The official term for the number of direct reports a manager supervises is “span of control.” Conventional wisdom says that the ideal span of control for front-line supervisors and managers is six to eight employees; perhaps more if the staff are very experienced and proficient. As for senior leadership, perhaps four to six direct reports is best. These numbers generally increase the flatter or leaner an organization becomes. In reality, there is no one “right” answer; the correct span of control depends on many variables, such as the organization’s size, culture, skill level of employees, and the skills and competencies of managers. Fewer subordinates under each manager is called “narrow span of control.” When a single manager oversees a large number of subordinates, it’s known as “wide span of control.”
A narrow span of control works best when several levels of management exist, when the employee’s tasks are complex, and when the manager has broad organizational responsibilities for departmental planning and training, which is typical of large companies.
A wide span of control works best when the employee’s tasks involve repetition, and the manager has fewer organizational responsibilities. This is generally the case in small organizations.
The optimum span of control for one organization will not be the same for another–even when comparing two organizations that appear to be similar. As the state of business changes, organizations will need to adapt and adjust to successfully compete. This means that the variables that determine the best span of control will likely be ever-changing, and each organization’s optimum span of control will also need to change. So, perhaps the best answer to the question, “What is the best span of control for an organization” is, “A dynamic one.”