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Control Theory can be traced back to the days of Plato, and evolved from the process of mechanics.  Modern Control Theory originated from Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics, which in Greek means the art of steering.  Wiener defined cybernetics as the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine (Cybernetics, 2011) .  Control Theory is a motivational theory that focuses on an individual's ability to steer or control their situation or circumstances in order to reach specific goals.  This is accomplished through a feedback loop, which is considered the building block of action.  The fundamentals of this feedback loop include four elements:  a sensor or input function, a referent standard or goal, a comparator, and an effector or output function (Klein, 1989).  The Control Theory Wiki describes these four components of the feedback loop in more detail under "Control Theory Components".  When goals are achieved and the comparator matches personal achievement with the referent standard, retirement is reached.  If a goal is not reached then an error signal is indicated, and the individual will try to achieve the goal using different output.  It should be noted that sometimes retirement cannot be reached.  There are also two specific elements of control which are cognitive and affective.  Basically, control mechanisms put forward by supervisors such as imposed goals on employees can initiate the feedback loop which can in turn lead to improved performance and attainment of those goals (retirement).  These elements relate to goals and discrepancies, and are described further in the Control Theory Wiki under "Link Between Goals and Behaviors".  The following case study will demonstrate this feedback loop and describe Control Theory in more detail.

Details of Case

Josh, a team member at a local retail store wants to be promoted. He has been working on a trailer unloading team for a year and feels he is ready to take on more responsibility. He asks his supervisor as well as other supervisors for feedback, and they all tell him he needs to broaden his knowledge of the store. Josh is confident that he has a full understanding of the unloading team's responsibilities and so he transfers to another team that is responsible for setting new aisles, called the presentation team. Josh is the team leader, and he is told he needs to first learn the team's process, and then begin changing how the team is completing tasks to improve their productivity.

Josh’s first assignment is to make sure the presentation team is reaching their short-term goal, which is completing their workload of setting five aisles a day. While performing his analysis, he notices an issue in the team’s productivity.  The team is only setting three aisles a day, so they are not meeting their short-term goal of setting aisles in a timely manner. Josh begins setting aisles faster on his own, and when the team starts meeting their daily goals he asks his supervisor for feedback. She tells him that as a leader he can’t execute all of the tasks by himself and he must train the team to execute at the same level that he is. Josh takes this into account, and the next day instead of working faster to compensate for the team’s lack of urgency, he provides guidance to team members for setting new aisles and gives the team feedback on their work. In a few months time, Josh sees improvement and the team starts to meet their short-term productivity goal of five aisles a day.  As a result of the team meeting their short-term goals, Josh is able to focus on the team's long-term goals of streamlining process to increase productivity beyond five aisles a day.


Breaking Down the Feedback Loop

When Josh is transferred to the presentation team his assignment is to focus on the teams short-term goal.  When making this evaluation, Josh uses sensors to determine the status of the team's goal achievement.  A sensor is making a general analysis of the current situation, and represents the beginning of the feedback process according to Klein's feedback loop (p. 151).  Josh observes the team's current output of completing three aisles a day, and finds a discrepancy between the current rate of performance and the referent standard of five aisles per day.  Here the goal of five aisles a day is the referent standard, and the comparator is the process of comparing the referent standard to the team's current output.  There are three results in the comparison process (Carver & Scheir, 1981).  Upon comparison, the individual will either be  (a) on target to meet goal, (b) behind schedule, or (c) ahead of schedule (Klein, 1989).  In Josh's case, he discovers they are behind schedule.  Josh's output function kicks in and he changes his behavior by working harder and faster to compensate for the team's inability to reach their goal.  Once the goal of five aisles a day is achieved, Josh receives feedback from his supervisor that he will not be able to sustain the five aisles a day because one person cannot carry the load continuously for the rest of the group.  This negative feedback restarts the loop and motivates Josh to fix the discrepancy. He starts to work with the team by giving them feedback and spending one-on-one time with them for training. This feedback and training is called an effector, and is aimed at trying to achieve the goal or referent standard.   Josh's feedback is successful and the employees reach retirement of their short-term goal of five aisles per day.

Klein also describes Control Theory as a theory of behavior stating “there are two primary elements of control: one cognitive and the other affective. The cognitive component consists of internal goals while the affective component arises from perceived discrepancies between one’s desires and current states,” (p. 151). In Josh’s case, the cognitive element was his internal goal to improve himself and become more knowledgeable of the business while meeting his team's short-term goal of producing five aisles a day. The affective element was the discrepancy between the presentation team’s current level of productivity and Josh’s goal of expected productivity.

Hierarchical Structure of Goals

Control theory indicates that goal setting and feedback should not only be integrated, but that they are inseparable (Klein, p. 155).  In Diefendorff’s (2003) article Understanding the Emotional Labor Process: A Control Thoery Perspective, Diefendorff clarifies “a central tenet of control theory is that goals are hierarchically arranged, with short-term, behavioral goals being regulated by feedback loops lower in the hierarchy, and long-term, abstract goals being regulated by feedback loops higher in the hierarchy,” (p. 947). This means short-term goals are reached before long-term goals can be effectively reached. In Josh’s case, he must reach the short-term goal of completing each day’s workload of five aisles a day before reaching the long-term goal of streamlining processes and working more efficiently to set more than five aisles a day. He accomplishes this by providing training and giving his team members feedback to improve their efforts.

Importance of Providing Feedback

In order to meet short-term as well as long-term goals, Josh receives feedback from his supervisors that he has to work one-on-one with team members instead of compensating for their lack of urgency. Sandelands (1991) article Control Theory and Social Behavior in the Workplace, Sandelands quotes Louis stating "there are often times when an individual is unable to perform either the sensor function, e.g., because the task itself does not provide him/her with direct feedback, or the comparator function, e.g., because he/she is new to the job and has not yet internalized the appropriate referent goals," (p. 1109). The team members are not receiving adequate feedback regarding their lack of urgency to complete the task, so Josh acts as the sensor and provides them with the feedback. Working with each team member one-on-one allows Josh to individualize feedback so he can gauge individual results as opposed to group results initially. Sandelands (1991) states "the supervisor of course acts in a different and more complicated way. He/she does not react unreflectively to a performance discrepancy, but rather responds based on an interpretation of what the discrepancy means, and this depends on the particular situation in which it occurs," (p. 1110). After receiving feedback from his supervisor, Josh reflects on the feedback, and begins to engineer a way to reduce the discrepancy so that both he and the team can meet their short-term goal.  The supervisors feedback, as well as Josh's strategy to reduce the discrepancy demonstrates the impact and importance of the feedback loop.


As exemplified in the above case study, the Control Theory works hand in hand with the Goal-Setting Theory. When an employee’s goal is not met, he/she looks at the reason why there is a discrepancy in the execution of the task and the goal set. The referent standard is used as the goal in which the employee wants to meet. In Josh’s case, he noticed a discrepancy in his feedback loop when his supervisor told him he could not shoulder the load of setting five aisles per day and was forced to repeat the feedback loop until retirement was reached. By integrating the Goal-Setting Theory with the Control Theory, a human element is added.  In fact, Pinder (2008) says the theory is part emotional in nature.  Emotions become involved when employees meet their goals and feel pride and accomplishment or when they fail and feel sadness or shame (Redmond, 2011).  In this case, Josh was able to achieve retirement of his goals as well as the goals of his team.  The Control Theory is a good explanation of how employees like Josh process feedback and work to achieve goals.


Carver, C.S., & Scheier, M.F. (1981) Attention and self-regulation:  A control theory approach to human behavior.  New York:  Springer-Verlag. 

Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Diefendorff, J. and Gosserand, R. (2003) Understanding the emotional labor process: A control theory perspective. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24, 945-959.

Klein, H.J. (1989).  An integrated control theory model of work motivation.  Academy of Management, 14, 150-172.

Pinder, C. C. (2008). Work motivation in organizational behavior. New York: Psychology Press.

Redmond, B. F. (2011). Lesson 9: Control theory. Work Attitudes and Motivation. The Pennsylvania State University, World Campus.

Sandelands, L., Glynn, M. A., & Larson, J. R. (1991). Control theory and social behavior in the workplace. Human Relations, 44(10), 1107-1130.

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