The term “span of control” refers to the number of direct reports a manager can personally manage effectively. The general rule of thumb is that a manager can effectively manage about seven people.

The term “span of control” refers to the number of direct reports a manager can personally manage effectively. The general rule of thumb is that a manager can effectively manage about seven people.


Seven people may not sound like a lot, but it is. When you consider that you have to oversee their work, mentor them, assure that each team member has enough to do, write annual (or semi-annual) performance reports, salary plans, bonus plans, deal with their professional and personal problems, and get your own work done, seven people is plenty.


I have seen departments where 10, 15 or even 20 people are reporting to one manager. Many members of these groups felt neglected, underappreciated, see no opportunity for promotion, and in many cases, be under-utilized.


I’m not saying you should never manage more than seven people. I am saying that if your department has more than seven people, you should think about dividing your group into teams, or at least have part of your group report to a team leader, that reports to you. For example, if the accounting department has 10 people, three working on general ledger, three on accounts receivable and four on accounts payable, you could have the most appropriate person in each area be a team leader, thus giving you three rather then 10 direct reports. This approach not only gives you more time to do your work, but it also provides a career path for the people in your group.


As the manager of a large or growing group, it can be very hard for you, and emotional for your group, to divide them into teams for the following reasons:




All team members are currently reporting directly to you and may feel resentful that they are now reporting to fellow team member.

It may be hard for those you promoted to transition to a leadership role and now be managing their friends.

It may be hard for you to decide the best way to divide up your team.

You may not want to rock the boat by changing things and risk changing the group’s internal dynamics.

You may feel personally threatened if there are junior managers in your department; one of them one day may take your job.

All of the above reasons are valid and appropriate. The issue is that if you don’t eventually correct span of control problems, the following outcomes may occur:




Your team members may begin to leave due to a lack of attention or promotional opportunities.

Your manager may reduce your responsibility by splitting your team into multiple groups and make you the manager over only one area.

Your manager may replace you and bring in a manager that can design a more effective and traditional organization structure.

Span of control and organization design could fill a book, let alone a newspaper column. My goal here is just to get you thinking about the topic and to have a general understanding of industry thoughts and best practices.


The primary advice and takeaways from today’s column is to know that:




The general rule of thumb is that a manager can effectively manage about seven people.

If you have more than seven direct reports, consider breaking them into teams.

Not having a traditional reporting structure has the potential to cause issues for your group, your company, and yourself.

For additional information on today’s topic, I suggest the book “Levers Of Organization Design: How Managers Use Accountability Systems For Greater Performance and Commitment,” by Robert Simons.


Until next time, manage well, manage smart, and continue to grow.


Eric P. Bloom, based in Ashland, Mass., is the president and founder of Manager Mechanics LLC. He is also a nationally syndicated columnist, keynote speaker, and author of the award-winning book “Manager Mechanics: Tips and Advice for First-Time Managers.” Contact him at eric@ManagerMechanics.com or visit www.ManagerMechanics.com.