Maintaining structure

In these harsh economic times some businesses are forced to make some tough decisions concerning their structure. Take for example the lady who provided me with the following information.

“I am in charge of a department of 13 people who work three shifts that span from 8 a.m. until midnight most days. The hours may extend to 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. am if problems arise. I am the sole supervisor so if things go wrong before reporting to work or while I am off work I am still held responsible.

“I believe that this span of control is essentially causing some job dissatisfaction among employees within the department.”

She believes that the majority of her day is spent chasing after and outing fires and as a result she finds it difficult to motivate her staff. This situation is an unfortunate one but one that is very prevalent nonetheless, especially when organisations are using costs reduction strategies. The article this week is about chain of command and span of control.

Firstly, let me explain a bit about chain of command and span of control. The chain of command in an organisation is a line of authority that reaches from the person at the pinnacle of the organisation to the lowest levels. It is supposed to clarify who reports to whom, which in essence is the person an employee goes to when he/she has a problem.

The whole principle behind chain of command is that each manager within the chain has the authority to give orders and expects them to be obeyed. This unity of command helps safeguard the idea of the unbroken line of power within the organisation (Judge & Robbins, 2011).

However, the chain of command situation is slowly becoming obsolete since with access to technology every employee has the means to locate information that years ago only top managers were able to do. So at anytime an employee can approach his/her manager with novel ideas about a product or service that can develop into the status quo of handling new procedures without going through formal channels.

In addition, this new way of managing can empower employees and teams anywhere along the chain to make decisions that can lead to self managing departments which are known to maintain productivity should the formal boss be absent (Judge & Robbins, 2011).

In relation to span of control, this concept refers to the number of levels that fall under the control of a manager. It is normally felt among management that the wider the span the more efficient the organisation becomes. However, this is not always the case, because although a wider span may appear to save money, it does have its drawbacks.

For instance, should the supervisor (like the one in the opening vignette) not have enough time to provide the necessary guidance and support to staff, this may result in a reduction in effectiveness and performance. So it has been suggested that smaller spans of about five or six employees per manager/supervisor would enable the management team to have more control.

This too has its drawbacks. For example management specialists believe that narrow spans of control are expensive because they add more management levels. Moreover, these extra levels can impede vertical communication and hence slow down decision-making processes.

One more disadvantage to small spans of control is the tendency for micro managing where supervisors become overly domineering to such an extent that they discourage creativity and autonomy among employees (Judge & Robbins, 2011).

So you may be asking what can be done. Most management specialists suggest that costs can be reduced and employees can be motivated by simply investing heavily in employee training. This is not surprising, if employees are sufficiently trained in all the requirements of the job they can handle all that is required of them, especially if they are given the necessary autonomy to do so.

May I add that when employees are totally au fait with their job they can be depended on to train others and make suggestions and decisions that may save the organisation thousands of dollars.

So in both cases where span of control is increased and the chain of command has been transformed because of job redesign, training then is the key to such problems. Managers should therefore strive to ensure that staff are well trained and are encouraged to use their judgment and common sense at all times to enable the organisation to function effectively and efficiently at all times.

* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail:, Phone: (246) 436-4215

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