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Control Theory


Control Theory began with Norbert Wiener's 1948 Cybernetics, but has been around since at least the days of Plato. Control Theory takes on several ideas, one is that human beings are a system in and of themselves, and that society is also a system. From that belief, the systems can be broken down into their smaller components and the relationship between those components can be understood as individual pieces, but also in relation to one another, and as an entire system (PSU, WC, 2016).

A principle of direct control theory is that of negative feedback, where outcomes are compared with intent (or 'goals') and consequently used to moderate actions until intent is optimally achieved. (The 'negative' in the feedback is the difference between the intent and the outcome).

An important consequent aspect of control theory is self-regulation. People are seen as intelligent, goal-driven individuals who control their activities in order to achieve their objectives, goals and needs.

The control theory approach to theory building is contrasted with that of goal setting theory (Locke & Latham, 1990). Goal-setting theory is a grounded theory which evolved from research findings over a period of time. Goal theory developed in five directions simultaneously: validation of the core premises; demonstrations of generality; identification of moderators; conceptual refinement and elaboration; and integration with other theories.


Elements of Control Theory

Made up of four basic elements, the feedback loop is a critical process that is utilized when setting goals and directing one’s behavior towards achieving those goals (PSU, WC, 2016).

  1. Sensor (information, input function)
  2. Comparator (evaluates information, perception process)
  3. Referent standard (assigning the goal)
  4. Error signal (occurs when the referent standard and comparator do not match)
  5. Effector (error signal, output function)

Input information activates the feedback system. The information is then interpreted by the individual’s perceptions and passed to the comparator system, where an individual evaluates the information and assigns it as a goal, or referent standard (PSU, WC, 2016). From this point, if the input information meets or exceeds the referent standard, the feedback loop is complete and retirement is reached. If not, the error signal is activated and an individual is motivated to make changes (behavior, actions, etc.) until the input reaches the referent standard (PSU, WC, 2016). Klein (1989) illustrates this in the following image:


Is there a downside to the Control Theory?

Dissenters lament that the Control Theory is too systematic and too mechanical. The theory assumes that the people and society are systems and that a breakdown or an advancement will cause a re-establishment of equilibrium (PSU, WC, 2016)). In his research on the Control Theory, noted social psychologist Geert Hoftede explored the nature of this and offered insight into it. He along with fellow researchers A. G. Puxty and E. A. Lowe, concluded that due to the fact that the Control Theory is strong in an accounting base, it ignores the social and psychological aspects of the human condition (Hewege, 2012). Simply put, the Control Theory may not work for every situation because it doesn't allow for individual decision but can work well where goal directed behavior is a necessity.

Case Study

Michael has been a corporate branch manager at Verizon Wireless in Chicago for over 7 years. His responsibilities included “big picture” decision-making and overseeing the work of lower office management. Several weeks ago however, the company decided to combine two of their branches and place Michael in charge of overseeing lower management as well as one of their production teams, which needs to meet a bi-weekly goal of 10,000 units.  Michael has earned many awards during his career with Verizon Wireless so he is both eager and motivated to take on his new position. 


During the first two weeks working with the newly combined branches, Michael runs his bi-weekly report and is surprised to see that production has fallen by 10%. Michael is very familiar with the day-to-day operations within the corporate office, so delegating tasks comes natural in those departments. However, since Michael has little to no experience overseeing a production team, he relied on them to continue their normal routines without instructing them or pushing their production goals. 


Prior to accepting his new position, Michael was informed the production team consistently makes their bi-weekly goals.  Puzzled by the decrease in production, Michael consults with his immediate supervisor to explain the 10% reduction; he believes that his lack of guidance and directive may be the cause for the drop off.  Michael is unhappy with himself as manager and is determined to get production back on track.


The next day, Michael meets with the production team leader to establish goals and create a plan of action. He uses the knowledge the team leader provides him to delegate tasks and assign employees to specific lines based on their individual experience levels. 


Two weeks go by and Michael runs another bi-weekly report.  He is pleasantly surprised that production is not only back on track, but also up almost 3%. Michael’s decision to learn about production and apply new delegating methods within the team has helped him to meet his goals while also gaining him recognition and confidence, and encouraging him to continue utilizing new techniques and strategies within his branch.


Applications of Control Theory 

 The control theory includes the feedback loop, a four-element process that aids in goal setting as well as the achievement of goals. In the above case study, Michael received information that he would head the production team and meet their bi-weekly goal.  Producing 10,000 units is his referent standard, or goal to achieve. After two weeks, when Michael runs his report, he realizes that they only produced 9,000 units (sensor).  Michael interprets this sensor information by way of his perceptual process, where it is then transferred to the comparator system.  In the comparator system, Michael evaluates the information by comparing it to the referent standard of 10,000 units. Since only 9,000 units (comparator) were produced instead of 10,000 units (referent standard), they were unable to meet their bi-weekly goal. This causes the error signal to motivate Michael to seek out and make changes to behavior. Had the goal been met, the feedback loop would have closed, and retirement would have been attained. Instead, the decline in production prompted Michael to talk to the production team leader, which is the effector in this case, or output behavior that is intended to stimulate a change to meet the referent standard (goal) (PSU, WC, 2016). Michael took the information that he learned and applied it when delegating tasks to the production employees. This started the feedback loop process over, as the information he learned and applied went back into the sensor, which then went the comparator where it was evaluated against the referent standard (goal). Since they met and exceeded their goal of 10,000 units, retirement was initiated and the feedback loop closed.    


The topic of Control Theory "has been widely researched in mechanical engineering and other non-biological fields," which has done an excellent "job explaining how pieces of a system interact with each other as well as how different systems work together" (PSU, WC, 2016). Within the field of psychology, Control Theory has resisted researching this area extensively due to its lack of humanistic language (PSU, WC, 2016). It has been used, though, to study the feedback process in more detail from a motivational standpoint (PSU, WC, 2016). A study conducted by Sandelands, Glynn, and Larson, Jr. found that Control Theory was an insufficient account of how supervisors provide feedback to those in positions under them due to the lack of context (PSU, WC, 2016). Luria (2008) contradicted this however, finding that "detailed ideas of the feedback loop in Control Theory helped improve quality."



While the Control Theory has not been fully accepted by all researchers, it can be applied in many of the same areas as the Goal-setting Theory; both theories describe many of the same ideas, especially in regards to organizing “the feedback loop between managers, their subordinates, and the tasks they are accomplishing as a team, as that team is a social system” (PSU, WC, 2016). By designing tests, collecting data, and examining the Control Theory in an in-depth manner that caters to how it relates to human motivation, we may find the evidence necessary to prove is applicability in domains other than engineering and computers (PSU, WC, 2016).


Hewege, C. R. (2012, December 11). A Critique of the Mainstream Management Control Theory and the Way Forward. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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

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

Penn State University World Campus. (2016). PSYCH 484, Lesson 9: Control Theory: How do I regulate my behavior?


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