What’s the optimum number of direct reports? How many people should a single manager have working for them?
What we are referring to, of course, is “Span of Control,” and though there can be unique situations in some organizations, their are also decent historical guidelines.
Span of control isn’t simply dependent on individuals; it’s a basic limitation of all managers as it describes only their direct reports. Though any manager can control any number of people if there are enough levels in between, not so when it comes to direct reports.
Research (mostly military-based) has shown that a leader can directly control about three to six persons effectively. Additionally, the “relationships” among those supervised are as important as their actual number.
Managing four people who interact constantly might be harder than supervising five or six who work largely independently.
Generally, an executive (someone managing managers) should supervise a maximum of four or five people.
In real practice, you don’t have to be an expert to know if you’re in trouble with span of control. If you have more than half a dozen people reporting to you, it’s probably too many.
Even six could be too many if those six have consistent dealings with each other. The reason of course, is that in addition to managing relationships with each subordinate, managers have to get involved to an extent in their relationships with each other.
In simple terms, going from four to five direct reports, each with four direct reports of their own, potentially doubles your effective workload while increasing your output (productivity) capacity by only 20 percent.
If the people you supervise don’t interact, you can handle more of them.
Remember, too, that I’m discussing managerial span of control — managers managing managers. The numbers can increase significantly when managing individual contributors, particularly if highly skilled.
Just some thoughts…