How many direct reports can you handle?

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This topic contains 8 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Pattie Buel 8 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #153277

    Steve Ressler

    I was talking to a fast growing organization the other day that was rethinking their organizational structure.

    With huge growth, they now have 13 people reporting directly to the leaders which was starting to cause problems.

    How many direct reports do you think a manager can handle?

    What suggestions do you have in this situation to ensure there aren’t too many layers of middle management but at same time there is structure?

  • #153293

    Pattie Buel

    I think the answer depends on the nature of work and the level of the direct reports. It’s harder to manage a large group of folks who are all learning the job/organization than to manage the same size group of folks who are familiar with the processes and policies of the organization. You can use team leads to help with training, quality control, and workload distribution but the manager needs to be able to spot problem areas within the group and provide developmental opportunities (training courses, assignments, etc) to improve/enhance performance. I once had 50 direct reports when I was in Industry and it was almost impossible to give meaningful performance reviews with that many people. And as an employee, I want my supervisor to be able to fairly assess my work, my strengths and my weaknesses.

  • #153291

    Barry Williams

    I certainly agree with Patti re the nature of the work and the competence of direct reports. I’d also add the the size and scope of the organization and means of communication. I would like to add that in general I think the Federal Government is extremely overweight regarding height. Too many layers and very narrow spans of control. Sluggishness and inefficiency are a direct result. As a general principle, I think the flatter the better.

  • #153289

    Chris A. Cowan

    I think this is a great question. With the understanding that there are a lot of variables, let’s assume that someone just wants a general ballpark number. What would that be in the Federal sector? Is there any research available that might have some of this information? I’d love to know what the actual ratio is (while completing understanding that this isn’t necessarily a recommended ratio). Thoughts?

  • #153287

    Mark Sullivan

    Kenneth J. Meier and John Bohte did some interesting research about a decade ago looking at organizational performance and span of control in Texas public schools. My recollection is that they found a number of factors that influenced optimal span of control including:

    1. Level of staff (the higher the level, the more that could be supervised)
    2. Functional diversity (the wider the range of specialties, the fewer that could be supervised)
    3. Geographic dispersion (the more ‘remote’ the supervision, the fewer that could be supervised)
    4. Tenure (the greater te longevity of direct reports, the more that could be supervised)

    Beyond that, I would also add the degree of organizational streamlining. If an organization puts a lot of administrative burdens on managers (e.g. lengthy performance evaluation, hiring, and time management duties), this will create an artificial constraint on the number of employees those managers can effectively supervise.

  • #153285

    Peter Sperry

    My father used to give mangament lectures encouraging a span of control no more than 10. He would always include the line “Jesus Christ had 12 and one of them betrayed him” I am not sure I agree with him completely but it does make you think.

  • #153283

    Chris A. Cowan

    Well, I found the following attachment with shows that the ratio changed from 6.5 in 1994 to 7.4 in 1996 (see page 13). I just wonder what it is now and how much it might have fluctuated in the past decade or so. The search continues…

    BTW, thanks Mark for the “span on control” reference. That is the term I was searching for at least in terms of the conceptual calculations. It seems for the actual research that has been conducted that maybe “supervisor to employee ratio” is more commonly used.

  • #153281

    Henry Brown

    so many variables! Some time ago a federal agency attempted to limit the “reporting chain” to 10 and soon realized that they would have to expend a great deal of money hiring new supervisors.

    When I worked as lead programmer it would have been utter chaos to place 10 programmers under one supervisor… not to mention 1 manager over 10 supervisors, all working on different projects…

    It has been my experience that the higher up the chain one gets, because of the requirement(s) for LESS detail, the number of direct reports can in-fact grow somewhat…

  • #153279

    Heather Coleman

    Was just talking about this very subject with a previous manager of mine yesterday. He said from an emergency management perspective they say the span of control is 5-7 people and he recommends that be applied to management practices as well for the highest level of effectiveness.

    What about the concept of decentralized leadership and flat organizations? Is that even being approached in government?

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