Span of Managerial Responsibility

In discussing how big a manger’s job should be, it starts out with the observation that one man can supervise only a very small number of people the so-called “span of control”. And this in turn leads to that deformation of management: levels upon levels which impede co-operation and communication stifle the development of tomorrow’s managers and erode the meaning of the management job.

If the manager, however, is controlled by the objective requirements of his own job and measured by his results, there is no need for the kind of supervision that consists of telling a subordinate what to do and then making sure that does it. There is no span of control. A superior could theoretically have any number of subordinates reporting to him. There is, indeed a limit set by the “span of managerial responsibility” (the term was believed to be coined by Dr. H. H Race of General Electric): the number of people whom one superior can assist, teach and help to reach the objectives of their own jobs. This is a real limit; but it is not fixed.

The span of control, we are told, cannot exceed six or eight subordinates. The span of managerial responsibility however, is determined by the extent to which assistance and teaching are needed. It can only be set by a study of the concrete situation. Unlike the span of control, the span of managerial responsibility broadens as we move upward in the organization. Junior managers need the most assistance; their objectives are least to define sharply, their performance least easy to measure concretely. Senior men, on the other hand, have supposedly learned how to do their job; and their objectives can be defined as directly contributing to the business, their performance measured by the yardsticks of business results.

The span of managerial responsibility is therefore wider than the span of control. (H.H Race thinks that the theoretical limit is around a hundred.) And where good practice would counsel against stretching the span of control, a manager should always have responsibility for a few more men than he can really take care of. Otherwise the temptation is to supervise them, that is, to take over their jobs or, at least, to breathe down their necks.

Whether a manager’s subordinates are individuals or teams make no difference in the span of managerial responsibility. However, a team should always have a small number of members. The largest functioning team found a few years ago in business is the Board of Directors of Standard oil. It is a board composed exclusively of full time officers of the company, and it is actually the top management of one of the world’s largest, most complicated and most successful businesses. Hence its membership of fourteen does not seem excessive. Still a team so large can function only if it rigidly disciplines itself. The Standard Oil Board, for instance, never takes any decision except unanimously. For ordinary purposes, however, this procedure is too elaborate. Teams should normally not exceed five or six in number; and they work best, as a rule, if they have three or four members.

A team does not normally make a good superior manager. It should, in other words, have no subordinate managers though individual members of the team may well have them. Assisting and teaching, the elements of managerial responsibility are best performed by an individual.

The manager’s authority encompasses that each manger’s job be given the broadest possible scope and authority is nothing but a rephrasing of the rule that decisions be pushed down as far as possible and be taken as close as possible to the action to which they apply. In its effects, however, this requirement leads to sharp deviation from the traditional concept of delegation from above.