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Control Theory

Control Theory originated with Norbert Wiener’s 1948 Cybernetics but has been dated back to Plato. In modern language it is a theory that connects several established disciplines such as anthropology, biology, electrical engineering, mathematics, neurophysiology, and psychology. It describes how systems work as a whole by breaking down the system into specific pieces and studying the links between them (PSU WC, 2016). In the beginning, this theory was applicable to physical systems; however, now it can be applied to human behavior. In order for Control Theory to be applicable to humans, it is necessary to show that there are direct similarities between both the concepts associated with machines and the concepts which we can associate with humans (PSU WC, 2016).

Control Theory Assumptions

Control Theory makes three assumptions

  1. Human begins are a system in and of themselves

  2. Society is also a system.

  3. Systems are self-regulating.

When we assume that humans and society as a whole are “systems” we then begin to understand what Control Theory is trying to portray. In other words, Control Theory is allowing you to break up the systems into smaller components. Assuming that systems are self-regulating means that people and organizations that they belong to will behave in ways that aim to reestablish an equilibrium in the system when change occurs (PSU WC, 2016). People behave according to their basic needs, and when the needs of an employee align with organizational demands/standards, the desired behavior is achieved (Luria, 2008).

To summarize, Control Theory and how it is connected to human behavior, is simply stating that people are constantly seeking feedback on their actions. When individuals accept and focus on the feedback that they receive they will set goals that then direct their behavior towards achieving that goal (PSU WC, 2016).

Feedback Loop

To better understand Control Theory, an important key term is the feedback loop. The feedback loop is broken down into four basic elements: Sensors, Referent Standards, Comparators, and Effector. There are two additional terms that help give a deeper understanding of the feedback loop and Control Theory, those terms are Errors and Retirement.  

Locke (1991) gave an effective way to comprehend the feedback loop by envisioning the elements as components of a thermostat that controls the temperature of a room.

Figure 9.1

 Adapted from (2014).


Sensor: Sensor is Step 1 in the process of Control Theory and it is how information gets into the systems. Using our thermostat example, sensor would be the actual Thermostat, it detects the current environment.

Referent Standard: Referent Standard is your actual goal. In the thermostat example, your referent standard would be considered the desired temperature of your environment.

Comparator: Comparator is your progression towards the goal once you have received the information. Heading back to our thermostat example, comparator is your comparing mechanism, which is used to compare the current environment (room temperature) based on sensor input to the goal or Referent Standard (desired room temperature).

Effectors: The effectors would be your furnace or air conditioning unit. The effectors begin to kick into action when it detects a discrepancy between the environment and the referent standard. For example, if the room is too hot, it will interfere with the end desired temperature (referent standard), and the furnace (effector) will shut off.   

Errors: Errors occur when there is an imbalance between the comparator and the referent standard. To apply it to the thermostat example, the desired temperature is 75 degrees (referent standard), however as you progress towards that temperature (comparator), by putting on the heat you notice the temperature only raised to 63 degrees when the heat kicks off; because of this an error has occurred and it motivates the individual to reach the actual desired goal.

Retirement: Once the goals are fulfilled, you have reached retirement. This occurs when there is no imbalance between the comparator and the referent standard, the goal has been met and feedback is no longer required.  Again, going back to our thermostat example, retirement would be achieved when the thermostat registers that the room has reached the desired temperature.

Figure 9.2

Adapted from Klein (1989)


Comparison Goal Theory & Control Theory 

Goal-setting Theory and Control Theory have similarities in that they both have influence over motivation. Goal-setting Theory “simply states that the source of motivation is the desire and intention to reach a goal” (PSU WC, 2016). Control Theory also sets goals but, with the intent to change a behavior based on feedback received in order to close the feedback loop and reach Retirement. Although both theories utilize feedback the Goal-setting Theory deals with the discrepancy between actual goal accomplishments and the goal to which the individual was committed” (Landy & Conte, 2010, p.382). Control Theory differs as it uses the feedback loop as a means to self-regulate.  By self-regulating, “individuals take in information about behavior and make adjustments or changes based on that information, which in turn affect subsequent behavior, [like] goal commitment [and] strategies [that aid them in completing their role within a system (Landy & Conte, 2010, p.382).  

Control Theory is composed of systems and how those systems work together. For example, it can be said that a teacher working closely with a student to discuss how to improve their grades is a social system, one that based on the teacher’s feedback will help direct the student towards improving their grades. Therefore, the difference is   Goal-setting Theory is based on personal interests while the Control Theory sets goals based on feedback.   Overall the improvement is not just for the individual, but also the system to which they are a part of.  Control Theory can be described as building an organized plan, overseeing the plan being carried out, and redirecting behaviors in order to ensure the plan being carried out is optimal for performance.  

This is similar to the Goal-setting Theory of planning a goal, as you specify the goal and also set its difficulty. The Goal-setting theory differs by not being directly linked to a system. It has a broader scope of goals that can be set as well as being set for a variety of purposes not directly linked to bettering a system or organization, it is based on what the individual desires. The Goal-setting Theory has free will while the Control Theory does not, it is a process of interpreting information received, comparing it the desired outcome based on criticism, and changing the behavior to fit that outcome (PSU WC, 2016). It is similar to how a computer analyzes data received and alters the data based on inputs received from its user. For example, the computer will store the data, memorize it, and retrieve data that is more accurate based on the user’s search habits. This example incorporates the Control Theory’s mechanical approach to how humans process information and alter their outputs according to information received. In the end, it can be simplified to fulfilling the need to fit in since humans seek acceptance and will take into account the feedback from others in order make changes accordingly.




Case Study:

Rick is a Director of Project Management and manages six Project Managers (PM’s), each is responsible for one of the organization's top customers.  Part of Rick’s responsibility is ensuring that the projects are running smoothly and that the customers are happy.   of one of these customers could have a large financial impact on the overall profit of the company.   To guarantee the projects are proceeding as expected and verifying the PM’s overall performance, Rick sends out customer satisfaction surveys (CSAT) to the key stakeholders for all customers each quarter.  The organization has a service level agreement (SLA) with each customer that satisfaction of project work will be above 90% on these surveys.  If for any reason the SLA falls below 90%, Rick is to work with each PM to come up with an action plan to rectify the situation.  With the SLA in mind, Rick has set a goal for each of his PM’s to have a goal of 95% satisfaction for each of their projects, to be reviewed each quarter after CSAT survey results have returned.   

Unfortunately, after reviewing the second quarter CSAT surveys, Rick notices that two of his PM’s have not met the goal, as one’s CSAT is in the 80% range and the other has slipped drastically to 73%.   After evaluating the project’s that each PM is working on, Rick notices that the complexity of each project is similar, so he does not think difficulty of project is causing the negative CSAT results.  He does notice in reviewing the specific written feedback on the survey’s that there is a difference in comparison to the other PM’s.  One customer is reporting that they are not getting responses to requests in a timely manner and the other is stating they sometimes wait days for a tech to complete a break\fix visit.  Rick realizes the need to correct this and immediately schedules meetings with each PM to review and discuss the results of their surveys.

Each PM meets with Rick separately to discusses what Rick is seeing on the CSAT survey feedback.  He shares this information with each PM and reminds each PM of the company’s SLA with the customer as well as their quarterly goals.  He also takes the time to show them the feedback received from some of the other customers so they have a comparison.  He goes over the last three months with each PM to see if they understand why the CSAT scores were much lower than the last quarter.  The PM with the slow response time explains that he took on some stretch assignments from a Vice President of the company and he might be letting that get in the way of his performance.  Whereas the PM with the delayed break/fix time explains that he is using a new subcontractor.  The subcontractor said they had nationwide coverage but, it appears that they do not have nearly enough techs to keep up with the customer’s demands.   

Rick asks each PM to consider what they can do to correct the situations, as he really does not want to have to assign a different PM if they are not up to the assignments.  He offers the PM’s any additional assistance they might need.   Including aligning them with a PM’s that is currently meeting their CSAT goals.  Each PM does agree that they let the situations get out of hand and need to correct the situation and get back on target with their goals.  Rick tasks each with coming up with action plans to get their CSAT and work goals back on track.    

Rick is happy with the outcome of the meetings and is convinced that the two PM’s will raise the CSAT scores by the next quarter and meet their goals.   He will continue to monitor to ensure that responses are being received in a timely manner and that break\fix appointments are not delayed.  He believes that all his PM’s are aware of the importance of the CSAT scores and how poor scores can impact the relationship with the customer, the company, and their own quarterly goals.

Strengths and Weaknesses

It can’t be denied that goals outline human motivation, and humans perform self-regulation on their own actions to reach those goals. Although all human beings are very unique, when simplified, they all have about six common, basic internal needs. These six needs apply to all human beings, and according to Glasser (1988), these six needs emphasize not how different, but rather how similar we are to one another. We all require feedback to either be sure of ourselves, or to adjust our behavior.

Rick has set a referent standard, or a goal of 95% satisfaction rate on surveys that his six clients have filled out. He received four satisfactory results and two unsatisfactory results: one of surveys scoring as low as a 73%. Since he has more positive results than negative results, Rick reacts in a positive manner and starts comparing the good results with the bad results. He then easily realizes there is a miscommunication between the customers and the PMs he assigned, and fixes the problem. His next step would be repeating the survey once again to see whether the goal has been met, in order to reach retirement according to the Control Theory.

If Rick had received five negative feedbacks instead of two, he could have been demoralized and become discouraged. This may even cause him to question his talents and lower his referent standard to a lower percentage. Even if Rick only had two negative feedbacks, the PMs of those clients could have been demoralized as well. Some people might not take receiving negative feedback well, while taking positive feedback very well. All human beings are unique and not everybody gets motivated in the same way.


Control Theory is built around the belief that one is constantly seeking feedback with the intent to achieve a goal. This case study illustrates how the supervisor, Rick, used feedback to improve the project manager's’ low CSAT scores. In this example, the input information (Rick’s critique) initiated the sensor process. After processing the sensor stage, this lead to the PM’s evaluating the information through their comparator system. In this case instead of reaching retirement the feedback resulted in an error.

Similar to reinforcement theory, feedback is given after the behavior. Both project managers CSAT scores drop for various reasons, resulting in Rick providing feedback about their past behaviors.  This feedback activated their internal comparator, causing further evaluation. After the evaluation the PM’s acknowledged that there was a discrepancy between the information and their performance creating and “error signal”.  Now that new goals have been accepted by the PM’s they are entering into feedforward control. “In feedforward control, people shape their own futures by choosing which standards they want to live up to. For instance, in Bandura's social learning theory, people not only pick the people they want to model their behavior after, but the specific behaviors as well” (PSU, 2016). Receiving feedback and accepting the error signal the PM’s now can begin to model their behavior to the CSAT standards and company’s expectations.

While feedback and feedforward are essential mechanisms in the Control Theory, Sibley & McFarland (1974) suggest that there are three additional factors in creating the original goal. “First, goals may be set close to levels of past performance on familiar tasks” (Campion, M. A., & Lord, R. G. 1982). Each of these PM’s have once been successful in meeting or exceeding customer standards. Therefore, each should be able to recognize that the goal set is possible.  

“Second, initial goals may be derived from higher level objectives which are hierarchically organized (e.g., test goals in an academic course may be derived from course goals which are derived from goals for overall grade point average which are derived from career objectives, etc.)” (Campion, M. A., & Lord, R. G. 1982).  The CSAT scores are created from a place of authority placing respect and importance in the goal. The PM’s desire to be successful, this can be observed by their acceptance of the feedback resulting in a new goal. Goals are more likely to be accepted when they come from transformational leadership.

“Third, as Carver and Scheier point out, initial goals may be externally influenced by social processes such as social comparison or modeling” (Campion, M. A., & Lord, R. G. 1982). Currently the PM’s performance is below what is considered socially acceptable within the organization. Social comparison engages the emotional side of Control Theory. Individuals desire to feel included and equal to their peers. In the case study the PM’s may have felt the weight of comparing themselves to their peers, causing an error and ultimately resulting in starting the loop again.

In this case study it is also important to note the significance of leadership. “Leadership is a social construct related to quality in organizations…” (Luria, 2008). Well defined and effective leadership within an organization can directly impact the quality output of their employees. Effective leadership is able to provide goals, and the needed support. Conger (1989) cited by Luria, “Deming (1986) proved that leaders initiate and reinforce continuous improvement. By envisioning and clearly articulating the organizational value, leaders are able to encourage employees to improve process, product, and services, and enable them to understand their organizational roles” (Luria, 2008).  Research shows us that individuals tend to respond more positively to feedback that is given by transformational leaders. True leadership inspires change within others. When considering the feedback loop and its effectiveness, leadership is a component that should not be forgotten.


Reflecting on our case study, Rick, Director of Project Management leveraged the Control Theory to address unacceptable CSAT scores with two of his PMs. The four remaining members of this team were successful in reaching the second quarter goal, a SLA with a CSAT score of 90% or higher. Will Rick’s use of Control Theory motivate the two PMs to strive for acceptable CSAT results, or will results below 90 percent surface again during the third quarter CSAT review?  

To challenge, one may ask if Control Theory is necessary in this case or if a different theory of motivation should be used to deliver acceptable results. Furthermore, is it possible that lack of leadership and communication on Rick’s part may have caused the low CSAT scores? As Director of Project Management, did Rick approve using the new subcontractor that impacted one client in a negative way? In addition, was he aware of the other PM’s workload and stretch objectives that were assigned by the Vice President? Now that Rick has full visibility into both situations how will get prevent similar situations from happening in the future? Will additional checks and balances be put into place when leveraging new subcontractors?  How will PMs workload be monitored?

There has been a significant amount of resistance using Control Theory with people, and that resistance is supported by some of the larger names in the science of motivation. This in turn has set a pattern of resistance among the research community. Additional motivational scientists will have to examine the theory in further detail. Ultimately, the data collected will tell us if the theory can be used in the study of human motivation, or if it should be left to the field of physics (PSU WC, 2016).


Campion, M. A., & Lord, R. G. (1982). A Control Systems Conceptualization of the Goal-Setting and Changing Process. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 30(2), 265–287.

Feedback Loop. (2014). Retrieved October 22, 2016, from

Glasser, W. (1998). Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. New York: HarperCollins.

Landy, F. J., and Conte, J. M. (2010). Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology (3rd ed). USA: Wiley-Blackwell

Locke, E. A. (1991). Goal Theory vs. Control Theory: Contrasting Approaches to Understanding Work. Motivation and Emotion, 15(1), 9–28

Luria, G. (2008). Controlling for Quality: Climate, Leadership, and Behavior. The Quality Management Journal, 15, 27–41.

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2016). Lesson 9: Control Theory: How do I Regulate My Behavior? Retrieved from

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