span-of-control

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 organization 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. 

Wide-span

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

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:

  • Culture – 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.

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.

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