  • Motivation: employees can feel under constant and close supervision, which can be demotivating.
  • Decreased communication: with more layers, communication will be not only slower, but it will be much more difficult for senior management to understand the issues being faced at the coalface of the organization

Wide Span (Flat structure)




  •  Encourages delegation. Managers must better delegate to handle larger numbers of subordinates and grant opportunities for subordinates to take on responsibilities.
  • Reduces costs. More cost-effective because of fewer levels, thus requiring fewer managers
  • Helps prevent the workforce from disengaging by focusing on empowerment, autonomy, and self-direction
  • Faster Decision Making: with fewer layers within the organization decisions can be made more quickly.
  • Improved Communications: between managers and employees, with employees more likely to be able to interact with senior managers, and managers more likely to understand the issues at the coalface of the organization.
  • More Freedom: typically employees will feel freer and less under a microscope than when the span is smaller.


  • A high managerial workload comes with a high Span of Control
  • Role confusion is more likely
  • May cultivate distrust of management
  • Fewer Opportunities for Employees: with fewer layers within the organization, employees have less opportunity to be promoted.
  • Poor Discipline: with so much autonomy given to employees, these organizations can suffer from poor discipline.
  • Poor Relationships: with so many employees to manage it may be difficult for the manager to form a strong and close relationship with each of their subordinates.
  • Poor performance: with so little supervision of employees' performance, the organization's overall performance may be poor.

Frequently Asked Span of Control Questions

1. How can I calculate the span of control?

The span of control is the number of people reporting to each manager. We calculate this number according to the number of heads managed, whether full-time or part-time. So, someone managing 12 part-time workers still has a span of control of 12, not the equivalent of managing six full-time employees.

2. What is the average span of control for my whole organization?

This is useful as a starting point, but it's only a stepping stone to comparisons with other organizations in the same industry, for example, or for internal departmental comparisons. Ideally, in an organization, according to modern organizational experts is approximately 15 to 20 subordinates per supervisor or manager. This forms the basis for a manageable span of control. However, some experts with a more traditional focus believe that 5-6 subordinates per supervisor or manager is ideal.
The average span of control is measured using a ratio of the number of managerial nodes and the total population.

3. What is the trend with a span of control?

The trend in recent years has been to move toward wider spans of control to reduce costs, speed decision-making, increase flexibility, and empower employees. However, to avoid potential problems of wide spans of control, organizations must invest in training managers and employees and technology enabling information sharing and enhancing communication between and among managers and employees. However, over decades of supporting the world's leading organizations in their redesign experiences, McKinsey has found that no single magic number fits all types of managers and the work they do. Chasing one single number can reduce effectiveness.

4. What are the direct span and indirect span of control?

A direct span of control refers to the number of direct reports a manager supervises. An indirect span of control refers to how far up the chain of command a manager's direct reports report to them. For example, if a manager has 10 direct reports, they would have an indirect span of control of 10. The difference in the control span is that the direct span of control includes the manager's direct reports, while the indirect span does not. In most cases, the direct span of control will be greater than the indirect span of control.

5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a high span of control?

High spans of control have several advantages. They allow managers to respond quickly to changing conditions, make decisions based on the best available evidence, and provide opportunities for learning new skills. Middle managers also get to know their direct reports well, making them better able to support their development. The downside is that managers often feel overwhelmed by the volume of tasks and responsibilities. They may be unable to delegate effectively or manage their time efficiently. In addition, when working at a high level, managers tend to spend too much time understanding what others are doing rather than focusing on their priorities.


6. How does a company determine its span of control?

Companies use various methods to determine the appropriate span of control for different situations. Some companies use surveys to determine how many employees report directly to each manager. Others use a combination of interviews, observations, and surveys. Still, others rely on experience and common sense to set the right span of control.

Other Factors That May Affect the Span of Control

While early discussions of the span of control often centred on pinpointing the optimal number of subordinates, several factors may influence the span of control most appropriate for a given management position (RfB, 2020). Assuming that all other aspects of a manager's job are the same, these factors would likely alter the span of management as follows:

  1.  Job complexity. Subordinate jobs that are complex, ambiguous, dynamic, or otherwise complicated will likely require more management involvement and a narrower span of management.
  2. The similarity of subordinate jobs. The more similar and routine the tasks that subordinates are performing, the easier it is for a manager to supervise employees and the wider the span of management that will likely be effective.
  3. The physical proximity of subordinates. The more geographically dispersed a group of subordinates, the more difficult it is for a manager to be in regular contact with them and the fewer employees a manager could reasonably oversee, resulting in a narrower span of management.
  4. Abilities of employees. Managers who supervise employees who lack ability, motivation, or confidence will have to spend more time with each employee. The result will be that the manager cannot supervise as many employees and would be most effective with a narrower span of management.
  5. Abilities of the manager. Some managers are better organized, better at explaining things to subordinates, and more efficient in performing their jobs. Such managers can function effectively with a wider span of management than less skilled managers.
  6. Technology. Cell phones, email, and other forms of technology that facilitate communication and the exchange of information make it possible for managers to increase their management spans over managers who do not have access to or are unable to use the technology.

Related: 17 span of control: Facts you need to remember all the time


The span of control in management has implications for workflow and directly influences the number of subordinates assigned to work under a manager or a supervisor. Thus, a proper span for a manager or supervisor is important to design the organizational structure, set direction, and exercise control effectively and efficiently.

Fadzai Danha
This article was written by Fadzai a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

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