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Control theory is used in many disciplines. The original control theory was applied to physical systems such as circuit boards, machinery, and other mechanical devices. The theory’s main purpose was to help clarify the roles of the pieces of systems in physics, engineering, and other related sciences (PSU WC L9, 2012). Eventually control theory was recognized as relevant to human behavior and began to integrate into psychology studies. In the late 1980’s it was accepted into the field of industrial and organizational psychology when Klein (1989) synthesized the ideas of the theory itself and its application to organizations (PSU WC L9, 2012).

Control theory in I/O psychology assumes several things when it comes to human behavior in the work place. First, that human beings are a system in and of themselves and second, that society is also a system (PSU WC L9, 2012). This allows the system to be viewed as small groups and the relationship between those groups can be understood as individual pieces. This allows for us to correlate how these pieces work together in the overall system. The last assumption is that systems are self-regulating; meaning that people and their organizations will behave in ways that aim to reestablish equilibrium in the system when change occurs (PSU WC L9, 2012).

Elements of Basic Control Theory

The basic idea of control theory is that people are constantly seeking feedback on their actions (PSU WC L9, 2012). When someone notices the feedback given to them, they should set goals that would motivate their behaviors into achieving those goals. The main purpose of the goal is to achieve what is called retirement. Retirement is when there is no discrepancy between the person’s goals and their actual achievements (PSU WC L9, 2012).  Once retirement is reached the feedback loop is closed and equilibrium is established. The feedback loop is a channel or pathway formed by an effect returning to its cause and generating either more or less of the same effect (Lapp, 2008). The four basic elements in the feedback loop in basic control theory are referent standards, sensors, comparator, and effector (Klein, 1989).

The referent standard is the current goal one wants to achieve (PSU WC L9, 2012).  Setting proper goals are key components in order to achieve retirement and close the feedback loop. There are several factors that are necessary in order for goals to lead to good performance. Goal acceptance, goal specificity, goal difficulty, and feedback are all things to consider when setting goals for people (PSU WC L6, 2012). Setting clear goals that everyone can buy into, making them attainable and giving feedback are all part of setting proper goals.

The second element is the sensor. The sensor input is the feedback and current results of a job. The sensor is the data from performance behavior and indicates if the goal was met (PSU WC L9, 2012). The feedback would be given upon the completion of a project and could be positive or negative depending on the results. The sensor’s main job is to give the current results which allow you to compare the results later.

The third element is the comparator. The comparator is when you compare the current state (sensor) to the actual goals. According to Miller (1960), there are three results when comparing the performance to the goal. The individual is on target toward meeting the goal, the individual is behind, and the individual has met or is ahead of the schedule (Klein, 1989). At this point, if the comparator findings match up to the goals being set then retirement is achieved and the feedback loop is closed.

The last element is the effector. The effector are the actions taken by a person in order to make sure that behaviors or actions are aimed at reducing the discrepancy between the information (sensor) and the referent standard (PSU WC L9, 2012). If there is a discrepancy and the performance has not reached the goal, there will be an error notifying that action is needed. The error can be alerted in a couple of ways. If a person is not going to meet his or her goal then that person realizes the discrepancy and makes the appropriate change to meet the goal. The person did not recognize the error, but a superior should. The superior would then alert the person not meeting the goals and make the adjustments in order for the person to meet them.

Case Study

Steven is a city construction supervisor who oversees eight crews of construction teams who perform various tasks for the City’s service department. Steven has been looking over the work reports completed over the last six months and his attention is drawn to two crews specifically. All of Stevens’s crews have a goal of being able to complete all work orders within a 15 day time period from when the work order is first received. Unfortunately Steven’s two crews in question have completed only 35% of the work orders on time. The two crews in question are one of his asphalt repair crews and one of his sidewalk maintenance crews. Steven looks at the other crews that do similar work and sees that the other crews are able to complete the majority of their work orders on time over the last six months. There is a drastic difference in comparison to the two crews whose work orders are behind.

Steven realizes the need for action and designs a plan to execute. He first checks his goals and whether they are obtainable for each crew. Since he has similar crews doing the same work he assumes that the goals are obtainable and the crews in question are not meeting their goals. Steven then calls the two suspect crews in for a conference and will inform them of what he is seeing. Each crew is brought in separately and Steven lays down the current overdue work orders in front of them and lets each member of the crew review them. Steven then shows them the percentage they are behind in completing the work orders compared to the percentage of the other two crews that do the same job. He goes over the last six months with each crew and asks if there is anything he should know about as to why the jobs are not being completed compared to his other crews. Neither crew can provide a sufficient answer to justify their performance, so Steven decides to move on to the next part of the discussion.

Steven decides to ask the crews what they can do to correct the situation. He sends each one home that day and asks that they think about their performance that night and come back the next day and establish a way to resolve the problem. Both crews go home that night and understand the need for change. They come back the next morning and talk things over with Steven about how they can be more productive and achieve what the other crews do consistently. Each member of the crew agrees that change is needed and agree that they will bring their production up in order to achieve their goals like their counterparts.

Steven is pleased with the outcome of the discussion and is convinced that the crews can deliver what they agreed to. Steven will continue to monitor all his crews to make sure work orders are being completed. All the crews now know their goals are being monitored and the two groups in question are working extra hard in order to catch up on their overdue work orders. Steven hopes that each crew will be able to maintain their goals and this issue will not arise again.

Application of Basic Control Theory

The example given in the case of Steven shows how the feedback loop would work in the work environment. Steven noticed the goals (referent standard) of some of his crews were not being met (sensor). Steven’s first course of action was to review the goals to make sure they were realistic. When he sees the same goals from similar crews being met, he can then justify the current set of goals. Steven then looked at the production of all his teams compared to the goals (comparator) and saw the discrepancy within two of his crews. The six crews who were meeting their goals were doing fine and required no extra feedback. The feedback loop for the six crews is closed because their production has met their goals.

Steven’s attention now must focus on his two crews who have a discrepancy in the comparator. Steven took action to fix the discrepancy the two crews were having (effector). The two crews also realized the discrepancy and agreed that change was needed to meet the goals. Steven and his crews came up with an action plan in order to fix the situation and to eliminate the discrepancy they were having. Steven will continue to monitor the two crews in question over the next few months to make sure their work is meeting their goals. When the goals of the crews have been met and their performance is equal to the goal then the feedback loop can be closed (retirement). Until the two crews have fixed the discrepancy the loop will remain open.


Control theory can be a tremendous tool in the work environment. The feedback loop provides a good example of processing goals in the workplace. Although control theory has not been widely used in organizational settings it does a good job of explaining how pieces of a system interact with each other as well as how different systems work together (PSU WC L9, 2012). There is great potential in control theory in the work place since the control theory is so closely correlated with goal setting theory.

The issue most people have with control theory being used in the workplace describing human behavior is that it is too mechanical. The theory’s main purpose was to help clarify the roles of the pieces of systems in physics, engineering, and other related sciences (PSU WC L9, 2012). Opponents point out that humans are not the same as machines and comparing the two is unrealistic since machines do not have behaviors and humans do. No matter the argument, it is true that goals shape human motivation and that humans engage in self regulation of their behavior based on goals (PSU WC L9, 2012).


Klein, H. (1989). An integrated control theory model of work motivation. (2 ed., Vol. 14, pp. 150-172). Retrieved from

Lapp, C. (2008). Proposing a classification of feedback loops in four types. (1 ed., Vol. 9, pp. 29-36). Retrieved from

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2012). Goal setting theory, Lesson 6. Retrieved from

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2012). Control theory, Lesson 9. Retrieved from [

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