Span of Control – Importance, Examples, Limitations and Factors

The term “span of control” contains two keywords, “Span” and “Control.”

Span refers to the distance between the tip of the thumb and the small finger when the hand is fully stretched out. In terms of management and administration, it refers to the maximum extent or number of people that can be reached.

Control refers to the ability to instruct, check, adjust, or manipulate something as per one’s preferred requirement, choice, or expectation. In terms of management and administration, it refers to an authoritative power to direct, order, or restrain.

Definition – Span of Control in management and administration thus refers to the total number of people (i.e., subordinates or employees) that a manager or administrator can effectively control and supervise.

According to Louis Allen, “Span of control refers to the number of people that a manager can supervise.”

The importance of span of control

  1. Better supervision and control
  2. Increases efficiency
  3. Increases goodwill
  4. Team spirit and morale
  5. Good communication

Factors affecting span of control

The Factors affecting the span of control are

1. Level of Management

The top management has more responsibilities and will therefore have a narrow span of control, whereas lower-level management has fewer responsibilities and will have a wider span of control.

2. Nature of Work

If the work is difficult in nature, then the span of control is narrow, and vice-versa.

3. Use of Communication Technology

If face-to-face communication is used, then the span of control will be narrow. However, if electronic devices are used for communication, then the span of control will be wide.

4. Time Available for Subordinates

If the superior is busy with other work or has less time for subordinates, then the span of control will be narrow, and vice-versa.

5. Faith and Trust in Subordinates

If the superior has good faith, trust, and confidence in subordinates, then the span of control can be wider.

Examples of the span of control

Let us understand how Google uses span of control

In Google, a typical maximum limit on the span of control was traditionally set as 7, i.e., no more than 7 direct reports per manager (1:7). Now, Google has increased the span of control to 10, making the structure flatter.

Google believes that a broader span of control helps in improving the overall efficiency by reducing the overhead cost of middle management.

Let us understand how General Electric uses a span of control

A division of General Electric assembles jet engines. They run a plant with 400 technical employees and 1 plant supervisor.  The span of control is therefore 1:400.

Let us understand Graicunas Theory of Span of Control

Graicunas (1898-1952) was a Lithuanian-French management consultant, management theorist, and engineer.

In 1933, he published a paper called “Relationship in Organisation” that noted three types of Superior-Subordinate relationships:

  1. Direct Single Relationships
  2. Direct Group Relationships
  3. Cross Relationships

According to Graičiūnas, as the number of subordinates increases arithmetically (e.g., 1, 2, 3…), the number of relationships that the superior has to control increases almost geometrically (e.g., 1, 6, 18…). Therefore, a superior can effectively control only a limited number of subordinates.

Example of Graicunas theory

Graicunas theory can be explained through this simple example. For example, consider that Girish (G) is the superior (boss) and Mahesh (M) and Sunil (S) are his subordinates (juniors or lower-grade employees)..

According to Graicunas , Girish (G) has to control three types of relationships with or among Mahesh (M) and Sunil (S):

1. Direct Single Relationship

G with M and G with S, i.e., 2 direct single relationships.

2. Direct Group Relationship

G with M in presence of S and G with S in presence of M, i.e., 2 direct group relationships.

3. Cross Relationships

M with S and S with M, i.e., 2 cross relationships.

Therefore, Girish (G) has to control 2 + 2 + 2 = 6 relationships. Thus, a superior (boss) with2 subordinates has to control 6 relationships. Similarly, with 3 subordinates, 18 relationships have to be controlled.

Graicunas explained his principle using the following formula: [Ashu take a pause for 1 sec]

This formula can be used to calculate the number of relationships (r) when the number of subordinates (n) is given.

Example of Graicunas Formula

If a superior has 5 subordinates (n=5), then the number of relationships (r) to be controlled is 100 According to Graicunas, with an increase in the number of subordinates, the number of Direct Single Relationships, Direct Group Relationships, and Cross Relationships also increase.

Therefore, as the number of subordinates increases arithmetically, the number of relationships among them increases almost geometrically.  According to him, a top-level manager can effectively manage only 222 relationships. Therefore, a top-level manager should not have more than 6 subordinates. Similarly, a lower-level manager should not have more than 20 subordinates.

Graicunas theory is criticized for the following reasons

  1. More importance to numerical factors.
  2. More importance to relationships.