Span of Control: How Many Direct Reports Should a Manager Have and Why?

Managers and supervisors are responsible for overseeing employees. The employees they oversee are their direct reports. The greater the number of direct reports they have the broader their span of control becomes.

Having more direct reports is not necessarily better.  When it comes to span of control there is a “sweet spot” that represents the optimum number of people that a manager or supervisor can effectively oversee.

Being responsible for too many employees can create tension, result in employees not getting the attention and direction they need, and have a negative impact on an organization’s culture.

What is Span of Control?  

Span of control comes in two types: narrow and wide. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Narrow Span of Control

A narrow span of control is when each supervisor or manager has a small number of direct reports. This results in the organization having more levels of management.

Advantages include:

  • Managers have more time to spend with individual employees to provide more direct supervision.
  • Because they have more opportunities for interaction with their supervisors, employees benefit from greater opportunities for development and potential advancement.
  • Communication within departments is likely to be clearer. There are fewer opportunities for misconception or misunderstanding.

Disadvantages include:

  • Higher costs—more levels of management mean greater expenses related to salaries as well as office space.
  • With fewer people to oversee there can be the potential for managers and supervisors to micromanage those who report to them.
  • While communication within departments can benefit from a narrow span of control, communication up and down the organizational hierarchy becomes more challenging and more likely to result in miscommunication and misunderstandings.

Wide Span of Control

A wide span of control is when each supervisor or manager is responsible for overseeing a large number of employees. This results in the organization having fewer levels of management.

Advantages include:

  • A less hierarchical organizational structure.
  • Better opportunity for effective communication up and down the organization.
  • With less direct supervision, employees have more opportunities for independent decision-making and empowerment.

Disadvantages include:

  • May lead to burnout among supervisors and managers if their employees need a lot of direction or have frequent questions.
  • Employees may not feel engaged if they don’t feel their supervisors and managers spend enough time with them or understand what they do and how well they do it.
  • Communication within departments can be challenging because of the number of people involved. Miscommunication can be the result.

list of criteria for how many employees a manager should have

How Many Direct Reports Should A Manager Have? 

A common question that often comes up within organizations is “how many direct reports should a manager have?” Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast answer. The answer truly is “it depends.” It depends on:

The Complexity of the Work Being Done

The more complex the work, the fewer people a manager or supervisor can effectively oversee. When work is routine, and employees perform generally the same type of work, there is less complexity and managers can handle a wider span of control.

Available Technology

Today’s supervisors and managers often have access to technology to help them manage their direct reports. For instance, technology for tracking time and attendance, conducting performance reviews, etc.

Employee Skill Sets

The higher the level of skills and competence employees have, the more independently they can work and the less direct supervision they need.

Managerial Experience

Experienced supervisors and managers can manage more people than those with little or no experience.

Management and Employee Interactions

If a lot of interaction is required between managers and employees, a wider space of control can lead to communication breakdowns. When less interaction is required—for instance, employees working in a manufacturing setting—supervisors can handle a wider span of control.

How to Effectively Manage Direct Reports  

Regardless of how many people a supervisor or manager is responsible for, there are some important best practices they can follow to improve their managerial effectiveness. These include:

Scheduling one-on-one meetings.

Employees need to have opportunities to interact with their supervisors and managers to share information and receive feedback.

Group discussions and team-building routines.

The entire team also needs to interact and connect with each other. Regularly scheduled meetings can help make this happen while ensuring consistent communications.

Giving feedback.

Feedback—both positive and constructive—is critical for employees. Feedback should be immediate, clear, and specific.


Performance evaluations are a formal way for employees to understand how they’re doing, what they may need to improve, and what new opportunities may be available to them.

Coaching and mentoring.

Managers and supervisors have an important role in coaching and mentoring their direct reports. Effective managers know that by developing others they will benefit their staff, themselves, and the organization.

With management skills training supervisors and managers can develop and enhance their skills in each of these areas.


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Categories: Management, Promoting Employees, Supervisory
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Author: Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Lin is a business journalist and communication strategist with expertise in HR and employee relations. She is accredited through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM-SCP) and Human Resource Certification Institute (SPHR) and writes frequently for SHRM, HR Daily Advisor, and a wide range of trade publications and corporate clients.