Control Theory Applied

Richard W. Scholl, Professor of Management, University of Rhode Island
Revised: October 20, 2003


 Basic Control Theory

Control Theory Diagram


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.

  Room Temperature Control Behavioral Teacher looking at Class Participation Project Team Performance
Referent Standard Thermostat Setting Goal What level of participation is desired? (e.g., 50 % of students participating; Project Specifications
Project budget
Project timeline
Comparator Thermostat
Compares temperature reading to thermostat setting
Cognitive Comparison Process Comparison between goal and observation Cognitive Comparison Process
Effector Heater/Air Conditioner Behavior Teaching Style Leadership Style
Sensor Thermometer Task or Social Feedback Observation of percentage of students participating Project test results
Budget reports
Project Phase deadlines
System Environment Room Temperature Outcome/Result 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 system- TCS)

  1. Feedback Error
    1. The TCS has a continuously operating sensor and constantly monitors room temperature
    2. 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
    3. The feedback in the TCS is unambiguous and objective, that is, 65 degrees has a constant meaning.
    4. Task and social feedback is most often ambiguous and subjective and subject to individual interpretation.
  2. Discrepancy Error- The Problem Identification Process
    1. 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.
    2. Individuals vary greatly in their tolerances for discrepancies (both inter-individual: across individuals and intra-individual: across time).
    3. 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.
      1. 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:
        1. How is my pay or promotion potential affected by missed project deadlines (Instrumental)
        2. What will others think of me if I miss project deadlines?  How will my reputation be affected? (Self Concept External)
        3. 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)
        4. How will others be adversely affected when project deadlines are missed? (Goal Internalization)
  3. Attributional Error- The Diagnosis process
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
      1. Diagnosis is a function of an individual's mental models (theories in action).
        1. 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.
        2. Missed deadlines may be caused by low employee skills and/or motivation, unrealistic deadlines, lack of support from other departments, poor leadership, etc.
      2. 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 changed)
  4. Ability- Self Efficacy of the individual to make the behavioral change
    1. 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 to on.
    2. 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.
  5. Cognitive Schema
    1. The TCS always goes through the full cybernetic process no matter how many times it has performed these operations.
    2. Individuals tend to develop cognitive schema, or mental programs, that are used to perform routine and familiar tasks. 
    3. 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 Stages