What Is The Span of Control? Span of Control In A Nutshell

Span of control is a human resource management term referring to the number of subordinates a supervisor is responsible for managing. Span of control refers to the number of subordinates under the direct control of a manager or leader. For example, a manager responsible for seven subordinates has a span of control of seven. Usually the span of control can go from narrow (more hierarchical) and wide (flatter organization).

Understanding the span of control

Span of control can be used to measure the efficiency of an organization provided it is considered in the context of organizational structure.

Typically, span of control is either narrow or wide, with each having its strengths and weaknesses.

Narrow span

Narrow span is associated with a hierarchical organizational structure with many reporting levels.

Management spends more time supervising subordinates and there are more opportunities for growth and development.

However, a narrow span tends to be more expensive as it necessitates the recruitment of comparatively more management staff.

The supervisory nature of hierarchical organizations can also lead to micromanagement and less subordinate empowerment if it is misused. 

Other characteristics of a narrow span of control include:

  1. Closer supervision – with fewer subordinates under one manager, the latter can provide more frequent and detailed supervision. This reduces employee autonomy but increases the scope for feedback, mentoring, and clarity around tasks and roles.
  2. Communication – communication channels are typically shorter and more direct with a narrow span of control as there are less management levels. This can lead to more effective communication and faster dissemination of information.
  3. Limited delegation – with a smaller number of subordinates able to share the workload, managers may find themselves more involved in day-to-day operations compared to a company with a wider span of control.


A wide span is associated with a flat organizational structure with fewer reporting levels.

In a flat organizational structure, there is little to no middle management between employees and executives. Therefore it reduces the space between employees and executives to enable an effective communication flow within the organization, thus being faster and leaner.

Management exists to answer questions, solve problems, and encourage employee empowerment through increased responsibility and decision-making power.

Despite the benefits of a wide span, the structure can result in managers becoming overwhelmed by subordinates requiring high levels of direction, support, and supervision.

Conversely, some subordinates who prefer to receive direct instruction may experience decreased morale and job satisfaction.

Other characteristics of a wide span of control:

  1. Increased accountability – under a wide span of control and with less detailed supervision, managers may be required to depend on performance metrics and other objective measures to assess employee performance. For some employee personality types, this will increase accountability and performance.
  2. Enhanced decision-making – decentralized decision-making means decisions are made closer to the frontline by employees with direct knowledge of the situation. This environment encourages quick and efficient decisions and problem-solving. 
  3. Leadership skills – managers who possess wide spans of control need to be effective leaders. They must be able to direct where practicable but also have the trust to delegate more of the work to subordinates.


A hybrid span combines wide and narrow depending on the functions associated with a project; this gets closer to a matrix organizational structure.


What is the optimal span of control?

The optimal span of control will of course vary from one organization to the next. Management expert George P. Hattrup suggested four to five reporting levels were sufficient for all but the largest organizations.

In terms of span of control, experts suggest around 15 to 20 subordinates per manager is ideal for most modern companies. 

Businesses that want a more nuanced approach to determining their span of control should consider the following points:


More relaxed and inclusive company cultures tend to favor flatter organizational structures, while more rigid and autocratic cultures tend to favor hierarchies.

Businesses need to consider their current or desired culture when determining a suitable span of control.

Task complexity

Routine, low complexity jobs require less supervision than more complex jobs that are loosely defined and require frequent expert input.

As a result, a narrow span with a higher proportion of managers is more conducive to complex task completion.

Management competence

More experienced managers have a wider span of control than less experienced managers, particularly if supervising menial, low complexity tasks.

Here, it is also useful to consider how qualified the manager is to perform technical, non-managerial aspects of their position.

Employee competence

By the same token, more experienced employees require a wider span of control with less training, direction, and delegation.

Employees with less experience will require a higher proportion of management staff.


Effective communication channels such as email, instant messaging, video conferencing, and project management tools can streamline communication between managers and their subordinates. This enables leaders to oversee numerous employees which results in a wider span of control.

Technology also enables more up-to-date information exchange, providing managers with access to real-time data about the progress of work, performance metrics, and other relevant metrics.

Based on this information, management is able to make informed decisions and provide timely feedback to a broader cohort of subordinates.


Technology also empowers employees to perform certain tasks and access information independently without supervision from managers. This can free up managers’ time and allow them to oversee more subordinates. 

For example, self-service portals for HR, IT, and other administrative functions enable employees to access information and complete tasks without direct intervention from their superiors.

Technology has also proven useful in the pandemic-induced shift toward remote work and virtual teams. However, some counter that the availability of zero-cost capital since 2020 and the resultant hiring spree in some companies has increased the average manager’s span of control to unmanageable levels.

Geographical dispersion

If subordinates are spread widely over various geographical locations, it may require more effort and time for a manager to oversee and coordinate their work. This limits the number of subordinates a superior can reasonably manage and results in a narrower span of control.

Span of control examples in business


Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs as Apple CEO in 2011, and since that time, the number of staff who report directly to him has increased by a factor of about two.

In 2015, The State Journal Register reported that Cook had 17 direct reports – up from 9 when he succeeded Jobs. 

While Apple neither confirmed nor denied the number, one could surmise from bios on the company’s executive profile page that the information was accurate.

In any case, there was much discussion about whether this extremely wide span of control was wise or even realistic.

In a 2-hour meeting with 17 people, for example, it was surmised that Cook could only speak with each individual directly for around seven minutes.

Executive director at the MIT Leadership Center Hal Gregersen noted that this would make it difficult for Cook to properly develop his team and understand their strengths and weaknesses.

In 2019, the number of direct reports had increased to 19, with Cook adding new layers of management to the company structure.

Under the CEO, executives oversee services, chips, software, AI, finance, and marketing, to name a few. This also includes Cook’s executive assistant. 

The wide span of control at Apple can at least be partly explained by Cook’s leadership style.

Unlike Jobs, Cook is a consensus builder who enjoys close collaboration with his senior staff and does not involve himself in product decisions. 

Nevertheless, Cook has a span of control that is more akin to a manager in a call center where the work is extremely standardized and automated.


Fast-food chain KFC has a much narrow span of control with six levels of management in its organizational structure arranged as follows:

  1. Management board (including CEO Sabir Sami, who himself reports to the CEO of parent company Yum! Brands).
  2. General Manager.
  3. Assistant General Manager.
  4. Unit (Branch) Manager, Assistant Unit Manager, and Shift Manager.
  5. Team members, and
  6. Workers. 

At the board level, Sami is supported by seven additional executives who manage the company’s operations around the world.

These include a President, COO, and five staff in the areas of marketing, legal, digital transformation, development, and people (culture).

At lower management levels, KFC’s narrow span of control is influenced by the nature of its industry. Managers oversee cooks and cashiers in every restaurant to ensure that customers are satisfied and hygiene standards are maintained. 

Like competitor McDonald’s, the narrow span of control enables KFC store management to ensure employees follow SOPs and deliver a consistent product across the company’s thousands of outlets.

While store employees are responsible for a diverse range of customer and food-related tasks, most KFC restaurants are staffed with around 5 to 10 frontline personnel who report directly to the shift or store manager.

Within stores, there may also be junior managers.

Key takeaways

  • The span of control is a human resource management term referring to the number of subordinates a supervisor is responsible for managing. 
  • The span of control may be categorized in one of two ways. Wide span of control is associated with a flat organizational structure with fewer reporting levels and higher subordinate autonomy. Conversely, narrow span of control is associated with a hierarchical organizational structure with more reporting levels and decreased subordinate autonomy.
  • The span of control will vary from one company to the next, but there are some important points every organization should consider before choosing an approach. These include company culture, management competence, employee competence, and task complexity.

What is span of control and its types?

The span of control refers to the number of subordinates a supervisor is responsible for managing and the dynamics emerging from it. There are two main types of the span of control: narrow (associated with a hierarchical organizational structure) and broad (associated with a flat organizational structure). A third type is a hybrid approach between wide and narrow, closer to a matrix organizational structure determined according to functions.

Why is span of control important?

Understanding the dynamics behind the span of control is critical to assess whether an organization is well run. Indeed, when a span of control gets too narrow, the organization might be in a micromanaging mode, where managers are not enabling enough decision-making for their teams. In the opposite scenario, of a wide span, an organization is flatter. This works exceptionally well for smaller organizations and startups that, given the smaller scale, can and must move much quicker.

What is span of control with example?

In the case of a company like Airbnb, you have a flat organizational structure with product teams organized around critical products. In an organization like Apple today, at its scale, it works more as a hierarchical organization, with some product-based grouping between some key divisions.

Types of Organizational Structures

Organizational Structures

Siloed Organizational Structures


In a functional organizational structure, groups and teams are organized based on function. Therefore, this organization follows a top-down structure, where most decision flows from top management to bottom. Thus, the bottom of the organization mostly follows the strategy detailed by the top of the organization.



Open Organizational Structures




In a flat organizational structure, there is little to no middle management between employees and executives. Therefore it reduces the space between employees and executives to enable an effective communication flow within the organization, thus being faster and leaner.

Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks

Leadership Styles

Leadership styles encompass the behavioral qualities of a leader. These qualities are commonly used to direct, motivate, or manage groups of people. Some of the most recognized leadership styles include Autocratic, Democratic, or Laissez-Faire leadership styles.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Blue Ocean Leadership

Authors and strategy experts Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne developed the idea of blue ocean leadership. In the same way that Kim and Mauborgne’s blue ocean strategy enables companies to create uncontested market space, blue ocean leadership allows companies to benefit from unrealized employee talent and potential.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders adhere to certain values and beliefs irrespective of whether they are in the home or office. In essence, ethical leaders are motivated and guided by the inherent dignity and rights of other people.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a style of leadership that motivates, encourages, and inspires employees to contribute to company growth. Leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described the concept of transformational leadership in a 1978 book entitled Leadership. Although Burns’ research was focused on political leaders, the term is also applicable for businesses and organizational psychology.

Leading by Example

Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate this behavior or conduct themselves.

Leader vs. Boss

A leader is someone within an organization who possesses the ability to influence and lead others by example. Leaders inspire, support, and encourage those beneath them and work continuously to achieve objectives. A boss is someone within an organization who gives direct orders to subordinates, tends to be autocratic, and prefers to be in control at all times.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is based on situational leadership theory. Developed by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory’s fundamental belief is that there is no single leadership style that is best for every situation. Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is a process that involves the identification and development of future leaders across all levels within a company. In essence, succession planning is a way for businesses to prepare for the future. The process ensures that when a key employee decides to leave, the company has someone else in the pipeline to fill their position.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Fielder’s contingency model argues no style of leadership is superior to the rest evaluated against three measures of situational control, including leader-member relations, task structure, and leader power level. In Fiedler’s contingency model, task-oriented leaders perform best in highly favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Relationship-oriented leaders perform best in situations that are moderately favorable but can improve their position by using superior interpersonal skills.

Management vs. Leadership


Cultural Models

In the context of an organization, cultural models are frameworks that define, shape, and influence corporate culture. Cultural models also provide some structure to a corporate culture that tends to be fluid and vulnerable to change. Once upon a time, most businesses utilized a hierarchical culture where various levels of management oversaw subordinates below them. Today, however, there exists a greater diversity in models as leaders realize the top-down approach is outdated in many industries and that success can be found elsewhere.

Action-Centered Leadership

Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations. Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time because it believed leaders could learn the skills they needed to manage others effectively. Adair believed that effective leadership was exemplified by three overlapping circles (responsibilities): achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop the individual.

High-Performance Coaching

High-performance coaches work with individuals in personal and professional contexts to enable them to reach their full potential. While these sorts of coaches are commonly associated with sports, it should be noted that the act of coaching is a specific type of behavior that is also useful in business and leadership. 

Forms of Power

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 

Tipping Point Leadership

Tipping Point Leadership is a low-cost means of achieving a strategic shift in an organization by focusing on extremes. Here, the extremes may refer to small groups of people, acts, and activities that exert a disproportionate influence over business performance.

Vroom-Yetton Decision Model

The Vroom-Yetton decision model is a decision-making process based on situational leadership. According to this model, there are five decision-making styles guides group-based decision-making according to the situation at hand and the level of involvement of subordinates: Autocratic Type 1 (AI), Autocratic Type 2 (AII), Consultative Type 1 (CI), Consultative Type 2 (CII), Group-based Type 2 (GII).

Likert’s Management Systems

Likert’s management systems were developed by American social psychologist Rensis Likert. Likert’s management systems are a series of leadership theories based on the study of various organizational dynamics and characteristics. Likert proposed four systems of management, which can also be thought of as leadership styles: Exploitative authoritative, Benevolent authoritative, Consultative, Participative.

Main Guides:

About The Author

Scroll to Top