By Doug Kirkpatrick, US Partner at NuFocus Strategic Group
According to Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, US companies today have an average span of control -- the number of people reporting to a supervisor -- of 9.7, rising as high as 11.4 at large companies. These findings are congruent with research reported by authors Gary L. Neilson and Julie Wulf in 2012, where they noted that the CEO's average span of control, measured by the number of direct reports, has doubled, rising from about five in the mid-1980s to almost 10 in the mid-2000s.
Concurrently, virtually every survey of employee engagement shows 60-70 percent of U.S. employees are disengaged at work. The Gallup organization reported that a majority of employees, 51 percent, were still "not engaged" and 17.5 percent were "actively disengaged" in 2014. Gallup estimates the cost of disengagement at more than $450 billion per year -- a staggering number.
Do managers affect engagement? Victor Lipman, author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World, devoted an entire chapter to the fact that people leave managers, not companies. He highlights the centrality of the relationship between manager and employee as a critical factor in the disengagement epidemic.
The troubled relationship between management and engagement begs a question for organizational leaders: how's all that management control working for you?
Since management is a relatively inefficient but necessary function, it's worth understanding a few of the drivers for new methods of controlling (and planning, organizing, selecting and coordinating) than the typical "span of control" method.
Complexity. The world is becoming vastly more complex at an accelerating rate. Atul Gawande, in his brilliant book The Checklist Manifesto, writes that with over 13,000 diagnosable ways for the human body to fail, the biggest challenge for medicine is managing complexity. Human knowledge is doubling, on average, every 13 months. According to IBM, the buildout of the "internet of things" will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.
The explosive, exponential growth of this information will necessitate the development of vastly more complex software, shareability, and artificial intelligence. Not only the volume, but also the speed of communication is increasing. Scientists recently demonstrated the possibility of three-way quantum communication -- sending data in multiple directions over vast distances faster than the speed of light. In what sense, exactly, will a manager even be able to "control" subordinates in such a world?
It's very nice that the average span of control has doubled from five to ten since the 1980s. In a quantum world, such an improvement will be virtually meaningless.
Economics. Gary Hamel recently wrote about the management tax -- the relatively inefficient, yet expensive cost burden paid by companies for the privilege of having people manage other people. A manager, for example, might be paid two or three times the amount paid to his or her subordinates. At a span of control of one manager for every ten subordinates, a company that grows from ten workers plus one manager will find itself with ten managers once it gets to one hundred workers.
But wait, there's more! Now the ten managers will themselves need a manager, who will obviously earn more than his or her direct reports. Following the standard logic of the "1-to-10 span of control", every time an organization grows by a factor of ten, it needs to add another layer of management -- the least efficient activity of any organization. No wonder the employee disengagement disease keeps spreading with few visible signs of remission.
Neuroscience. Neuroscience can examine the problem of management from two perspectives: that of the controller and that of the controlee.
Dr. Ian Robertson has discovered that there is a biological basis to the addiction of power. It turns out that in both men and women, the exercise of power increases both the levels of testosterone and 3-androstanediol (a testosterone by-product). This chemical surge, in turn, increases dopamine levels -- a short-term reward for the brain. Unfortunately, the addiction to power can simulate the physical addiction to cocaine -- producing short-term euphoria but also leading to arrogance, impatience, egocentricity and lack of empathy. Most sentient adults have observed such suboptimal behavior in organizational leaders of all kinds -- with negative effects everywhere.
On the other side of the coin, the journal Nature recently published an article describing an updated version of the famous Milgram experiments (which demonstrated that people are surprisingly willing to cause harm to others when ordered to do so). Cognitive neuroscientist Patrick Haggard found that people feel a reduced sense of responsibility when carrying out the orders of another person. According to Haggard, "It seems like your sense of responsibility is reduced whenever someone orders you to do something -- whatever it is they are telling you to do." A reduced sense of responsibility sounds an awful lot like...disengagement.
Managers exercising coercive power as part of their "span of control" -- including the ability to unilaterally direct, discipline and fire, should take note. Millions of employees are watching, and disengaging.
Philosophy. Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block write that motivation is an individual choice, not an environmental condition. They argue that everyone has a choice in how they react to everything, including how to react to bad managers (and given the Gallup statistics, it appears that millions of people are choosing to react to bad managers by disengaging). If their premise is correct, then the vast sums of money US companies spend training managers how to motivate "their" people is essentially wasted.
Instead of training managers how to motivate people, leaders could simply recognize that people are individual, living freedoms. The future is calling on organizations to let people manage themselves and to be fully accountable for their work. If people know what to do and how to do it, guess what: they don't need a boss. If they need to learn what to do and how to do it, they still don't need a boss -- a coach or mentor will do. When it comes to work, they will either engage or not. It's their choice, always.
Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Clinging to command-and-control structures in a quantum world may qualify for Einstein's definition of insanity. At some point, management will no longer be about span of control -- because it's melting into a span of uncontrol.
There are increasing numbers of companies pursuing new ways of working, many with spectacular results. Google the term "teal organizations" for about 279,000,000 results worth of information about the workplace of the future. Pro tip: the future of work is not about the span of control.
Doug Kirkpatrick is the author of Beyond Empowerment, The Age of the Self-Managed Organization. He is an organizational change consultant, TEDx and keynote speaker, executive coach, writer, educator and SPHR.
He played the first season of his business career in the manufacturing sector, principally with The Morning Star Company of Sacramento, California, a world leader in the food industry, as a financial controller and administrator. He now engages with the Morning Star Self-Management Institute, Great Work Cultures, The Center for Innovative Cultures and other vibrant organizations and leaders to co-create the future of management. Contact Doug at Twitter @Redshifter3.