How Many Subordinates Should I Manage?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about span of authority:

What would be the normal amount of adults a supervisor should have under them in order to do an effective job? We are reorganizing. I will have various sites to supervise and I will be working with 13 adults

Signed, Supervisor

Dear Supervisor:

The term “span of control” refers to the number of subordinates who report directly to a single manager, supervisor, or lead. A correlation generally exists between the span of control and the number of layers within an organization. A low span of control (i.e., few subordinates per manager, supervisor, or lead) leads to a “tall” organization (i.e., one with many layers) whereas a high span of control leads to a flat organization. It is worth noting that any good supervision takes a lot of time, often more time than upper management is willing to admit. Furthermore there is the business trend of ‘flattening’ organizations which means increasing the ‘span of control’, thus making a single supervisor responsible for more supervisees.The question of what is a “normal” number of supervises in order for a supervisor to be able to do an effective job does not have one ‘right’ answer but depends on several factors.The most salient of those factors are:

1. Experience of the Supervisees: More experienced workers require (and generally appreciate) less supervision and so a supervisor can more easily supervise additional workers.

2. Work load of the Supervisor: If supervisors have a full work load already outside of their supervisory duties, and then (often in order to get promoted) they take on the added responsibilities of ‘supervision’ without consideration of the additional time required for supervision. Ideally this type of this supervisor would have less workers under their supervision than a supervisor whose primary job is supervision – i.e. “A Manager”.

3. Experience level of the Supervisor with the skills of supervision: Often new supervisors are less skillful in the art of supervision and thus will become ineffective as numbers of supervisees increase – ideally they would have less supervisees. 4. Organizational Level: In general, “front line” supervision takes more time and direct employee contact than second or third level supervision. Thus, first line supervisors, ideally would have fewer supervisees than higher level managers, even though the opposite is often the case.

To sum it up however, it is my experience in both the Healthcare and IT industries, first line supervisors regularly have between 10 and 25 employees to supervise. It should be noted that these employees are generally skilled workers who know their job and the supervisor is allowed approximately 25% of their time for the supervision of these employees. Some supporting information from a study done for a local county government: There are two main schools of thought in organizational management theory regarding span of control. Classical (i.e., pre-1950) authors believed that supervisors needed to maintain close control over their subordinates (employees were viewed more as machines rather than intelligent workers), and they often specified the proper ratio as no more than 6 subordinates per supervisor.

Contemporary authors hold that such “control oriented” organizations are inefficient because they promote too many organizational layers and therefore they advocate greater spans of control resulting in flatter organizational structures. Although a consensus on the ideal ratio for span of control has not been reached, current authors advocate ratios ranging from 15 to 25 subordinates per supervisor. Several also recommend 5 organizational layers as the maximum for any large organization.Working together at its best entail shared leadership and responsibility–what we call WEGO. Please feel free to update us on what you learn and the reorganizing you do.

Christopher T. Clarke