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Span of Control and Organizational Performance

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Span of Control And Organizational Performance


Early management scholars such as Henri Fayol, Lydal Urwick, and Luther Gulick argued that

principles such as specialization of labor and hierarchical leadership structures among others

would result in optimal organizational performance. This perspective was attacked by Herbert

Simon (1946), who argued that the principles of administrative management were vague and

contradictory. Simon=s devastating critique was widely accepted, and scholars soon turned their

attention away from studying the principles of management.

Ironically, little systematic research existed on many of the principles of management at the time

Simon leveled his critique. In this study, our goal is to refocus attention on a particular principle

of management, span of control, most closely associated with Luther Gulick. After discussing the

importance of span of control to our understanding of organizational behavior, we present a

theory that links span of control to organizational performance. We then test our theory by

examining how span of control relationships among personnel in public schools influence

student performance, using data on 678 Texas school districts over a four year period. Our

findings reveal that span of control relationships among organizational personnel significantly

shape student performance.


Ode To Luther Gulick: Span of Control And Organizational Performance

In the early part of the 20th century, management scholars argued that the structural

attributes of bureaucratic organizations played a major role in conditioning organizational

performance. The administrative management movement was at the forefront in calling attention

to the importance of structure as a determinant of organizational performance. Advocates of this

approach--Henri Fayol, Lydal Urwick, and Luther GulickBbelieved that adherence to a core set of

management principles would help organizations achieve optimum performance in working

toward their goals. The principle of division of labor, for example, allows workers to develop

expertise in performing particular tasks. In contrast, charging employees with a wide variety of

unrelated duties inhibits the development of expertise.1 The principle of unity of command

cautions against directives coming from too many superiors because conflicting signals could

arise and lead to confusion among employees. A third principle, span of control, dictates that

superiors should oversee a limited number of subordinates rather than a large number of

subordinates. Monitoring and mentoring the work of subordinates is a less daunting task when

the number of subordinates is small but becomes more difficult when superiors are charged with

overseeing a large number of individuals.

Management scholars claimed that the implementation of these and related principles

would result in organizations characterized by an almost mechanical efficiency, where relations

between superiors and subordinates are clearly defined, workers specialize in particular areas and

have clearly defined roles within organizational hierarchies, and organizational resources are

used in the most efficient manner possible. Although the principles of management were viewed


by some as intuitively appealing guidelines for how to manage organizations, critics of the

approach soon pointed out the weaknesses inherent in these management principles.

In a classic article titled AThe Proverbs of Administration,@ Herbert Simon (1946)

presented a thorough critique of the principles of management approach (see also Waldo 1948).

According to Simon, the principles of management were vague and plagued by contradictions.

With regard to the principle of specialization, for example, Simon pointed to the vagueness and

ambiguities involved in applying this principle in a real-world setting. Specialization might be

defined by place or location, with one employee addressing multiple tasks in a particular

organizational unit. Conversely, specialization could be defined in terms of function, where

individual employees in a particular organizational unit each concentrate their energies on

performing one specific task. Regarding unity of command, Simon argued that this principle

contradicts the principle of specialization. Specialization allows employees to develop expertise

in particular subject areas, yet if these employees are subject to directives from superiors in other

parts of the organization who have no expertise in these areas, the benefits of specialization may

be squandered. In short, Simon argued that for each principle of management, contradictory

principles existed that made just as much, if not more, sense as guidelines for how to manage

organizations. Simon=s critique was viewed as devastating, and the principles of management

school of thought quickly fell out of favor to be replaced by a research focus



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