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 Control Theory and Work Motivation 

Control Theory Overview:

The idea of Control Theory has been around for centuries, but Modern Control Theory as we know it was started by Norbert Wiener's 1948 Cybernetics. Control Theory has been applied to a multitude of studies including but not limited to: biology, engineering, mathematics, and of course psychology.  In fact, the theory was first introduced to describe how systems work by breaking them down and showing how each piece of the system works together to work as one. In the beginning it was implemented into technological and physical subjects; it was not until the 1980's that it was used in social sciences. It was Howard Klein who finally began to integrate Control Theory into organizational psychology(PSU, WC, L9, 2014).

Klein believed that human beings were in fact, a system, which could be broken down into pieces and Control Theory could be used to describe the relationship between each piece. Secondly, systems are self-regulating , and therefore people will react to change and behave in such a way to reestablish equilibrium within the system (PSU, WC, L9, 2014).


Components of Control Theory:

The concept of Control Theory suggests that individuals are constantly seeking feedback in reference to their actions. This feedback is utilized to set goals, which then causes an adjustment of behaviors to align to goal achievement. This process describes what is known as a feedback loop in Control Theory. Feedback loops take system outputs into consideration; enabling the system to adjust its performance to meet a desired output response. Once the desired response is achieved, the individual enters a state of retirement; which refers to the lack of discrepancy between the person’s goals and actual achievements. Once the individual has reached the retirement state, the feedback loop will be closed and they can continue with the currently successful behavior (PSU, WC, L9, 2014).

The feedback loop is key in this process; below is an illustration showing how Klein (1989) breaks the process into four basic elements: 


Elements of Control Theory:

Sensor (Input Function) - This starts the process of the feedback loop by a sensor entering (hearing, sight, touch, etc.). In other words, anything that is being compared to an expected or known goal can start this process, and it will not end until Homeostasis is reached (PSU, WC, L9, 2014).

Referent Standard - This is where the known goal or standard will be. Any information being passed along the feedback loop will stop in the Comparator and be compared to this standard. If the information matches the standard then it will enter a state of Retirement which will mean that the information has achieved the known goal. Retirement indicates that there is no discrepancy between the person's goals and their actual achievement. (PSU, WC, L9, 2014) 

Comparator - This function of the feedback loop is where the information will go to be compared to the Referent Standard, if there are errors or differences in theses two then the information will continue on the path toward the Effectors. This will continue to happen until the information and the standard are acceptable, until then it will keep being moved to the Effector until it is fixed and optimal efficiency is reached.

Effectors (Output Functions) - The information only moves on to this stage if there was a discrepancy between the information and the Referent Standard. If that occurs than an "error signal" will be created and the person will want to fix this discrepancy (Effector.) The point of this Effector is to minimize the differences in the information and Referent Standard. Once the differences in the information are fixed, then the Effectors will not be needed for that information and no "error signal" will be created. 


Case Study:

Sidney is a sales associate at 123 Financial. Sidney has been successful at meeting and exceeding sales goals with the company for almost five years. In the past five years, 123 Financial has set quarterly revenue goals for the sales associates; giving them three months to meet revenue quotas. The sales associates were also provided with a structured incentive plan that included an incentive payout based on the total revenue they generated on a quarterly basis; and the revenue values are distinct for each product sold.

Based on the company’s current structure, Sidney developed a system to meet the company’s goal standard and her personal incentive goal. However, this year the company has changed their goal standards and sales associates now have a monthly revenue quota and incentive plan.

Sidney is now expected to produce $60,000 in revenue each month; in order to earn the incentive payout that she is used to, she wants to produce $75,000 in revenue. In the third week of the first month, she realizes that she has only produced $50,000 in revenue; meaning she is $25,000 short of her stretch goal. Therefore, Sidney decides to target clients with high revenue product needs so she increases her outbound calls to such targeted clients in hopes to close the gap in revenue.


Analysis of Case Study:

Control Theory tells us that feedback is utilized to set goals, which then causes an individual to shift their behavior in the direction of goal achievement (PSU, WC, L9, 2014). The feedback loop described repeats itself until the desired response is achieved. Once the desired response is achieved, the individual enters a state equilibrium or homeostasis; which closes the feedback loop and allows the individual to continue the current successful behavior (PSU, WC, L9, 2014). In this case study, Sidney had been in a state of retirement prior to the new changes in the organization. She was not only meeting, but also exceeding the goals set by her organization; therefore there were no discrepancies between her goals and actual achievements. Unfortunately, the structure of her goals changed which caused the re-entry into the feedback loop. Once Sidney had a monthly revenue goal of $60,000, it was considered the referent standard, or known goal. When she noticed that she only produced $50,000 in revenue, this is the sensor; which is the triggering of the appraisal process. Sidney then compared her actual production ($50,000) to her stretch goal ($75,000) in the comparator function. The comparator function is where the information will go to be compared to the referent standard. When there is a discrepancy between the goal and the actual achievement, this triggers action to take place in the effector function. When Sidney determined that there was a discrepancy between her goal and actual achievement, she decided to target clients with high-revenue-product needs and made more phone calls to those clients. Sidney’s actions to adjust her behavior by making phone calls represented her effector function of the feedback loop. This process would repeat until a new retirement state, $75,000 in revenue sales, is achieved.


Open Loop Versus Close Loop Control Systems:

Open Loop: A control system that does not use feedback to determine if its output has reached the goal of what it was trying to achieve. This means that the system does not observe the output of the processes that it is controlling. Consequently, a true open-loop system does not analyze and learn; therefore it does not correct any errors that it could or would make.

EXAMPLE: An example of an open loop control system would be a light switch; in which the input is the action of pressing or flipping a switch and the output is light from the filament of the bulb. The light switch whether or not it is dark or light will turn on and stay on until it has been switched off and it does not adjust to any other elements.

 Closed Loop: A control system that utilizes feedback, which consists of: input, output, a controlled element, and feedback. The feedback is used to make decisions about changes to the control signal that drives the plant, making adjustments to meet the desired goal.

EXAMPLE: An example of a closed loop control system would be a heating system that has a thermostat.  A thermostat would measure the room’s temperature and compare it to the set desired temperature wanted; in this case we want the room set at 70 degrees. If the room became too cold and dropped below 70 degrees, the thermostat would turn the heating on and if the temperature became too hot and went above 70 degrees, the system would be turned off.

Open Loop vs. Closed Loop Video   




Strengths and Weaknesses of Control Theory


The Control Theory explains how people themselves are systems that can be broken down into subcategories.  Furthermore, if people can be broken down into subcategories than each category can be analyzed and the input can be changed to reach the desire goal. The basis of Control Theory assumes that people are looking for feedback on their performance, which then closed loop feedback strengthens the possibility of reaching the desired goal. When feedback is specific in evaluating job performance and points out consistently the improvement of the person achieving their goal, the feedback in turn motivates the individual to continue their commended actions and improve on the areas that are challenging to them. Control Theory is similar to Goal-Setting Theory, which continues to be one of the most popular and utilized theories of motivation in the workplace.


Researchers have pushed back on use of Control Theory due to them not finding humans and machine processes to be regulated by the same forces. Feedback can be considered both a strength and weakness; for instance, if the feedback is negative, this can be discouraging and demotivate the person in continuing to want to reach the desired goal.



There has been great resistance when it comes to use of Control Theory being used in psychology in regards to work motivation. For decades, the idea of people being part of a social system/machine has existed, it is the validity for Control Theory in other domains such as engineering and computers that has not been met with full acceptance. Large names in the science of motivation such as Locke, Latham, and Bandura are the main advocates of resisting the use of Control Theory in psychology; and as a result, a pattern of resistance was created among the community of researchers. While Control Theory may be useful, in order for it not to be resisted, more motivation scientists need to examine the theory more closely, design tests that relate to human motivation, and collect the data and evidence that will tell us whether this theory is applicable to the study of motivation in human beings or should be left to the realm of physics (PSU, WC, L9, 2014).



 Barr, Michael. "Pulse Width Modulation," Embedded Systems Programming, September 2001, p. 103.


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


 Pennsylvania State World Campus (2014). Psych 484 Lesson 9: Control Theory: how do I regulate my behavior? 

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