How much span of control should a particular manager have? Years ago, I was taught that any manager who has more than 6 direct reports cannot do a proper job of supervising the individuals. On the other extreme, with a very flat organization and self directed work teams, it is possible for a manager to be directly responsible for over 100 people.
This article describes some of the issues when considering optimal span of control and also shares some key behaviors that allow managers to broaden their span of control without loss of effectiveness. This is helpful information for leaders because most organizations are heading in the direction of flatter structures.
An overarching question is why we call it “control” at all. The idea that one must have control over people in order to influence or coach them properly is outdated. I agree that the total entity needs to be in control so the goals of the organization are met and the customer is well served, but the individuals within the organization do not need to be controlled like marionettes in order to perform well.
Most of my professional work centers around the concept of trust. If an organization has a culture of high trust, then the individuals within it do not need to be controlled to be effective. If upper management is transparent with information so that all workers at all levels know the goals and are trusted or empowered to do the right thing, then the conventional hierarchy of: group leader, supervisor, manager, vice president, group vice president, president, and CEO is way more structure than is needed.
Let us look at eight manager behaviors that will allow one individual to provide the needed guidance to numerous other people.
When managers back off and let people figure out the best way to accomplish the tasks required to meet goals, less direct supervision is required. The opposite of delegating well is micromanaging the work of others. Few people I have met appreciate, or even tolerate, being micromanaged for very long. It is debilitating to motivation, and it drains the productivity from people.
Most managers would like to see higher trust within their group, yet few managers realize the key to having more trust within the organization is to show more trust in the people within it. I hear all the time, “but what if my people are not worthy of being trusted.” There is a simple answer. If people are managed properly and are treated with respect and dignity, nearly all of them will be worthy of being trusted. So, a supervisor who cannot or will not trust the people in his or her group is really the person who needs to change, not the workers. If someone is really not worthy of being trusted, then why are they tolerated in the workforce at all?
Standard operating procedures are really helpful guidelines for employee actions. They are vital whether you are preparing a detailed battle plan or trying to run an error-free hospital. But operating procedures should not be confused with constraining rules on how to react to circumstances that arise on a daily basis. Managers who attempt to figure out every possible challenge and invent rules to cover them will find themselves frustrated.
You simply cannot anticipate all the things that can go wrong. Rather, it is better to have some broad operating principles and solid values but let people figure out how to react to each situation at hand. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos said, “We trust our employees to use their best judgment when dealing with each and every customer.” They do not need detailed procedures to figure out what is right.
Much of the administrative and coaching energy that takes the time of managers involves the development of people. Many professionals have government mandated training requirements that cause supervisors to administer training classes for compliance reasons. Beyond the legal mandates, many organizations insist on forced career development discussions and detailed forms to fill out along with specific training hours per employee each year. These details are all well meaning efforts to bring out the best in people. What if we shifted the emphasis to recognize that nearly all people have an interest in doing the best they can?
Given the right encouragement and support, people are fully capable of figuring out how they can be more valuable to the organization in the future. The concepts of coaching and mentoring will help encourage employees who are timid or confused, but we do not need mandated programs that paint all employees with the same brush.
Think of it this way. You can mandate 40 hours of training for each employee each year, but you are not going to be successful at building capability into an employee who does not see value in training. It is far better to encourage employees to become involved in the extent and types of training they receive because they will learn much more. In turn, the organization will benefit much more as a result of employees using the new skills.
The power of mentoring is immense, yet the majority of corporate mentoring programs produce tepid results at best. Reason: the mentor selection process is usually done with a third party or a computer program creating the matches from lists of skills and interests of potential pairs. Since a great mentor relationship is based on a foundation of excellent personal chemistry, the number of perfect matches made by third parties will be low. Mentors and protégés go through the motions for some period of time, but they drift apart eventually due to a lack of reciprocal chemistry to keep the benefits coming. A far better approach is for the corporation or HR to encourage mentoring, but let the selection and administration be up to the individuals involved.
Many of the supervisory functions that take time are really not necessary or at least could be made much more efficient. Have an audit of the forms and paperwork that managers are forced to fill out and vow to cut in by at least 50%. In most organizations that could be accomplished with no loss of vital information. Cut managers free to do the vital face to face coaching by reducing the Mickey Mouse forms and procedures that leave little time for communication, strategy, and reflection.
Improve Online Communication
It is a rare manager who does not feel buried in the avalanche of e-mail, texts, and social networking notes. The load is way too much to allow time for walking around the area to actually interface with people live. It is possible to reduce the online load significantly without losing vital information. Get help from someone who specializes in efficient online communication and create a culture where these tools are useful but not albatrosses.
One reason why managers can only handle a narrow span of control is because there is usually some dead wood in any group. It is well known, by the Pareto Principle, that 20% of the individuals are going to take up 80% of the time of managers. Make sure to cull out the dead wood or disruptive individuals from the organization. That will create more time and allow the managers to serve more people better. Removing just one problem employee can make a huge difference in the entire atmosphere in a work group. It also shifts the balance of management attention from those who cause trouble to those who are doing great work. That will improve the quality of work-life for everyone.
Increasing the span of control is good for the efficiency of any organization. Following the eight tips above will shift the burden for most managers and allow them the time to have broader influence. This saves the organization money and provides a more rewarding environment in which managers can thrive.