Management Myth 23: You Can Manage Any Number of People as a Manager

“Cindy, I need to add three more people to your team.” Patrick, the CTO, leaned in the doorway. He turned, about to walk away.

“Wait a sec. We need to discuss this. You don’t get to drop that bombshell and leave. Why do you want me to hire more people?” Cindy looked concerned.

“No, I don't want you to hire anyone,” Patrick said. “I'm moving them over from Tranh's team. He's not coaching them well. You coach your team well. He's not. I want you to manage them.”

“If you give me three more people, I won't be able to coach them properly. I won't have time,” Cindy replied. “You don't want me to make team leads, which I don't understand. I'll have twelve people, which is too many. No. I don't want them. Give them to someone else or let me manage my team the way I want.”

Patrick walked in and sat down. ‘What do you mean, ‘manage the way you want’? I don't interfere with you.”

Cindy snorted. “Sure you do. You have all kinds of rules. I can't have team leads. I must have a minimum of three people to manage. I must write code, no matter how many people I manage or what else I'm doing for you.

“None of your rules makes sense in an agile organization. None of these helps me manage the project portfolio or provide coaching or career development or the kind of feedback that makes sense. They don't help me help the product owners or the program managers. They don't help me work on the architectural decisions for where the product is going—even though I only facilitate those decisions.

“I only have one-on-ones biweekly with my team. I don't have time for more than that. And I don't have time for any more management work I should be doing. You don’t have time to meet with me. You keep canceling our one-on-ones. When you’re free, I’m not.

“And my ‘team’ isn't just one team. It's two cross-functional teams. I work with the testers as well as the developers. I don't know how to coach the BAs that well, so I don't. So, no—no, thank you,” Cindy concluded. “I am up to my eyeballs. I can't manage more people without relaxing some of your rules. I don’t want to manage any more people. Give them to someone else.”

What Do First-Line Managers Do?

I wish there were a consensus on what first-line managers do. There isn’t even a consensus on the title for these folks. Some first-line managers are managers. Some are called leads. Some code or test if they are functional managers for development or test teams, even in an agile environment.

For some teams, their manager is the way they learn “how to do things here.” They have not learned that pairing or a buddy system or swarming or mob programming is just as effective, if not more, than manager-led coaching. Why? Because that's how their manager learned. And their manager, the current director or senior manager, got that promotion because he or she was the most valuable technical person. (Do you see how these myths propagate themselves?)

Filling a first-line manager’s day is not effective. The relationship a person has with his or her first-line manager is the best way to know if that person is happy at work.

And, if a first-line manager is busy doing the work, how can the manager delegate work and responsibility to someone else?

What’s a Reasonable Number of People to Manage?

As always with a juicy question like that, the answer is “It depends.” It depends on how mature the manager is and how mature the team is. If the first-line manager is learning how to be a manager, the manager needs to practice with fewer people. Why? The manager needs to learn how to not interfere. That’s difficult enough with three or four people. It’s close to impossible if a new manager has more people because the temptation to insert yourself into all decisions is impossible to resist.

If you’ve been a manager for a while and you know how to coach people and you’re comfortable being a manager, it’s OK to manage up to eight or nine people. Once you try to manage more than nine people, you start searching for time in your week to meet with people one on one. You have to delegate more to the people on your team. You can do it, but it’s more stressful for you and your team.

To me, more people says that it’s time to look at the configuration of the team and ask if it should look like something else. It’s time to delegate more responsibility to others.

People Want to Learn

I meet many people looking for new jobs, many of them young in their careers. Quite a few say, “I’m ready for more responsibility. I want more challenge. But there’s nowhere to go. My manager won’t let me learn. My manager keeps my under his thumb.”

Maybe one of the problems with managers learning to delegate is that their managers think they must manage a gazillion people and still maintain their technical skills.

Whether you manage three people or thirty-three people, remember this: People deserve a chance to grow and learn. One of your jobs as a manager is to facilitate their learning.

You Are Not the Sole Source of Knowledge

Many first-line managers see themselves as the expert, as the sole source of knowledge for their group. You may have started as the expert. However, as soon as you become a manager, you want to start moving out of that expert’s seat—and you don’t want to move anyone else into it.

Spread the expertise love. Ask people to work together. This is easy on an agile team, where people are likely to pair or swarm on features. If you don’t have an agile team, ask who is interested in acquiring new knowledge. Remember, unless you have a toxic environment, people want to learn new skills. If no one wants to learn what you know, that is information for you. Maybe your expertise is outdated, or the workplace is hostile, or people are already looking for other jobs. Use your one-on-ones to determine what’s going on.

Build Trusting Relationships With Your Team

Your management position, first-line or not, is about building trusting relationships. If you start managing more than nine people, you are in danger of not being able to build those relationships.

While this affects first-line managers more than it affects more senior managers, it’s a management problem. It requires problem solving and leadership. And that’s what management is for, right?

5 Replies to “Management Myth 23: You Can Manage Any Number of People as a Manager”

  1. I can so relate to this as I am an ASO3 managing a dysfunctional team of 23 staff (casual and part-time equating to 14.5fte) and after 2 months of being in the role and not familiar with the health system I was threatened to be put on performance management for not achieving my timelines. Reality is I am dealing with issues daily and used my evenings to get my work done and try to create systems that are more streamlined to save my time. Now they deny this is even the case. I cannot find any information that can help me in this.

    1. Lorelle, consider these possibilities: Ask what’s first, second, third; create three teams; and ask the teams for results.

      1. Ask your boss to define the results that he/she wants in some rank order. “All of it” is not an answer. What does your boss want, 1, 2, 3, etc. Now, depending on the number of teams you have (I suspect 3 or 4), explain to your boss you won’t do any more than the number of teams you have. See Visualize Your Work So You Can Say No and the other posts in that series.
      2. Of the 23 staff, do some people naturally work together in teams? If so, organize them into teams and appoint a technical leader if not a manager. (I would prefer managers, but I suspect that’s not going to happen.) Now, you deal with the managers/leads, and they deal directly with the people. I assume you have 3 teams, maybe 4. You do not have 5 teams. You have 23 people, many of whom are part-time. This is where you can use the 14.5 FTE number. I like teams of 4-6 people. Your 14.5 FTE translates into 3 teams of 5. Since some of your people are part-time, make 3 teams. Now, assign each team one of those initiatives as in #1.

      One option: Put all the part-time people on one team and let them figure out how to work together. That way, the other two teams are all full-time people and their throughput will be higher.

      The leads/managers build one-on-one relationships with the 23 people. You build relationships with the 3 leads. Now you all have manageable work as managers.

      1. Ask for the results you want. Do not try to tell people what to do or how to do their jobs. You don’t have the domain expertise, so don’t do it. Instead, focus on the results you want. Here is a “script” you can consider:

      Hi team, I would like these results (for project #1) this week. Let me check with you:
      – Is this possible? (If not, ask what is possible.)
      – Do you have the information and the tools you need to deliver those results? (If not, discover what they need. Ask them to start while you get them what they need.)
      – If anyone asks you to do anything else, say, “Sorry, you need to ask Lorelle about that. I’m focused on this project with my team. I can’t take on any extra work. Please talk to Lorelle.”

      You can’t make people deliver anything. You can ask them to do so.

      I suspect you have project portfolio problems up the wazoo. You have managers thinking in resource efficiency (which is why you have so many part-time people) instead of flow efficiency. I am sure people are multitasking. You haven’t had time to learn the domain because I suspect you are putting out fires.

      Your managers are not doing their job. Threatening people has never been effective. On the other hand, you can do yours. Get people to focus on the work at hand, not anything else. Your managers can get at maximum 3 projects/feature sets, not more than the number of teams.

      And, if you can’t change your organization’s choices, you can change your choice of organization. Good luck. Do let us know how you’re doing.

  2. Thank you for your feedback however the team are all base level operational admin staff and I am only one level higher. They are already grouped in functional areas across the hospital however none will take on higher level ‘management’ type responsibilities as the management don’t reward this type of behaviour with payment (we work for government). Someone has tried before and has been put in her place and roles removed from her (and bullied) even before I commenced.

    I am not even considered a manager just a supervisor. I had to walk out as the higher level management kept setting me up to fail by not acknowledging my lack of time and my creative solutions to achieve my timeframes. Their answer was ‘everyone manages interruptions so you are no different’.

    I inherited a team that had 10 years of this type of behaviour and lack of management recognition prior to my commencement. When I came in I said I would be different and not ignore them and they were skeptical. But when management threatened my job and my hours were over 60 per week (with no pay recognition as I was only paid for 30) it was too much.

    I have not been able to find a study which states how many staff are reasonable for 1 person to manage when they are a low level. They have not admitted what they have done and have continued the bullying by trying to make me sound like it was my fault and sending me to a psychiatrist for reports.

    It is so wrong that managers can get away with this and in all my time in government I have never experienced this and was valued by past managers and worked 3 levels higher than I currently am.

    I have also learnt I am a Leader not a Manager ie I am consultative, create systems and coach staff to improve efficiencies. When I see something is inefficient I can’t just continue the status quo. I was brought in to improve the team and boost morale and then with a change of first line supervisor (not the key bully) the rule book changed without me being told.

    Hope that makes sense. If you know of any studies I could use to fight this discrimination I would be most grateful.


    1. Lorelle, there are two pieces of this problem: what is the “optimal” team size; and how many people can a manager manage?

      See to see the rough answer is “6” for team size. That’s because everyone on a team needs to build relationships with each other. Now, if your team is not interdependent—if they each work alone—that’s a different problem.

      If your management doesn’t value your work, why do you continue to work there? (I have had times when I hung onto a bad job for too long because that’s where I got health insurance.)

      If your manager doesn’t value your work, please do consider changing your job. You’ve been fighting this for a couple of years now. You’re not succeeding. Why not find a new job? With people like this, a study won’t change their minds. You can change your circumstances.

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