What’s the Optimal Span of Control for People Managers?

Whats the Optimal Span of Control for People ManagersIf you’re a people manager, here’s a quick question: how many employees report directly to you?

  • One?
  • Five?
  • Fifteen?

That’s your span of control.

Now here’s a not-so-quick question: how many direct reports should a manager have? That’s not as easy to answer.

We wanted to answer that question through the lens of what we know best—employee engagement—so we analyzed the engagement levels of over 20,000 managers across 169 organizations. Keep reading to find out what we discovered.


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How Span of Control Impacts Manager Engagement

Below is a graph showing manager engagement by number of direct reports (ranging from 1 to 14). Because smaller companies often have higher engagement levels than larger companies, the results were also broken out by organizational size.

Whats the Optimal Span of Control for People Managers_graph

We can see what’s called a curvilinear trend. Manager engagement is lowest with 1-2 direct reports, tends to increase bit by bit, peaks at 8-9 direct reports, then decreases.

This trend suggests there’s a sweet spot for span of control: in both smaller and larger organizations, manager engagement peaks with 8-9 direct reports.

You can see the differences in engagement levels are not large. But we do want to call attention to the fact that there are two clear trends:

  • Managers with smaller teams tend to be less engaged
  • Manager engagement peaks with 8-9 direct reports

Why Might Span of Control Impact Manager Engagement?

Some studies suggest that managers can successfully lead 5-9 direct reports, whereas others point toward a cap of 9-12 employees. Coincidentally, U.S. managers have an average of 9-10 direct reports.

Our results—of manager engagement peaking with 8-9 direct reports—align with those studies. In other words, the answer to “how many direct reports should a manager have?” seems to be 8-10 employees.


But why might manager engagement be impacted by span of control? Several hypotheses could explain these results:

Hypothesis 1: Trust.
Managers with more direct reports might believe their organization trusts them with greater responsibilities, relating to higher engagement.
Hypothesis 2: Experience.
Managers with fewer direct reports might be less experienced in managing others, which could cause higher stress and lower engagement.
Hypothesis 3: Team Cohesion.

Having fewer direct reports may not allow managers to create a team spirit or a sense of team self-reliance. Yet having too many direct reports could create sub-cultures or cliques within the team that could lead to more conflict or personality management. Both situations of lower team cohesion could result in lower manager engagement.



Keeping track of the productivity and progression of a large team, let alone developing healthy working relationships with each team member, can sound overwhelming. However, we have just the resource to help you tackle those challenges. Check out our free e-book, The Manager Jackpot: Simple HR Solutions for Building Better Bosses

manager's role in employee engagement

Published September 11, 2019 | Written By Dan Harris, Ph.D.