Managing People

Span of Control: A Guide for HR and Managers

June 3, 2024
June 24, 2024
Catherine Tansey
Lattice Team

From industry to organizational structure, department to managerial style, countless factors inform and affect span of control, an HR term referring to the number of direct reports a manager has.

While the span of control may vary from organization to organization, it’s generally growing. Recent Lattice benchmarking data revealed that, between 2020 and 2022, the average number of direct reports per manager increased from 4.3 to 5.2 — up by nearly a quarter. And it’s hardly gone down since, dipping to just 5.1 direct reports per manager last year.

Below we look more closely at the types of span of control, what factors influence a company’s average span of control, and how HR can support overstretched managers

What Is Span of Control?

Span of control refers to the number of people a supervisor is responsible for managing.

Organizations have been trying to identify the optimal span of control since Sir Ian Hamilton introduced the concept in the early 1920s. In the 1970s, interest in the notion skyrocketed, and organizations sought to uncover the ideal number of employees per manager as a cost-effective way to ensure effective performance

Today experts agree that there is no single optimum span of control that leads to managerial excellence and high-performance organizations

“Companies are often looking for an ‘ideal number’ of direct reports based on industry standards, but the reality is that there is no magic number. It depends on the type of output expected to succeed, and the quality of talent you have on board to get the required results,” said Lori Scherwin, ​​executive coach and founder of Strategize That, an executive coaching company. 

How Span of Control Affects an Organization

To empower managers and enable operational efficiency, people teams need to understand the concept of span of control — especially because its implications are so far-reaching. Span of control has a direct impact on how decisions are made, how connected employees feel to the organization, and the relationship between direct reports and managers.

“What often comes into play is the experience of managers and leaders to adapt to new structures. A good performer is not the same as a good manager, and all too often companies promote good performers without considering how well they can lead,” Scherwin noted. 

It’s well documented that managers are one of the most important elements when it comes to retention, á la employees don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers. So, regardless of an organization's average span of control, people teams need manager enablement strategies that promote effective communication and support managers in delegating tasks. 

Factors Influencing Span of Control 

Every organization is composed of a unique set of expectations, beliefs, team cultures, and ways of doing business. Industry, size, company history, organizational performance, company culture, and more come together to form a singular environment that dictates the day-to-day experience of employees, and these factors also influence the span of control in an organization. 

“Several factors influence an optimal range, from nature of the work to organization size and stage of development, to standardization of tasks, skillsets of both employee and leader, budget, and culture,” said Scherwin.

Moreover, these organizational factors are often interconnected. “The things that influence span of control can end up being influenced by span of control itself. For example, if a company widens its span of control in an effort to cut costs, it could conceivably negatively impact culture if it reduces appropriate communication across a larger team,” Scherwin added. 

In the modern business landscape where private equity and venture capital are major players, company (hyper)growth is another factor often playing a part in determining span of control — whether intentional or not. 

“We have gone through some M&A activities, and there's definitely been a shift of how many reports managers have,” said Yekaterina Weaklim, director of people operations at Yes Energy, a data company in the energy industry. “Some people have inherited certain reports because of interpersonal dynamics, while others have acquired new reports because of the nature of their work, among other factors,” she noted. 

Venture capital involvement can also dictate the roles or levels an organization must have just by nature of the business structure and ROI expectations. “If you have venture capital money, you need someone in the CFO seat. You need a financial planning and analysis person; you need an accounts payable/accounts receivable individual. There are just different reasons for different roles in the company. And sometimes you need a lot of layers and other times you don't need that many layers,” said Lindsay Dagiantis, founder and CEO of, an HR consulting firm. 

Types of Span of Control and the Pros and Cons of Each Approach

Span of control exists along a spectrum of narrow (more hierarchical, more layers) to wide (flatter organization, fewer layers), with some organizations falling in the middle. 

1. Narrow Span of Control 

The hierarchical nature of companies with a narrow average span of control means they tend to have more reporting levels with closer supervision. As managers have fewer direct reports, they play a key role in managing employees’ day-to-day activities and spend significant time collaborating with or supervising direct reports. Because there are so many managerial levels in the organization, growth and development (and promotion) opportunities are likely plentiful. 

“A narrow span of control can be useful when the work is highly advanced, requiring more communication and strategy development between the manager and employee. It provides more time for a manager to focus on the development of their team and can promote a positive culture that is reinforced by time spent collaborating,” Scherwin explained. 

Yet a narrow span of control with many management levels can lead to rigid structures, delayed decision-making, and added bureaucracy. It can also make managers a little too present. “On the flip side, if a manager who has a narrow span of control is too hands-on — i.e., micromanaging — it can lead to employee dissatisfaction, unnecessary stress, and turnover,” said Scherwin. 

2. Wide Span of Control

Companies with a wider average span of control are flatter organizations. They have fewer levels of reporting, which leads to less supervision and can make the culture feel more accessible. For example, an entry-level employee may have direct contact with C-suite members in companies with larger spans of control, while that would be uncommon in more hierarchical companies. 

Companies may opt for wider spans of control across the organization in environments where systems are well-implemented or work is highly operationalized. 

“A wide span of control can be useful when the work product is standardized, requiring less hands-on by a manager — think automated tasks or routine simple workflow. In this case, a manager needs to be able to delegate effectively and give team members more autonomy while being able to balance having final responsibility for output,” Scherwin explained. 

Fewer reporting levels and a higher direct report-to-manager ratio can lead to faster decision-making and even cut costs, but this combination poses risks for interpersonal relationships. 

“Many companies will restructure [to be flatter] for cost savings. While this can motivate individual employees, it can also create a disconnect in team building and camaraderie since the manager may be overwhelmed by final accountability without being able to fully engage with each of their direct reports,” Scherwin said. 

Impact on Performance and Morale

Consider an employee who thrives in a collaborative environment. They enjoy brainstorming with their colleagues and talking through problems to find solutions, and they value their weekly one-on-one with their manager, whom they view as a mentor

Now consider another employee who enjoys the solitary nature of their work. They prefer spreadsheets and asynchronous collaboration to in-person or virtual meetings. Their manager plays more of a supervisory role than a leadership one, which works well for their personality and type of work. 

These two employees may have different preferences for their organization’s ideal span of control, and the span of control would have a different impact on their performance and morale. There is no one-size-fits-all span of control.

Even so, it is possible to extrapolate generalities about span of control and its impact on performance and morale. “When you have too many direct reports and you lose the ability to be a high-touch leader, that can leave people to feel they aren’t being supported, which can impact morale and culture,” Weaklim pointed out. 

Even for managers who encourage employee autonomy, it’s critical to ensure employees still feel supported. “I am a very low-maintenance manager in the sense that my team knows what they're doing, but I still do my one-on-ones with them once a week, and I stay in regular contact with them on Slack, so they know I’m there,” Weaklim said. 

Ensuring your leaders have the skills required to operate efficiently and with more important than the number [of direct reports].

How to Support Managers With Limited or Overstretched Spans of Control

The number of subordinates a manager has isn’t the only factor that contributes to overwhelm. The degree of employee autonomy, the number of experienced employees on their team, and whether or not they have a poor performer can all contribute to a more challenging team to manage. 

“It’s important to get clear on expectations for managers rather than saying ‘X is really effective with five people, so Y should be, too,’” said Dagiantis. “But the reality is that X and Y are different people, in different departments, and have two different teams.” 

People teams need strategies that focus on empowerment and enablement to support middle managers, regardless of their span of control. 

1. Invest in training.

We know that employees often get a promotion to management without receiving the training necessary for success — an all too common reality that’s unfair for both new managers and direct reports. 

“At the end of the day, ensuring your leaders have the skills required to operate efficiently and with empathy under the given number of direct reports is more important than the number itself,” said Scherwin. 

Even for long-time managers, a change to their managerial span of control may require new competencies. “If your organization plans to increase or decrease the span of control, the number one factor for success will be in identifying the aptitude and capabilities of your managers to adjust to the new structure. Invest in coaching and training to ensure you get the desired outcome in the least disruptive way,” Scherwin added. 

2. Use technology to support manager-employee interactions.

A platform that supports managers in streamlining the admin of management — think: a single place to store material for one-on-ones, track performance, and set goals and measure progress — frees up time for more high-touch activities. 

“Having a platform to exchange feedback, track data, and measure the frequency and/or quality of interactions can be really important to releasing the stress on the manager. It also allows managers to focus more on the outcome versus the input, which helps get managers to that proficiency level of true leadership faster,” said Dagiantis. 

3. Create a culture of communication among managers.

Creating a culture where it’s okay for managers to speak up is essential to preventing supervisor burnout, but more senior managers also need to be able to identify when the managers on their teams are struggling. “Empowering managers to speak up comes back to creating a sense of safety, but it also requires observing,” Weaklim noted. 

“I’m constantly looking at my team and how we’re functioning, and my manager is doing the same. If she sees I’m busy, she’ll ask me, ‘Are you overwhelmed? Is there too much going on? Do we need to look at another headcount because of the workload the team is carrying?’” Weaklim added. “It’s a two-way street: We need to create a culture where managers can speak up, but we should also be paying attention to them.”

Managers Need Support, No Matter Their Span of Control

Investing in managers means investing in company culture, retention, and productivity. By equipping our frontline managers with the tools they need to foster efficient and effective teams, everyone wins — an especially resonant truth as the average span of control for most organizations continues to grow. 

Lattice Analytics can give managers real-time insights to help them lead effectively. Schedule a demo today to learn more