Span of control describes how many subordinates a manager directly supervises. Supervisors managing few employees have a narrow span of control. Those managing many subordinates have a wide span. Span of control isn’t assigned arbitrarily, and there is no one number that signals wide or narrow. The terms are relative, varying between companies. Though the starting point is often four to six employees per supervisor, the small-business owner trying to decide an appropriate span of control should let context rule the choice.

Required Supervision

Often, the deciding factor for whether a span should be wide or narrow lies in the complexity of subordinates’ jobs. A wide span of control may be appropriate if jobs are simple or routine. In such cases, a manager can competently control and oversee many employees. Narrower spans go to those managers in charge of subordinates performing complicated or customized work.


The difference between a narrow or wide span of control may be determined by a manager’s rank. According to the book, “Management: Meeting and Exceeding Expectations,” a vice president, for instance, usually manages fewer than four people while the lower-ranking assembly line supervisor might manage oversee 15. Top managers usually oversee other managers, and managers of any rank tend to do work requiring judgment, creativity and problem resolution. Overseeing managers requires time, especially for communication, limiting the number of subordinates who can be effectively supervised. Thus, the higher an individual ranks, the narrower the span should be.

Control Versus Independence

Narrow and wide spans of control differ in appropriateness according to the independence employees enjoy. Traditional organizations have a strict hierarchy that exerts a lot of control over workers. Such control requires narrower spans -- and a management bureaucracy -- compared with companies that give employees greater freedom. Companies choosing to forgo bureaucracy must necessarily adopt wider spans of control. In the team organizational structure, for instance, a small-business owner would organize employees into teams that hold authority over certain projects or work outcomes. The owner oversees many such teams and has a wide span of control.

Employee Ability

Experienced, well-trained employees need less supervision, allowing for wider spans of control, while new or untrained personnel call for narrower spans. This factor has implications for company structure. A small-business owner considering the team organizational structure, for instance, should understand that forgoing managers in favor of a wide span of control could be a mistake if teams are not adequately trained.

Supervisory Ability

Narrow spans of control go to inexperienced and/or untrained supervisors. These managers need seasoning before they can efficiently manage a wide span of employees. Sometimes a manager, even an experienced one, is not suited for a wide span of control. Such managers may enjoy a hands-on approach or may feel uncomfortable delegating authority.