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A good manager is a thread that keeps the company stable; let it thin out and become loose — and watch the company burst at its seams.

Managers thinning out and losing their enthusiasm are likely burned out. This is an important issue to address — and Gallup reports that heavy workload is one of the main burnout causes.

The span of control decides the amount of work managers have on their plates. Ironically, managers’ job consists of burnout prevention in their departments, and they themselves are at the highest risk of burnout at the same time.

This is why it is crucial to keep managerial burnout at bay by creating a sustainable span of control for them.

In this article, we will explain what exactly  span of control is, what can affect it in a good or bad way, and the link between span of control and managerial burnout. To top things off, we’ll show you several ways to improve span of control, so your managers can realize their full potential and escape the murky waters of burnout.

What is Span of Control?

Span of control (SoC) is the number of subordinates that report to a manager.

Much like a juggler, managers need to juggle all team members at the same time. This diverse task consists of work coordination, communication, professional (and sometimes personal) guidance, setting deadlines, and making different important decisions daily. 

Managers also need to stand behind these decisions when reporting to a higher authority — so they’re not only responsible for themselves, but for each team member and their work as well. 

Span of control has two dimensions that relate to your organization’s hierarchy and seniority levels:

  1. Horizontal — referring to the number of subordinates a manager oversees. Span of control is wide if a manager supervises a large number of of staff, and narrow if they only need to supervise a couple of people. 
  2. Vertical — sometimes called “Depth of Control”, refers to the number of levels a manager supervises directly and indirectly. For example, in a marketing department, the CMO has a tall span of control because he needs to approve decisions regarding different marketing aspects, but a Content Manager has a short (and wide) span of control since they’re only supervising writers. 

What Affects Span of Control?

After trying to find the ideal SoC width and height for each industry and department, people have settled on that pesky answer nobody likes to hear:

“It depends.”

The deeper answer is more elaborate than that, and you can’t exactly say “lots of employees = lots of managers”. Deciding the span of control a manager has depends on several important factors:

  • The type of work — Employees assigned with complex tasks require an involved manager, ready to jump in and help. In this case, the manager will get a narrow span of control. For teams with simple tasks, a manager will get a wide span of control.
  • Manager’s skills and experience — An experienced manager can handle a larger number of subordinates and tasks and manage other managers. Also, managers need to share a skillset with their teams and know the nature of employees’ jobs, so they can set realistic goals and expectations.
  • Employee’s knowledge and seniority — When most of the team members are well-versed in what they do, they don’t require a lot of managing, and the manager can take on a big team made of such staff. 
  • The interaction between the manager and staff — If work requires the manager’s immediate attention most of the time, it’s best to allow a narrow span of control. On the other hand, if the work is simple and employees only need short inputs from time to time, managers have a wide span of control.
  • Where the employees work from — Remote work has been a hot topic for the past two years. As plenty of workplaces adapted by developing new ways to manage employees, employees’ location surprisingly became less important.  Managers monitoring employees working from home can use employee web monitoring software and manage remote workers just as easily as they’d monitor staff in person. In fact — using advanced organizational work tools boost managers’ work productivity. Therefore, the span of control is increased.

Managerial Burnout: A Telltale Sign That Span of Control May be Misaligned

Back to juggling! 

Each juggler has their preferred number of balls to juggle with and does so splendidly. When you disrupt this delicate balance and throw more balls at them, they’ll slip and drop all of them.

A similar thing happens to managers. An ill-fitting span of control is a major cause of managerial burnout; if you assign them more work than they can handle or tasks they’re not equipped for, you will soon start to see the first signs of burnout:

  • Unfinished and low-quality tasks are slipping through the cracks, as they have too much work on their hands and are exhausted
  • They appear to be disengaged from work: their concentration is low, professional growth stunted, and they’re uninterested in their future within the company
  • They’re pessimistic, irritable, impatient, anxious, and apathetic
  • The quality of their work, workplace relationships, productivity, and communication drops

How to Improve Span of Control and Alleviate Burnout Symptoms

Burnout recovery is a personal process, and it is important to create an environment where your managers can safely heal and spring back to their old, productive selves. 

But when it comes to work, coming up with a sustainable workload is the answer. You can eliminate trial and error and guesswork by taking a few steps to find out how to correct the span of control:

  1. Analyze the manager’s team, one member at a time
  2. Conduct performance reviews and 360-degree feedback sessions
  3. Utilize employee performance tracking software
  4. Create a continuous feedback system

Let’s elaborate on these steps below.

Analyze the Manager’s Team Members

Sometimes it’s easy to spot the problem by merely scratching the surface. 

If the number of people your manager oversees is too big, and they need to carefully analyze each staff member’s output, you can fix the issue by simply decreasing the team size. 

However, adjusting the span of control won’t always be that easy. In case the number of team members doesn’t create an issue for the manager, you’ll need to examine the staff members individually.

The employee’s experience and professional knowledge exceeding the manager’s topical expertise is a situation we often see in IT and tech teams. Knowing how to manage people who know more about something than you is a special skill that requires constant learning, self-reflection, and objectivity. 

Your manager may not be cut out for it, and their relationship with their team may create an issue for the entire department: you may face repeated bickering, impossible deadlines for the employees, refusal to understand the other side, or letting mistakes slide because the manager can’t uncover them.

If that’s the issue you’re facing, you can solve it in several ways:

  • Developing an educational program for managers, so they can keep up with the complex duties employees are tasked with
  • Adjusting the employee’s role, so they report to someone else
  • Rearranging the team, so the manager has an adequate workload 

Learn From Performance Reviews and 360-Degree Feedback

Performance reviews are great tools to continue learning about your workforce and teams.

Expanding on the previous section, these individual employee assessments can uncover what makes a negative impact on a manager’s span of control. The performance review questions regarding deadlines, workload, manager’s guidance, and other fields managers are typically in charge of will point you to the burnout causes. 

360-degree feedback is even more direct in finding what may be wrong with a manager’s span of control. Repeated complaints about the time allowed to complete the work may suggest the manager is out of touch because they have too much work on their hands. The solution is simple:

  • Create a smaller team for the manager to oversee
  • Adjust the manager’s responsibilities: change the tasks he’s responsible for by streamlining them or focusing them on specific topics, nature, or people

Create a Continuous Feedback Loop

Although they’re great tools you should absolutely use, performance reviews and 360-degree feedback aren’t enough. 

Your staff shouldn’t wait for periodic review and feedback sessions to speak their mind and keep to themselves the rest of the time. A continuous feedback loop is a far more effective, faster, and more practical solution to managers’ daily issues.

Holding a weekly 30-minute meeting to recap everything from the previous week and prepare for the next one can do wonders for your team. These meetings allow you to get in touch with your team more personally, and resolve the issues instantly, while they’re still small.

Use Remote Team Monitoring Software

Should managers use software to monitor employee internet activity?

By all means! Online employee monitoring takes too much time managers can use for high-quality work instead. Leaving this to a powerful, cheat-proof software saves plenty of time and decreases the task lists in managers’ favor.

Using this tool can help adjust and optimize span of control by discovering unhealthy work patterns. Working too much, too little, or on an odd schedule that doesn’t match the rest of the workforce may be the first signs that a manager's span of control is out of balance and leading to burnout.  

At the same time, monitoring software can reveal the actual culprits for misaligned span of control, and help create a manageable workload. 

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