Organizational structures affect the performance of the business. A poorly structured organization can waste resources and fail to achieve its vision and mission. The challenge I see most of the time is that leaders structure organizations to pay people and not to get work done. Ultimately the goal should be to structure the organization to achieve its goals.
Related: How to carry out an Organisational Structure Design
Today we will focus on one often poorly designed area: The span of control.
Span of control is a concept used in management to determine the number of people a supervisor or manager can oversee in a workplace. The span of control can mean those who report directly to a manager or supervisor. You can look at the span of control as those who directly or indirectly report to a particular manager or supervisor. I checked the scientific literature there is no consensus on the ideal or average span of control. From these studies, the average ranges between 5 to 75 people depending on several other factors. There is no agreement on the ideal span of control, so always assess what will work in your situation.
What does the scientific evidence say about the span of control?
Some research has shown that a large span of control negatively affects group performance and performance outcomes such as safety incidences. Another study found that subordinate feedback-seeking behaviour goes down with the increase in the span of control for a manager. In this situation, the manager is likely less accessible to all members, given their large numbers. As a result, subordinates conclude that the manager can not be accessed and stop trying. Others studies have shown that a large span of control reduces the positive impact of various leadership styles.
Related: Types of Span of Control
One interesting finding on the size of the span of control is that an increase in the span of control of managers was associated with a high turnover of such managers. Even more, telling are the findings from another study which showed that subordinates in a high span of the control environment perceive their managers to be inconsistent in their ethical behaviour. Managers with a large span of control are perceived to be less trustworthy by their subordinates. The large span of control has been found in other studies to affect the quality of productive relationships managers need to build with their subordinates, thereby affecting performance.
How to calculate the span of control?
You can calculate the average span of control for the whole organization, business unit or department. To calculate the average span of control, use the formula; total headcount divided by the number of managerial nodes in the structure. What we are calling managerial nodes, in this case, are people who have people reporting to them. We exclude those professionals or roles often classified as management but have no one reporting to them.
Chief Executive Officers and senior department heads need to consider the number of direct reports. As an example, some claim that a CEO should have no more than five direct reports. Such a conclusion is not backed by science. Instead, it is a matter of preference and convenience. There are CEOs with as high as 18 direct reports (large global organizations). More importantly, the number will depend on how competent the CEO is. An incompetent CEO will struggle with a big span of control. A competent CEO with incompetent direct reports will equally struggle.
What factors to consider when deciding on the span of control?
The span of control generally depends on several factors, such as the level of competency of the people being supervised, the diversity of roles being supervised, the risk of unchecked work and the complexity of the work done by subordinates.
When a manager supervises competent people, the number of people they supervise is not much of an issue. The assumption, in that case, is that people are competent enough to complete the work. In such a situation, the manager's role is less on checking work output and more on giving direction and coaching. The situation will be much more complicated when you increase the span of control in a case where the manager has no capacity for their role. The consequences could be the frustration of those being managed. The situation is equally dire when you increase the span of control when the people being supervised are incompetent. An even more dire situation is when the manager and subordinates are incompetent. This results in poor work performance for the unit and, most likely, higher turnover.
Related: 17 span of control: Facts you need to remember all the time
The level of risk influences the size of the span of control for a manager. High risks work requires narrower spans to allow work to be checked thoroughly. This will be the situation in hospitals, nuclear plants and the aviation industry.
The situation is different in industries such as manufacturing and agriculture, where the span can range from 30 to 100. In many entities in these sectors, the work is routine and lower level with minimal risk.
Too large of a span of control can be detrimental, leading to micromanagement and burnout. Managers with too many people to manage may not be able to provide enough individualized attention or guidance, leading to poor performance by their team members. Additionally, having too many people to manage can lead to confusion and miscommunication, leading to mistakes and delays in completing tasks.
Some researchers have noted that increasing the number of subordinates supervised reduces the amount of attention, support and feedback each employee can receive from their manager. A large team under one manager can make it hard for people to interact effectively. The assumption is that a manager cannot effectively monitor many subordinates concurrently, resulting in reduced performance.
Meier and Bohte (2000) proposed the 'Theory of span of control', which suggests that there is an optimal size for a span of control to be effective and that increasing it beyond this point may have a negative effect.
Memory Nguwi is an Occupational Psychologist, Data Scientist, Speaker, & Managing Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm.
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