How to Apply Control Engineering Theory to Your Relationships

Managing a long-term client relationship, or any relationship for that matter, takes work. You have two organizations, each with its own business goals, attempting to interact with one another through two or more people. Those people also each have their own personal goals and their own way of interpreting and applying all of these goals over time. Then, you add peoples’ personalities, emotions, attitudes, life events, etc. into the mix, and you have an environment with great potential for problems.

So is there anything we can do to set ourselves up for success in a long-term client relationship?

Rules & Algorithms for Relationships

We live in a world where many things are controlled by computers—our cars traveling down the highway, the temperature inside our homes, the brightness of our computer screens. These are all examples of how Engineers have applied Control Theory to solve real-world problems by making use of control algorithms. A control algorithm applies a few essential rules to create order and stability in the complex environment where we live.

What if we could use those same rules to help maintain stability and a desirable outcome for our relationships with others?

The PID Loop

One of the most widely used control algorithms in existence is called the PID Loop. It works by taking the measured output of a system, comparing it to the desired output of the system, and then adjusting an input to try to make the measured output equal to the desired output. In other words, the algorithm uses feedback to evaluate the performance of the system, then adjusts the input to try to obtain the desired outcome. It’s called a loop because the process continuously repeats, attempting to improve the output with each iteration.

That’s the big picture of what a PID loop does, but the more interesting part is how it does it.

A continuous cycle

As I mentioned previously, a PID loop is an iterative process. It only works if the process is repeated continuously, at regular intervals. The same is true when it comes to cultivating a positive client relationship. You can create this loop by setting a reminder in your calendar to sit down and reflect on the relationship on a weekly or biweekly basis.

System error

On each iteration of the PID loop, all three components of the algorithm work by evaluating the error of the system and responding to it. The error is the difference between the current output and the desired output. For example, for your house thermostat, the error would be the difference between the set temperature and the current measured temperature.

What would an error look like in the context of a client relationship? Here are some examples:

  • Offense taken to a comment someone made
  • An incorrect detail stated in an email
  • Failure to communicate an expectation
  • Frustration due to someone showing up late or unprepared
  • Difficulty getting a clear answer to a question

Keep in mind that errors made by the other person (or people) in the relationship aren’t the only factors that deserve attention. Your actions contribute to the end result just as much as everyone else’s.

Component P

The P component of the PID loop stands for proportional. It works by making an adjustment to a system input that is proportional to measured error. In other words, the adjustment made should be sized appropriately to the error.

This is really important when we decide to respond to an error made in a relationship. For example, if someone states an incorrect detail in a group email, maybe don’t point it out to them while replying to everyone on the thread. A direct email might be more appropriate, or maybe you can just let it go if it’s something inconsequential. On the other hand, if someone makes a comment in a meeting that offends you, that warrants a serious response, possibly a crucial conversation.

One great tool to help you decide if your response is appropriate is perspective taking. Try to think of yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine how you might respond to the email that you’re about to send. Is it likely to improve the situation or just add fuel to a fire?

Component I

The I component of the algorithm stands for integral. It works by taking the sum of the error over time (the integral) and reacting to that aggregate rather than to a single error datapoint.

In order to utilize this, you’ll need to keep a running list of the things you identify as relationship errors. During your periodic reflection points, review the list. Do you see any patterns or reoccurring similar items? If so, that might mean a more severe course of action is needed. An error that happens in isolation can be inconsequential, but if that same event turns into a pattern of behavior, it can be damaging to the relationship, which means it needs to be addressed.

Component D

The final component of the PID algorithm is D, which stands for derivative. This component looks to see if there has been a dramatic change (a spike) in the error recently. If so, it attempts to counteract it.

What might this look like in a client relationship? Here, you’re mainly looking for a sudden change in a person’s behavior. Maybe they’ve recently started communicating less frequently or responding to your emails less promptly. Maybe someone seems to be more combative in meetings or less friendly on the phone.

There are many reasons why a person’s behavior might change in these ways. Maybe they have something going on at home that is causing added stress. Maybe they’re getting burned out due to their workload. Or maybe they have an issue with the way you’ve been conducting yourself, but haven’t felt comfortable enough to confront you.

In any case, if you notice a sudden change, have a conversation with the person. Ask them if everything’s going all right or if there’s anything you could change that would help the two of you work better together.

Feedback Is Crucial

When it comes to control algorithms and managing client relationships, feedback is key to long-term success. Without good feedback, both are doomed to fail. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to make a habit of evaluating how your relationships are going. Be introspective, but also go to other people and explicitly request feedback. Invite them to feedback sessions and discuss how you can improve things. And don’t think that just because things are good at a particular moment in time, they will remain that way forever.