Expectancy Theory of Motivation

Expectancy Theory of Motivation

Expectancy Theory of Motivation

There are many ways to motivate employees. The important thing for any manager or employer is knowing which method will work for their staff and how to implement it.

One of the most effective ways to motivate employees is outlined in the Expectancy Theory.

What Is Expectancy Theory?

Expectancy Theory is a theory initially proposed by Victor Vroom of the Yale School of Management.

Professor Vroom realised that there was a connection between motivation and the skills, personality, knowledge and experience of employees as individuals. He understood that motivated employees performed better.

The theory suggests that individuals are motivated by anticipated results or consequences. In this way, behaviour and performance can be affected by understanding that choices need to be made.

In principle, expectancy theory states that individuals will choose to maximise positive returns for minimal pain and effort.

Understanding how this theory works, and properly implementing it, can help employers to gain increased productivity from their employees as well as maintain high levels of staff satisfaction and morale.

How Does Expectancy Theory Work?

Expectancy + Instrumentality + Valence = Motivational Force

The idea of expectancy theory is that it relies on the balance and implementation of three components: expectancy, instrumentality and valence.


This is the belief of individuals that effort will lead to positive results and that increasing the amount of effort given to a task will increase performance.

Essentially, the term ‘expectancy’ is used to describe an individual's belief that they are capable of achieving their goals. This is usually based on past experiences.


This is the idea that if you perform well then the desired outcome will be achieved.

The instrumentality is influenced by understanding the relationships between individuals' performance and outcomes, their ability to trust that rewards will occur in the way that they are promised if results are achieved and the transparency of the process so that employees fully understand how rewards are given.


This is the value that an employee places on the outcome they are trying to achieve.

In order for the valence to be considered positive by employees, the individual needs to consider achieving the outcome to be more beneficial than not achieving it.

This could be due to the personality-dependent intrinsic motivation of success, a desire for a reward offered for achieving the goal or a fear of the punishment given for failing.

It is important to consider what is important to each employee and whether an outcome is motivating.

How Does It Look in Practice?

It would be easy to assume that offering rewards will always lead to motivated employees and increased performance and that it doesn’t necessarily matter what the reward being offered is.

This isn’t always the case.

Employers need to understand the needs and preferences of their staff in order to tailor the rewards to the interests of their employees. Without this, employees won’t be motivated to achieve their rewards.

For example, consider an employer who offers their staff the ability to earn extra time off as a result of achieving their targets. But they have an employee who is more motivated by money and does not see the benefit of gaining time away from work.

Therefore, that employee would not be more productive for that reward; they would likely be more productive if rewarded with bonuses or the opportunity to earn overtime.

Another example would be if the employer offered a staff away day as a result of achieving a goal. This could be a team-building exercise or something which would be fun for staff members to do. If the away-day isn’t tailored to the interests of their staff members – perhaps the away day is at a ski resort while the team members would prefer a spa – then they won’t be interested in achieving it.

Expectancy Theory of Motivation: Everything You Need to Know
Expectancy Theory of Motivation: Everything You Need to Know

This means getting to know your employee’s personalities is important for expectancy theory, something that may not be possible with certain leadership structures.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Expectancy Theory

As with all forms of management and employee motivation, there are both advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages include:

  • Emphasis on rewards and potential pay-offs more than punishments, the carrot over the stick
  • Based on self-interest and the knowledge that individuals will want to do things that benefit them
  • Can lead to increases in productivity and staff morale

Disadvantages include:

  • Not every reward will appeal to every individual
  • It may be costly or impractical to have suitably motivating rewards for all employees
  • If the target is unachievable then this can lead to decreases in employee satisfaction

Ways to Apply Expectancy Theory in Management

When implementing expectancy theory, managers will need to consider a variety of different criteria.

Properly considering implications and outcomes alongside the needs of employees means that the rewards that are offered are more likely to be effective.

Offer Meaningful Rewards

The rewards which are offered should have value and meaning for your employees.

There is no point in offering something that nobody wants.

A mug that says “#1 Employee” is likely not popular with many people. A £10 gift voucher, for the shop you would have bought the mug at, could be, because it could then be spent on something the person actually wanted.

For the expectancy theory to work, the reward has to motivate staff members.

Know Your Team

One of the biggest mistakes that managers and employers can make is not really knowing their team.

Knowing what interests them and what makes them tick will mean that choosing appropriate rewards and incentives can be made easier.

You also need to know what would be inappropriate.

These can be generally universally inappropriate – a baseball cap with a swear word on it or out-of-date technology would be appropriate rewards in very few places.

They can also be personally inappropriate – offering alcohol as a reward to a predominantly Muslim team or a day paintballing in an environment inaccessible for the team member in a wheelchair.

Give Rewards for Measurable Outcomes

Employees need to be able to understand exactly how to gain their reward.

There needs to be a way of measuring when employees have reached the desired outcome.

Targets based on something that is not or cannot be measured, or targets that are not objective, can often seem unattainable and therefore unmotivating, regardless of the reward.

For example, the goals of being a better salesperson or working faster will likely not work as neither ‘better’ nor ‘faster’ are objective concepts that employees can aim for.

Whereas examples of measurable outcomes would be:

  • A car showroom could set a sales target for employees to sell a given number of cars over the course of a month
  • A bank might set a target for the number of new customers they would like within a specific time period
  • An office could consider setting a target for waste reduction by offering rewards to employees who reduce their paper wastage from the previous quarter
  • A coffee shop might want to increase sales of a seasonal treat. To do this, they might offer a reward to the employee who sells the largest number of the designated beverage

Be Transparent

Transparency is vital, especially in the case of motivating staff through expectancy theory.

Employees need to know exactly what they need to do in order to gain their reward.

They should know the specific criteria relating to the target or the reward to understand how to approach the challenge.

It is helpful for employees to be able to see the same tracking data the employer uses, so they can understand where improvements can be made and the goal reached.

It is also important for employees to understand why they haven’t been given the reward – whether it is that the target hasn’t been met or that there is a delay in processing the performance information.

Keeping employees in the dark will only increase resentment and distrust, worsening motivation.

Discuss Employee Perceptions About Your Business

Employee perception can have an enormous impact on how well any managerial style works, but it is especially important in the case of expectancy theory.

For it to work, employees need to trust that their employers will follow through with their promises.

If they don’t believe that they will gain the rewards, then it doesn’t matter what is on offer: employees won’t be motivated to work towards it.

Asking employees to take questionnaires or answer anonymous feedback forms can help managers and employers to understand how their staff feel about working for their company.

Anonymous feedback forms can be helpful when moving away from a toxic workplace where employees may have been afraid to speak up.

Such surveys can also highlight any areas that need to be improved for employees to be more motivated and enthusiastic.

Final Thoughts

Expectancy theory works on the understanding that individuals can be motivated by reward. In principle, it will help to increase productivity and provide employees with visible results for their hard work.

When implemented properly, the results are undeniable.

It is vital to remember that expectancy reward works best when the reward offered to employees has personal value to them.

Expectancy theory might not be able to solve every problem within a company or solve all problems relating to morale and enthusiasm, but it can provide a structure that helps employees to assess and evaluate workplace productivity and values.

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