W. Scholl, Professor of Management,
University of Rhode Island
Revised: October 20, 2003
Basic Control Theory
The above diagram is a simple
representation of the control theory model. Here is how the variables in the model
apply to (1) a room temperature control system, (2) the amount of student participation in class,
and (3) a project team's performance.
looking at Class
||What level of participation
is desired? (e.g., 50 % of students participating;
Compares temperature reading to thermostat setting
||Comparison between goal and
||Task or Social Feedback
||Observation of percentage
of students participating
||Project test results
Project Phase deadlines
||Level of Participation
||Behavior of Team Members
Control theory presents a rational model of continuous
behavioral change based on continuous feedback and comparison of that feedback to a
referent standard. It suggests that individuals, teachers, and managers make changes
in their behavior (teaching styles and leadership styles) to reduce any discrepancy
between observed results (Sensor) and expected/desired results (comparator).
As a normative (prescriptive) model, it has much appeal.
However, does the simple control model present an accurate descriptive model of managerial
behavioral decision making and problem solving? Do individuals continually change
their styles in a constant effort to improve? How does this model explain the
relatively high amount of cross situational behavioral consistency (relative stability of
leadership and teaching style in the above examples) that we often observe? There are
a couple of explanations that explain relatively high stability of behavior despite
discrepancy in the comparator.
Forces Maintaining Behavioral (style) Consistency (Why
individuals do not behave as pure cybernetic systems, like the room temperature control
- The TCS has a continuously operating sensor and
constantly monitors room temperature
- Individuals do not continually monitor the results
of behavior (class participation, budgets, performance specs). Task and social
feedback is often sporadic, and at time non-existent
- The feedback in the TCS is unambiguous and
objective, that is, 65 degrees has a constant meaning.
- Task and social feedback is most often ambiguous and
subjective and subject to individual interpretation.
- Discrepancy Error- The Problem Identification
- The TCS has no affective component. It does
not decide how much of a discrepancy is large enough to act (turn on the heater). It
also does not have to decide if the a discrepancy even matters.
- Individuals vary greatly in their tolerances for
discrepancies (both inter-individual: across individuals and intra-individual: across
- Whether or not a particular discrepancy matters ("Do
I care if student participate in class;" "Do I care if the project is
late") is a function of the motivation of the individual.
- The Sources of
Motivation Model can used to understand the level of motivation of an individual with
respect to reducing a particular discrepancy. For example:
- How is my pay or promotion potential affected by
missed project deadlines (Instrumental)
- What will others think of me if I miss project
deadlines? How will my reputation be affected? (Self Concept External)
- I see myself as an effective manager. Do
missed project deadlines mean that I am not as good a manager as I though I was? If
I miss project deadlines does that mean that I am not dependable? (Self Concept Internal)
- How will others be adversely affected when project
deadlines are missed? (Goal Internalization)
- Attributional Error- The Diagnosis process
- With the TCS, there is only one cause of low room
temperature, and therefore there is only one change to make: Turn on the heater.
- For the human systems, there are many potential
causes for each potential discrepancy. In the process of problem diagnosis,
individuals attempt to determine the causes (variables that affect the system environment)
of the discrepancy.
- Diagnosis is a function of an individual's mental models
(theories in action).
- Low class participation my be a function of low
student motivation, a high percentage of introverts in the class, too much partying,
room too hot, teaching style, and others.
- Missed deadlines may be caused by low employee
skills and/or motivation, unrealistic deadlines, lack of support from other departments,
poor leadership, etc.
- Diagnoses tend to be "identity defending," that is, individuals
avoid diagnoses that invalidate their self concepts. In the above examples, teachers
and managers would tend to avoid diagnoses of low class participation and missed deadlines
as poor teaching style or poor leadership style (The very factors that often must be
- Ability- Self Efficacy of the
individual to make the behavioral change
- The the TCS there is not question as to whether
the system can change. While it might not be strong enough to
increase the temperature enough the remove the gap (raise temperature to
setting), it will still attempt to do so by changing its state from off
- Individuals generally have to have a belief that
that can reduce the gap before they change their behavior. Self efficacy
is the individual's belief in his or her ability to change the factor on
which feedback is based thus reducing the gap. When self efficacy
is low there is generally no behavioral change even when the discrepancy
has meaning for the individual.
- Cognitive Schema
- The TCS always goes through the full cybernetic
process no matter how many times it has performed these operations.
- Individuals tend to develop cognitive schema, or mental programs, that are used to
perform routine and familiar tasks.
- When a cognitive schema is being used, the link
between the sensor and the effector is short-circuited. A particular stimulus brings
on a programmed or scripted reaction from the effector. The individual tends to be
impervious to feedback and discrepancies and when discrepancies are noted, the
individual's behavior is not considered as one of the causes
For an advanced model of problem
recognition and definition go to: Problem Solving