Span of Control

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This article describes Span of Control in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful management and leadership theory.

What is Span of Control?

The larger an organisation, the more management layers it has. As a result, a hierarchy is born. Multiple people in a department deal with a single superior. Some departments might only have ten people, while others consist of over a hundred employees. In both cases, span of control is present to properly manage all layers of the organisation.

The Span of Control is the number of employees a manager can supervise as effectively as possible. The addition of new hierarchical layers makes the organisational structure steeper.

A large Span of Control leads to a flatter organisational structure, which results in lower costs. A small span of control creates a steeper organisational structure, which requires more managers and which will consequently be more expensive for the organisation. It is therefore useful for an organisation if its managers have a large span of control.

Two dimensions

The Span of Control always involves two dimensions:

Horizontal dimension

This is the number of direct subordinates a manager actually supervises. This is also referred to as Span of Control.

Vertical dimension

This is the number of levels that are (in)directly managed. It refers to the extent to which the manager’s wishes trickle down to the lowest levels of the organisation. This is also known as Depth of Control. It is mainly aimed at the extent of communication between a manager and his subordinates in the levels he is responsible for. Without a good leader, downward communication can be impaired.

Factors

Good leadership partially has to do with a manager’s innate talents. In addition, there are several other factors that play a role. One example would be the size of the Span of Control and the number of subordinates.

It also has to do with:

  • A manager’s experience and expertise.
  • A manager’s personality and people skills.
  • Employees’ experience, expertise and their behaviour towards each other.
  • The nature of the work and the complexity of the assigned tasks.
  • The nature of the organisation and the level of communication, delegating and interaction.

Assigned tasks

Initially, it is about assigning tasks, authority and responsibilities. The more authority and responsibility an employee has, the higher his position in the hierarchy of the organisation. The number of tasks an employee has, however, has no bearing on their hierarchical position. It is vital to distinguish between compound tasks and singular tasks.

Compound tasks are primarily intended for inexperienced employees just starting out. They still require a lot of supervision and instruction and need to be monitored frequently by their managers.

Although the employee strives to achieve a specific result within the allotted time, there are sub-tasks (compound) that have to be completed along the way. The supervisor spends a lot of time guiding the employee. The more of these inexperienced employees there are in a team, the harder a supervisor’s job gets.

The singular task is meant for experienced employees. He knows the objective, when the task needs to be completed and he is also responsible for the entire process. He requires little or no supervision by his superior.

At most, he might benefit from some instruction beforehand and an interim and final evaluation. It is easier for a manager to supervise a large group of such employees, because everyone knows what is expected of them.

Harmony

Span of Control is indicative of the quality of leadership. It is also a well-known fact that a manager with a large Span of Control has a lot of people under him. The smaller a manager’s Span of Control, the less subordinates he can lead.

It is therefore very important for Span of Control and scope of control to be in harmony with each other. When one is larger or smaller than the other, problems arise in leadership method, employee instruction and teamwork.

Increasing Span of Control

When a manager supervises a large number of employees, he often has little time to align activities and monitor the quality of how activities are executed.

Every situation needs to be assessed individually based on factors that determine the span of control. If a situation arises in which a supervisor manages too many employees, there are several ways for finding a solution to increase the Span of Control:

  • Training the manager, teaching him management skills such as delegating and clear communication.
  • Training employees, teaching them to work independently and make better use of their time.
  • Delegation by the manager, decreasing his workload and improving the division of labour.
  • Improving procedures and systems; when procedures take up a lot of time, it is a good idea to find efficient solutions with the help of the management team.
  • Involving HR, who will unburden the manager by taking over certain specialist tasks such as the department’s HR policy.
  • Assigning a personal assistant, who can take over routine activities, reducing the manager’s workload.
  • Appointing an assistant-manager who reports to the manager, but in the perception of the subordinates is fully qualified in terms of executive and policy tasks and can act as manager when needed.

Span of Control example

Here are two examples to illustrate the harmony between Scope of control and Span of Control.

First is a situation with a manager with years of experience leading a team of approximately 40 people. Problems arise when his team is reduced to 20 people as a result of cutbacks. At first, everything still seems to be okay. Everyone knows what is expected of them, but as time goes by, the manager starts feeling uneasy. He wants to have more control and make things go his way.

Employees start to feel the manager is constantly looking over their shoulder and see his presence as a hindrance. It is likely that the manager will start to get bored and will no longer be able to find intrinsic motivation in his work. Conflicts may arise and small problems become big ones very easily. In some cases, the manager can feel he is not sufficiently stimulated, which can have very negative consequences.

The second situation involves a manager who is used to leading a team of about five employees. He will experience stress when he is made responsible for a group of 20 people. If the employees are able to function on their own, things might be al-right at first. But when problems or conflicts arise, the manager needs to be there for all 20 of his subordinates. He will find it difficult to delegate tasks, because he is used to working one-on-one with only about five employees.

The situation becomes more complicated for the manager when the majority of the 20 employees are not able to function independently. The manager will be confronted with his own lack of delegating skills. In both cases it is important to identify the problem and offer practical solutions.

It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the practical explanation about Span of Control or do you have more additions? What are your success factors for good leadership in relation to the number of employees you have to manage?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Kreitner, R. & Cassidy, C. (2008). Management. South-Western College Pub.
  2. Meier, K. J. & Bohte, J. (2000). Ode to Luther Gulick: Span of control and organizational performance. Administration & Society, 32(2), 115-137.
  3. Ouchi, W. & Dowling, J. (1974). Defining Span of Control. Administrative Sciences Quarterly, Vol 19, 1974.
  4. Urwick, L. F. (1922). The manager’s span of control. Harvard Business Review, 34(3).
  5. Van Vrekhem, F. (2015). The disruptive competence. The journey to a sustainable business, from matter to meaning. Compact Publishing.

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Patty Mulder
Patty Mulder is an Dutch expert on Management Skills, Time Management, Personal Effectiveness and Business Communication. She is also a Content writer, Business Coach and Company Trainer and lives in the Netherlands (Europe).

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