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Control Theory Overview

Control Theory has been around for centuries but was first documented in 1948 when Norbert Wiener published Cybernetics.  Wiener wrote about the similarities of man and machine and how there were similarities in achieving goals. This theory was initially used and applied to physical systems in engineering, biology, neuroscience and many other science based areas. In the 1980’s researchers started to see the value of this theory and applied it to organizations.  The key factor in control theory is the feedback that is received while working on obtaining a goal.  This feedback will then determine behavior and whether the goal can be achieved.  This process, the feedback loop, consists of four elements that are necessary to obtain:  referent, input, comparator and output.  Control theory is considered to be both a cognitive as well as emotional theory.  For example,  as a person continues to receive feedback, positive or negative, this information is then processed and will determine how it will affect that individual emotionally.






In order for Control Theory to be effective it must first have a clear goal that is attainable set in place.  This goal may be set for a worker by a superior, or the goal may be set for a group of workers by the climate within the work place.  Once there is a clear and attainable goal the worker(s) now have a comparator to contrast their referent standard against.  This starts the feedback loop.  If the referent standard of the worker is not equal to the comparator an error signal is set off within the worker.  This error signal will adjust the output function (effector) of the worker and either increase or decrease the production level the worker achieves.  This new level of production will be seen by the superior, who is the sensor, and if the superior is happy with the new output level the worker now knows what the new referent standard is and will maintain it - allowing the worker to achieve a level of retirement.  If the sensor is not happy with the output level, the worker will continue to adjust the effector until the sensor is happy with the output thus leading to retirement (completion). 

Key Terms

  • Comparator - Evaluating information in contrast to a known standard or goal.
  • Effector/Output Function - Output behavior or action aimed at reducing the discrepancy between the information and the referent standard.
  • Sensor/Input Function - Information taken in by individuals senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) that activates the feedback system as a whole, which is then processed by the perceptual process.
  • Referent Standard - Information that is a known standard or goal.
  • Retirement - Indication that there is no discrepancy between the person's goals and their actual achievements, now in a state of equilibrium or homeostasis, and will continue with the currently successful behavior.

Case Study

Brian is the graphic design manager at Mount Nittany Medical Center, and is responsible for overseeing the upcoming 2014 calendar that is distributed hospital-wide to be displayed, as well as handed out to patients. Responsibilities include shooting all of the featured monthly photographs and supplemental portraits of donors, board leaders, etc.  Additional graphics and other themed details are required to complete the layout of the calendar.

It is mid-October and the calendar must be sent to press by December 1st, 2013.  Currently the graphic design manager has completed all of the photo shoots and has finalized three full months of the calendar layout (sensor).  Brian assesses his progress with his boss (comparator) and realizes that he has a large amount of work before the full calendar can be sent to the printing press on December 1st (referent standard).  Their meeting results in Brian spending longer hours at the office prioritizing his other responsibilities in order to make greater progress toward his goal (effector).  Brian repeats this focused approach everyday he is at the office and succeeds in time to send the digital file to the printer.  The communications director (Brian’s boss) is pleased with the outcome, retirement is achieved, and Brian experiences feelings of relief, pride in his work, and a sense of fellowship with those who are employed at Mount Nittany Medical Center.


Similarities and Differences of Goal Setting Theory


 Control TheoryGoal Setting Theory
Conginitively basedXX
Main goal of achieving a set goalXX
Effect behavior in a direction needed to achieve/possibly achieve the set goalXX
Deeply grounded in the need for feedbackXX
Centered around the subjective importance of each person X
Grounded in the more mechanically objectiveX 

Proves that the more specific, difficult, and important the goal is to a person, the

Better the performance/goal achievement will be

Treats all goals as being equalX 
Predicts that all people will change their behavior equally until the goal is achievedX 


     Similarities: Both are cognitively based.  Both the Goal Setting Theory and the Control Theory have their main goal of achieving a set goal in some way or fashion.  Since both are focused on attaining/accomplishing a goal, they also both effect behavior in a direction needed to achieve/possibly achieve the set goal.  In addition, one of the most valuable facets of both theories is they are deeply grounded in the need for feedback, which is key in successfully reaching the set goal.  Feedback provides an image and explanation of progress, negative or positive, which in turn will promote/initiate either a change or continuation in the behavior being used to reach the goal.

     Differences: While the central goal is the same between the two theories in that a goal is set, then behavior is evaluated and modified until the proper behavior is found or selected and the goal achieved - there are a good amount of differences.  First off, Goal Setting Theory is centered around the subjective importance of each person where as Control Theory is grounded in a more mechanical objective.  Goal Setting Theory proves that the more specific, difficult, and important the goal is to a person - the better the performance/goal achievement will be.  Control Theory makes no such references or claim and does not emphasize any importance on these attributes, rather it treats all goals as being equal.  The people striving for these goals - not caring what the goal is or how valuable they believe it to be, will have a behavior change either way.  Secondly, because Goal Setting Theory places so much stock in the personal importance of each person's goal/goals, it also demonstrates that this effects not only the amount of effort put forth by each person for each goal, but also how long they are willing to put forth that effort.  Control Theory doesn't differentiate this either, it predicts that all people will change their behavior equally until the goal is achieved or is failed to be achieved.  Lastly, Control Theory believes that once the goal is attained, that person will maintain the behavior which allows them to achieve that goal each time - but Goal Setting Theory doesn't believe this.  Again, Goal Setting Theory highly values the personal importance of each goal, and even though they valued that goal at that time, it does not mean that they value it will later on.  The individual may no longer care if they achieve this goal in the future, resulting in a lack of effort required to achieve the goal.


The Control Theory has not been widely researched in organizational settings, therefore researchers have speculated utilizing this theory while studying human motivation.  Use of this theory has been deemed highly successful in certain environments, while resisted in others.

One pragmatic application in today's workplace is Management by Objective (MBO).  In many companies today, part of the performance appraisal process, and often times variable compensation, is based on the achievement of established objectives.  In this case the referent standard would be the established goal and the comparator would be the referent standard.  This theory has been utilized within organizations  as a way to increase motivation in the workplace by using the feedback loop between managers and their staff.  This works particularly well for teams to determine if they are meeting their goals and if not, what they need to do.  


Strengths / Weaknesses

STRENGTHS:  The Control Theory indicates that, like machines, people themselves are systems and can be broken down into subunits - and the relationships between them can be studied.  This concept allows this theory to describe the interactions between several motivational factors, and determine the goal-directed behaviors.  The basis of this theory is that employees constantly seek feedback for their work-related actions.  The feedback loop strengthens the possibility of success.  Specific feedback evaluates job performance and indicates how steadily a person is achieving their goal.  Feedback motivates the individual to continue their praised actions while improving problem areas.  Employees are able to self-regulate their behavior, and use past experiences to shape or modify their future goal standards.  Employees understand themselves better than anyone else, allowing them to use previous experience which will build their character and work ethic.

WEAKNESSES:  Although breaking down a human "system" allows us to study several relationships across motivational factors, it does not account for the effects of external factors.  Researchers such as Bandura, Lock, and Latham have resisted using this theory with people because they do not find human and machine processes to be identical.  Machines are created to produce identical products by performing the same series of steps.  Humans may understand how following guidelines will help them achieve goals, but may experience daily occurrences that alter their performance.  In all reality humans are NOT machines and they have feelings, good or bad days, and are capable of choosing the referent standard they want to achieve.  Because of the resistance from high end researchers, many community researchers have decided to resist using this theory in human settings as well.  The Control Theory causes controversy among officials, and although it has been proven effective - there is still a great deal of research that must be conducted.  Due to the lack of research it is not certain if this theory is an applicable theory to study motivation in humans, or if it should only refer to mechanical science. 




The key factor, feedback, remains the central component to the Control Theory. The feedback loop processes until retirement (goal attainment).  Once the referent standard is established, both thinking and activity will occur in the attempt to attain the goal.  The four elements of the feedback loop: referent, input, comparator and output will remain critical to the Control Theory.  As the Control Theory continues to be studied and applied in the workplace, the impact of the combined cognitive and emotional aspects will develop further.


The Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2013). PSYCH 484: Work Attitudes and Motivation: Lesson 09: Control Theory: How do I regulate my behavior? Retrieved from:


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