Span of Control

views updated Jun 27 2018

Span of Control

The concept of "span of control," also known as management ratio, refers to the number of subordinates controlled directly by a superior. It is a particularly important concept for small business owners to understand because small businesses often get into trouble when the founder ends up with too wide a span of control. Span of control is a topic taught in management schools and widely employed in large organizations like the military, government agencies, and educational institutions. "Yet few entrepreneurs know the term or are willing to admit any limit to the number of people they directly oversee," explained Mark Hendricks in an article for Entrepreneur magazine. When a small business owner's span of control becomes too large, it can limit the growth of his or her company. Even the best managers tend to lose their effectiveness when they spend all their time managing people and their issues and are unable to focus on long-term plans and competitive positioning for the business as a whole.

The concept of span of control was developed in the United Kingdom in 1922 by Sir Ian Hamilton. It arose from the assumption that managers have finite amounts of time, energy, and attention to devote to their jobs. In studies of British military leaders, Hamilton found that they could not effectively control more than three to six people directly. These figures have been generally accepted as the "rule of thumb" for span of control ever since. More than a decade later, A.V. Graicumas illustrated the concept of span of control mathematically. His research showed that the number of interactions between managers and their subordinatesand thus the amount of time managers spent on supervisionincreased geometrically as the managers' span of control became larger.

It is important to note that all managers experience a decrease in effectiveness as their span of control exceeds the optimal level. In other words, the limitations implied by span of control are not shortcomings of certain individual managers but rather of managers in general. In addition, it is important to understand that span of control refers only to direct reports, rather than to an entire corporate hierarchy. Even though a CEO may technically control hundreds of employees, his or her span of control would only include the department heads or functional managers who reported to the CEO directly. "When given enough levels of hierarchy, any manager can control any number of peoplealbeit indirectly," Hendricks noted. "But when it comes to direct reports, the theory [of span of control] suggests entrepreneurs must respect managers' inborn limits."

Entrepreneurs and small business owners are particularly susceptible to overextending their span of control. After all, many of these people have started a business from the ground up and are wary of losing control over its operations. They thus choose to manage lots of people directly, rather than delegating tasks to middle managers, in an effort to continue being involved in key decisions as the business grows. But this strategy can backfire, as Hendricks explained: "Extending span of control beyond the recommended limits engenders poor morale, hinders effective decision making, and may cause loss of the agility and flexibility that give many entrepreneurial firms their edge."


Establishing the optimal span of control for managers is one of the most important tasks in structuring organizations. Finding the optimal span involves balancing the relative advantages and disadvantages of retaining responsibility for decisions and delegating those decisions. In general, studies have shown that the larger the organization, the fewer people should report to the top person. Managers should also have fewer direct reports if those subordinates interact with each other frequently. In this situation, the supervisor ends up managing both his or her relationship with the subordinates and the subordinates' relationships with one another.

Some other factors affecting the optimal span of control include whether workers perform tasks of a routine nature (which might permit a broader span of control) or of great variety and complexity (which might require a narrower span of control), and whether the overall business situation is stable (which would indicate a broader span) or dynamic (which would require a narrower span). Other situations in which a broader span of control might be possible include when the manager delegates effectively; when there are staff assistants to screen interactions between the manager and subordinates; when subordinates are competent, well-trained, and able to work independently; and when subordinates' goals are well-aligned with those of other workers and the organization.

There are advantages and disadvantages to different spans of control. A narrow span of control tends to give managers close control over operations and to facilitate fast communication between managers and employees. On the other hand, a narrow span of control can also create a situation where managers are too involved in their subordinates' work, which can reduce innovation and morale among employees. A wide span of control forces managers to develop clear goals and policies, delegate tasks effectively, and select and train employees carefully. Since employees get less supervision, they tend to take on more responsibility and have higher morale with a wide span of control. On the other hand, managers with a wide span of control might become overloaded with work, have trouble making decisions, and lose control over their subordinates.

With all of these factors to consider, small business owners might become overwhelmed with the task of finding the optimal span of control. But Hendricks claimed that evaluating the situation and making a decision should not be too difficult. "The rule of thumb that an executive should supervise three to six people directly held up fairly well against challenges from efficiency experts, team-building zealots, technology buffs, empowerment boosters, megalomaniacs, and others determined to increase the accepted span of control," Hendricks wrote. "If the calculations are too much for you, just take a look at the amount of hours you're working. When workdays for the people at the top are twice what they are for others, span of control is out of whack."

For small business owners who feel that they have too many direct reports and need to reduce their span of control, the solution may involve either hiring middle managers to take on a portion of the owner's responsibilities, or reorganizing the reporting structure of the company. In either case, small business owners must balance their own capabilities and workload against the need to control costs. After all, reducing the entrepreneur's span of control may involve the costs of paying additional salaries for new hires or training existing employees to take on supervisory responsibilities. Despite the potential costs involved, Hendricks argued that adjusting span of control toward the optimal level can lead to vast improvements for small businesses. "There's the real possibility that paying attention to span of control could usher your business into a new era of rapid, sustained, profitable growth," he told entrepreneurs. "You could even find running your business easier and more fun."

see also Delegation; Manager Recruitment; Organizational Structure


Harrison, Simon. "Is There a Right Span of Control?" Business Review. February 2004.

Hendricks, Mark. "Span Control." Entrepreneur. January 2001.

Visser, Bauke. "Organizational Communication Structure and Performance." Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. June 2000.

                                 Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                  updated by Magee, ECDI

Span of Control

views updated May 18 2018

Span of Control

Span of control or span of management is a dimension of organizational design measured by the number of subordinates that report directly to a given manager. This concept affects organization design in a variety of ways, including speed of communication flow, employee motivation, reporting relationships, and administrative overhead. Span of management has been part of the historical discussion regarding the most appropriate design and structure of organizations.


A small, or narrow, span of control results in each manager supervising a small number of employees, while a wide span of management occurs when more subordinates report directly to a given manager. A small span of management would make it necessary to have more managers and more layers of management to oversee the same number of operative employees than would be necessary for an organization using a wider span of management. The narrower span of management would result in more layers of management and slower communications between lower level employees and top level managers of the firm. Recent moves to downsize organizations and to eliminate unnecessary positions has resulted in many organizations moving to wider spans of management and the elimination of layers of middle-level managers.

An argument for a narrow span of control was presented by V.A. Gaicunas, who developed a formula showing that an arithmetic increase in the number of a manager's subordinates resulted in a geometric increase in the number of subordinate relationships that a manager had to manage. According to Gaicunas, managers must manage not only one-to-one direct reporting relationships, but also relationships with various groups of subordinates and the relationships that exist between and among individual subordinates. The formula is shown below:

I = N(2N/2+N1)
where I is the total number of interactions and N is the number of subordinates.

Therefore, if a manager has two subordinates, there are six potential relationships to manage. However, if the manager's subordinates are increased to three, then the number of relationships is increased to eighteen. As the number of relationships increased, Gaicunas argued, the sheer number of interactions would exceed the abilities of the manager.

Researchers generally argue that a small span of management and a tall organization structure will be more expensive to operate because of the large number of managers and it may have communication problems resulting from the multiple levels of management. Such organizations are often seen as well suited for a stable, certain type of environment. A flat organization design resulting from a wider span of management would require managers to assume more administrative duties since those activities would be shared by fewer employees. It will also result in more employees reporting to each manager, increasing the managers' supervisory responsibilities. However, some research also suggests the wider span of management may cause employees to feel greater ownership of their work and increase their motivation, morale, and productivity. This type of organization design is often seen as effective in more uncertain environments.


While early discussions of span of control often centered on pinpointing the optimal number of subordinates, a number of factors may influence the span of control most appropriate for a given management position. 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. 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. 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 that 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 a less skilled manager.
  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 spans of management compared managers who have limited access to or limited abilities to use the technology.

The trend in the late-twentieth century and into the twenty-first century has been for not only firms but government organizations to move toward wider spans of control to reduce costs, speed decision making, increase flexibility, and empower employees. The U.S. federal government began increasing span of control during the 1990s; at the same time, other levels of government were taking similar steps in order to downsize their workforce. A 2005 study by the city of Seattle indicated that the span of control in the city government had been steadily increasing since 1995.

As of the late 2000s, organizations in both the public and private sectors have wider spans of control. To avoid potential problems of wide spans of control, organizations are having to invest in training managers and employees and in technology enabling the sharing of information and enhancing communication between and among managers and employees.

SEE ALSO Empowerment; Management Styles; Organizational Structure; Organizing


Davison, Barbara. Management Span of Control: How Wide Is Too Wide? Journal of Business Strategy. 24 (2003): 2229.

Griffin, Ricky. Management, 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,2008.

Hitt, Michael, Stewart Black, and Lyman W. Porter. Management, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.

Klein, E.E. Using Information Technology To Eliminate Layers Of Bureaucracy. National Public Accountant 23 (2001): 4648.

Office of City Auditor. Span of Control in City Government Increases Overall. City of Seattle, 19 September 2005. Available from: