Vroom's Expectancy Theory of Motivation: Definition, Principles & Uses

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The expectancy theory of motivation, also known as the valence-instrumentality-expectancy theory, states that a person's motivation is directly tied to an expected outcome as a result of their hard work and labor. This means people are increasingly more motivated the stronger they believe that their current actions will result in their desired goal.

The expectancy theory of motivation is traditionally a management principle, but it also has many applications outside of the workplace. For example, if you can better understand the expectancy theory, you can not only motivate those around you, but you can better understand your personal expectations in an attempt to self-motivate. In this article, we discuss how the expectancy theory works and how to use it.

How the Expectancy Theory of Motivation Works

This theory was put forth by Victor Vroom in the 1960s and says a person's expectations directly relate to their level of motivation. Many people believe that if they put in a specific amount of effort it will result in a specific reward. If a person's action results in their expected reward they'll be motivated to take the same action again. If, however, their actions don't result in their expected reward they'll become demotivated.

Specifically, the theory's position is that your motivation is directly affected by how much you want a reward, your belief that your effort will lead to an expected level of performance, and that your performance will result in the reward you want. These three components are known as valence, expectancy, and instrumentality. If you can identify and understand these three components you'll be able to motivate others as well as yourself.

Overall, motivation can increase or decrease based on three factors:

  1. Valence: Measures the weight you place on an outcome or goal. Essentially, valence describes how bad someone wants something.  Interestingly enough, this represents the perceived satisfaction you expect to gain from an outcome or goal, and not the actual satisfaction. The higher the valence, the higher the motivation.
  2. Expectancy: Represents your belief that your increased effort will result in better performance. Your level of expectancy is affected by things like skills, resources, information, as well as perceived future growth. The higher the expectancy, the higher the motivation.
  3. Instrumentality:  The faith that increased levels of performance will result in the outcome or goal you want. This is largely affected by a person's belief in decision-makers or gatekeepers, the simplicity of the process, and the connectivity between inputs (effort) and output (goal achievement).

As you can see, all three of these factors are based on your expectations. First, you expect a specific outcome or goal to be rewarding once you achieve it. Second, you expect that if you put forth effort in pursuit of that goal or outcome, your relative level of performance will increase. Third, your increased performance should result in the achievement of your ultimate desire.

Therefore, the expectancy theory of motivation is typically used to describe the following three relationships:

  1. Effort-performance relationship: The likelihood that your effort is seen in your performance, both by you as well as recognized by others.
  2. Performance-reward relationship: The belief that your increased performance will be rewarded.
  3. Reward-goals relationship: The level of appeal (or desire) you feel towards your desired outcome or goal.

If you can maximize all three of these relationship types by pulling one of the three levers above (valence, expectancy, instrumentality), you can increase motivation, both for yourself as well as those around you.

How to Calculate Motivation With the Expectancy Theory

The three inputs (above) that affect the expectancy theory of motivation create two thresholds that must be positive in order for someone to remain motivated. First, a person must believe that there is a high probability that their efforts will lead to their desired level of performance. Second, they must also believe that there is a high probability that theur performance will lead to their desired outcomes.

If both are positive (or if one is negative but the other exceedingly positive), then your "motivational force" (MF) is also positive. You can depict these thresholds using the following:

  • Effort-performance expectancy (E>P)
  • Performance-outcome expectancy (P>O)

If you expect both of these to be positive, i.e. that effort results in performance and that performance results in goal achievement, then your motivational force is positive. Conversely, if one or both of these thresholds are not met (due to negative valence, expectancy, and instrumentality), then your motivational force will either be low or negative.

You can depict your motivation using the following formula:

Motivational Force (MF)  = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence 

You can see from the formula that if any of the three components of this motivational theory are negative or low it can affect motivation. When trying to motivate yourself or others, keep this equation in mind and keep track of the resulting motivational force. Over time, you can increase motivation by increasing each of its three components.

How to Use the Expectancy Theory in Business

The expectancy theory is typically a management or business principle, although it can be used for self-motivation. When it comes to business, managers and executives within companies use this theory to motivate their employees. This is because often times in business, people are often motivated by rewards like raises and will put in more effort if they believe their effort will result in their expected reward.

For example, the expectancy theory predicts that employees will be motivated when they feel that:

  • Adding more effort to their work will result in better job performance
  • This increase in performance will result in business rewards, like an increase in salary
  • These business rewards are actually coveted or wanted by the individual employee

In order to have a better chance of incentivizing a positive performance or outcome, managers need to ensure that the rewards being offered tie closely to the performance desired. This is referred to as the "performance-effort tie".

In addition, managers should make sure that the rewards provided are actually wanted by the potential recipient, as well as deserved. In order to improve the "effort-performance tie", clearly set expectations with employees and better understand the reward they expect to get if your desired outcomes are successfully met.

How to Use the Expectancy Theory in Life

We've established that the expectancy theory is all about expectations. Regardless of which of the three inputs you measure, it all comes down to your perception that "X" will result in "Y", which will then result in "Z". When applying the expectancy theory to your life, make sure you have the following three things - a goal you want, a plan that'll grow your skillset and knowledge-base, and the belief that if you execute your plan, you'll achieve your desired outcome.

A lot of people fail at motivating themselves before they even start because, often times, the goal they're going after isn't one they actually want. It's easy to get caught up in the trappings of life, setting goals that surround money and material things, rather than experiences and fulfillment. If this is the case, and if you find you're often demotivated, it's time to go back to square one and figure out a goal or outcome that'll invigorate you and get you to jump out of bed in the morning.

Assuming you have a goal that gets you excited, the next thing to do is devise a plan that results in increased performance over time. The best way to go about doing this is to create a course of action in which you can't fail. For example, if you want to start your own company, you can create a strategy where even if your business fails, you'll widen your network, interface with venture capitalists, and learn more about the startup business environment.

Finally, if the fruits of your labor result in your desired outcome, great! This means you have high instrumentality. If it doesn't, then all you have to do is check your valence, or your desire to achieve your goal. If that's still high, then check your expectancy - is your current course of action helping you gain new skills and experiences? If yes, then you might just have to persevere. If no, don't get depressed. Rather, go back to the drawing board and adjust your plan.

Expectancy Theory of Motivation Examples

For example, if you want to join the executive team of your company, the first step to motivate yourself is to verify that you actually want the goal. If so, it's time to sit down and choose a plan that results in you earning a C-level position. Then, once the plan is in place, you need to execute that plan, learning new skills along the way that'll help you achieve your goal of executive leadership.

What's important to note here is that if you do it right, you can't fail. For example, if you execute your plan to perfection and the board of directors don't reward you with the role you want, you'll still have new experiences that might help you get a C-level position somewhere else. So, as long as you focus on consistent learning as part of expectancy, you'll have new skills you can apply elsewhere in an attempt to achieve your ultimate desire, and won't have to worry or stress about a thing.

Problems With the Expectancy Theory of Motivation

One of the major problems with the expectancy theory of motivation is the fact that effort is not always correlated with rewards. For example, you can try to get a raise all you want, but if your superior doesn't want to give you one, then all your effort will be for naught. Now, if you've been following, you know that your perception of decision-makers affects your level of instrumentality, but still, this is a common occurrence that often demotivates people.

The theory directly links effort, performance, and reward together, as if one begets the next. It also assumes a high degree of agency, which is your ability to directly affect the outcome of your life. However, as many of us know, this isn't true, and we don't always get what we deserve. This means that often times we'll have to rely on other motivational theories to help get us to where we want to be, although components of the expectancy theory remain valid.

Expectancy Theory Advantages and Disadvantages

Vroom's expectancy theory clearly has many advantages as well as a few disadvantages. Ultimately, this theory is best served along with other theories of equal importance. The most effective strategies are mosaics, with singular strategies a tool on your toolbelt rather than the entire tool chest itself.

Let's now take a look at the theories advantages and disadvantages:

Expectancy Theory of Motivation Advantages

  • Based on the fact that motivation is correlated with satisfaction
  • Expectations can lead to increased motivation, even if the eventual outcome doesn't meet expectations
  • The theory emphasizes rewards, pay-offs, and goal achievement
  • It champions the fact that effort should lead to increased performance, which should then lead to the achievement of the desired outcome

Expectancy Theory of Motivation Disadvantages

  • Somewhat idealistic because it assumes that effort and performance will directly lead to the desired outcome
  • There are other inputs that should be considered, such as education and overall capacity, rather than effort alone

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the Three Components of the Expectancy Theory?

The three components of the expectancy theory of motivation include valence, expectancy, and instrumentality. Valence represents how bad you want a goal. Expectancy measures your belief that your increased effort will lead to increased performance. Finally, Instrumentality represents your faith that your increased performance will result in the goal or outcome you want, and is largely based on social cues.

What is Herzberg's Theory of Motivation?

Also known as the two-factor theory, Herzberg's theory of motivation states that there are two broad factors that affect a person's motivation: hygiene factors and motivator factors. Hygiene factors include things like salary, job security, and work/life balance. Motivator factors include status, recognition, personal growth, and personal achievement. Increasing these factors increases motivation, and vice versa.

What is the Reinforcement Theory of Motivation?

The reinforcement theory of motivation states that there are four reinforcement factors that can increase or decrease a person's motivation. These four factors are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Positive reinforcement praises people for good behavior, negative reinforcement removes a consequence when someone performs well, punishment rewards negative behavior with a negative consequence, and extinction ignores negative behavior completely.

Training is Most Relevant to Which Relationship in the Expectancy Theory of Motivation?

The effort-performance relationship is most relevant to training. This is because this relationship measures the perception that effort results in performance that's recognized within an organization. So, if you're training someone, you want to drive the point home that if they try hard and increase their performance, it'll be noticed and rewarded. This helps new hires overcome self-consciousness quickly and become a top producer.

Are There Other Related motivational theories?

Yes, there are many other motivational theories that relate to the expectancy theory of motivation. The most relatable is the equity theory of motivation, which states that people are motivated by fairness. Like the expectancy theory, if they feel that their effort is not resulting in what they deserve, they become demotivated.

For more information, check out the articles below:


Overall, the expectancy theory of motivation is all about expectations. If expectations are high that your effort will help achieve the outcome you want, then your motivation will be high. The converse is also true, driving the point home that you need to nourish your expectations as well as the expectations of those around you. However, make sure that your expectations are somewhat realistic, otherwise, you'll feel demotivated once you realize you don't have enough instrumentality to achieve your goal.

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