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Control Theory

The Control theory explains a process of self-regulation and motivational development through a systematized sequence (Klein, 1989).  This concept surmises that people repeat a basic process when thinking about and acting upon an idea. At its core, it describes how people receive feedback externally, but that their motivation is internally controlled (Askew, n.d.). This sequence relies on a feedback loop with four fundamental components: sensor, comparator, referent standard, and effector (The Pennsylvania State University [PSU], 2014a). In this aspect, the control theory is a cognitive and an emotional approach to motivation, meaning that individuals make rational choices to achieve goals and that they evaluate their “progress through the feedback loop” (PSU, 2014a, p. 3; Scholl, 2002). Ultimately, people are motivated by the feedback they receive, driven to correct any discrepancy, and will repeat the circuit until there is no more discrepancy and a balance satisfied (PSU, 2014a). When the balance is established, this is referred to as retirement, and it is the desired state for the process (PSU, 2014a).

Feedback Loop

People receive information (sensor), which is then compared (comparator) to a goal (referent standard); if they perceive a discrepancy between the information and the standard they effect a change (effector), the result of which is filtered back again as new information (sensor) and the process is repeated (PSU, 2014a). The sensor is a method of monitoring input from the environment through the senses, such as seeing and hearing (Scholl, 2002; PSU, 2014a). The comparator is the comparison of the information that was received through the sensor to the goal that the individual is trying to attain (Scholl, 2002). This ultimate goal that an individual is trying to reach is known as the referent standard and it is the “standard for evaluating the ‘results’ of behavior” (Scholl, 2002, Control Theory Section, para. 4). The effector is an output function, which is used to alter the discrepancies found by the comparator, with the goal of establishing a balance between the process outcome and the referent standard, resulting in retirement (PSU, 2014a). Information will cycle through the feedback loop as many times as needed until retirement is achieved (PSU, 2014a). The process can be seen in the image below.

(PSU, 2014, p. 3)

Case Study

  Joe is the senior production manager of XYZ shoe manufacturer located in South-Paris, Maine. He is responsible for the assembly team of 230 people who produce the company’s most popular line of shoes.  There are four junior production managers who look after two teams that make up an early shift from 5a.m. - 1p.m. and late shift from 1p.m - 9 p.m. Joe has met all standards and goals set by the company since being promoted to this position two years ago. The company steadily generates 40,000 pairs of shoes per month, which supplies a small contingent of shops along the East Coast. Joe was content until he was informed that there were new targets that needed to be met; however, now he is feeling very anxious about his new goals.

The company recently hired more in-house sales consultants who managed to secure an agreement with a national retail chain. The executives of XYZ are thrilled, but Joe understands that this will require a substantial increase in the production of shoes. He knows that this will put some strain on his managers and staff. Joe’s new set of production goals require that his team yield 60,000 pairs of shoes per month henceforth. They will need to meet this target within the next three months.

Organizational Applications and Solutions

Joe has been placed in a difficult position, as the target that has been set for him is not a goal that he helped establish and he knows that meeting this goal will require substantial commitment from him and his team. Joe could benefit from use of the control theory in assisting him and his staff in meeting the new production demands that have been placed on the team at the XYZ manufacturing plant.  Joe knows that the company steadily produces 40,000 pairs of shoes per month and upon hearing the new production demands (sensor), he compares the actual sales per month (comparator) to the new goal of 60,000 pairs of shoes per month (referent standard) to take action (effector), such as adding staff (based on actual production rate standards), adding a third shift, reviewing productivity standards for a possible increase or adding more hours to each shift per day to hit the new quota (PSU, 2014a).  Additionally, Joe could get his team to assist in setting up a plan for hitting the new target, which could help affect their behavior to meet the new production demand. It has been notated that organizational goals do not always align with the goals of employees and behavior is influenced by employee goals (PSU, 2014b).  If the XYZ shoe manufacturing plant has their employees participate in goal setting, they would be gaining goal acceptance from the employees and the employees would be more committed to hitting the goal because they helped establish it.

It would be beneficial for Joe and the XYZ shoe manufacturer to have the employees participate in planning how to hit the new production target within the next three months and they could be influenced to take action if they are included in the feedback loop (as was the case with Joe). Therefore, the employees would assist in resolving the discrepancy that has been brought to their attention through feedback, establish clear goals (utilizing goal-setting) and repeat until the discrepancy is resolved. Thus, the employees would be motivated through use of the control theory and the goal-setting theory in meeting the new production target.

Klein’s Full Model of Work Motivation

Klein’s full model of work motivation is his expansion of the original feedback loop and is intended to incorporate other theories, particularly goal-setting theory.  It was his way of taking the somewhat scientific terms used in the basic feedback model and making them more easily understood to the average layperson.  In the full model, Klein substituted goals for referent standard, individual behavior in place of effector, and feedback in place of sensor.  (PSU, 2014a)  In the full model compared to the feedback loop, each term is more interconnected with the other terms.  There are thirteen components of the full model.  It begins with goals, which as we know it as the endpoint of something, or where we want to be.  Next comes behavior and performance, followed by feedback.  To lessen the inconsistency between the supposed data and the goal, behavior is the act taken. As for performance, it is partly defined by the contributor's behavior. Feedback can look like many different things, including good or bad, verbal or written, etc. It is the information procured from the performance behavior and specifies whether or not the goal was  achieved.  The comparator is also a term used in both models and it allows for one to gauge where they are along the process of getting to the goal.  Then there is the determination of whether there is an error and not, which determines whether there needs to be a behavioral adjustment or not.  Other terms in the model include unconscious scripted response, attributional search, subjective expected utility of goal attainment, individual and situational characteristics, goal choice and cognitive change, and behavior change (Klein, 1989). According to Klein (1989) regarding unconscious scripted response, he advises that scripts are useful in achieving goals. However, Klein (1989) also notes that concentration on goals can weaken or challenge performance. Attributable search is where advancement or the absence of advancement  toward a goal is accredited by individuals. Additionally, when the expectation of achieving a goal and value identified with the goal are equally high, individuals are inclined to remain dedicated to a goal, otherwise known as subjective expected utility of goal attainment (PSU, 2014a). Moreover, individual and situational characteristics involve manipulating subjective expected utility of goal attainment. Individuals like achieving goals, thus they make essential variations or deviations in order to attain the achievements that are pertinent with goal choice and cognitive change. Behavior change, that is contemplated to be the primary goal of Control Theory comprises the ability of individuals to adjust the depth or magnitude of their effort or the control of their behavior.

(PSU, 2014, p. 3)

Strengths and Weaknesses

 There are strengths as well as weakness when talking about control theory, and some cases this theory can be a very useful method of motivation. One strength of control theory is that it addresses the fact that human motivation is centered around the idea that a person sets a goal and will take the necessary steps in order to achieve it. It also makes use of feedback.  The use of feedback is designed to reinforce or punish someone’s behavior and is used to steer them towards their goal (PSU, 2014a).

One of the major weaknesses of this theory is that it has not been widely researched in organizational settings as much as others have. Also, there is a striking resemblance to the goal setting theory but control theory tends to use more mechanical language rather than humanistic, which can cause issues when trying to relate it to human motivation, it can eliminate the human aspect (PSU, 2014a).  Opponents of the theory have said that control theory treats people as if they are machines rather than humans and that goal setting is better theory when dealing with a workplace environment.

In terms of the case study, control theory lacks the personal connection that Joe requires to rid him of his anxiousness.The mechanical language used in control theory, may be a hindrance when trying to motivate Joe and might not eliminate the anxiety he is feeling because of the new consultants. However a strength is that the new goal of 60,000 pairs of shoes per month is clearly set out for Joe, and he is fully aware of what the new expectations are. With this appropriate use of management feedback, he can work to reach his goals as well as the company’s.



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