Victor Vroom Expectancy Theory

In 1964 Victor Vroom developed his Expectancy Theory to explain observations on the motivations behind decision making. It has become one of the most dominate motivational theories in use today, and can be used to explain common workplace strategies such as performance reviews and financial incentive schemes.

Vroom believed that employees were more likely to be highly motivated when they perceived a link between effort, performance and rewards. Sounds fair enough.

He proposed that the link between motivation, effort, performance, and reward could be explained via the following formula:

M = E x I x V

where M = motivation, E = Expectancy, I = Instrumentality, V = Valence.

So motivation was the multiplication of expectancy, instrumentality and valence.

The Expectancy component can be summarised as the employee’s perceived probability of that if they put in the effort, they will achieve the desired level of performance.

The Instrumentality component is the employees perceived probability that by meeting the desired level of performance they will be rewarded for it.

Finally, the Valence component is the value that the employee places on the reward.

To explain the expectancy formula more simply:

Does the employee think they can do the work to your satisfaction? Do they think they will be rewarded for completing the work? And finally, do they value the reward?

Positive answers to these three questions will result in a motivated employee. Vroom found that a negative answer to any one of these questions is enough to remove motivation to work, and this can be seen by the multiplication of factors in his formula.

As Victor Vroom’s theory has a clear testable equation, it has been the focus of numerous research. Generally it was found that Vroom’s predictions held true at statistically significant levels, as long as the task and demands weren’t vague or ambiguous*. Expectancy theory suggests that people, at some level, process information and then decide if they should be motivated, and as long as this occurs, research tended to agree. However, when employees performed automatic tasks, such as routine, day-to-day work, they were less likely to influenced by expectancy theory and more likely to be influenced by their pre-existing motivational habits.

For managers, Expectancy Theory makes some general recommendations:

  • Seek to understand the goals and motivations of your employees.
  • Set clear and concise expectations, avoid ambiguous requirements.
  • Seek to understand employee attitudes and perceptions on the work environment and what is asked of them.
  • Tie rewards to individual performance, designed with the specific individual in mind.
  • Make the reward process and any award given public so that all employees can see the link between great performance and improving rewards.
  • Make sure that your employees are supported in their endevours. Do they have the appropriate knowledge and skills for the task at hand? Do they have all they need to translate their motivation into high performance?

There are a number of critisisms of expectancy theory, such as how does the formula: M = E x I x V actually help today’s managers? How do we apply this theory to create more motivated employees? How do you give rewards to employees that are individually-relevant, whilst still being fair to all? In practice, I think it is near impossible to build a reward-driven motivational strategy that is considered ‘fair’ by all. As managers though, I think we all hope that the system is significantly more fair than it is unfair.

Expectancy theory comes under the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to motivation that has been under fire in recent years for punishing employees more than rewarding them. It is linked to creating a culture of fear where employees seek more to get the reward, than to be a great employee. For more information what occurs when a system of rewards are in place, see my earlier blog post ‘It motivates them’ – To do what, exactly?

Does this mean we should ignore expectancy theory? No. The ‘do this, get that’ mentality is a fundamental, almost assumed, way of getting motivation in other people. We experience it as children, apply it as parents, and then do repeat the cycle in the workplace. To ignore a theory that tries to explain this approach would be folly, it’s just too widely used.

You should be across its implications, in particular, it’s insights into why a subordinate may appear unresponsive the rewards on offer. Perhaps they feel that they can’t complete the task to your satisfaction? Maybe they don’t think you’ll reward their efforts? Perhaps the rewards on offer just don’t mean anything to them.

Should it be your primary motivational technique? Probably not, but I have to admit, I’m still a novice on motivational theory. Expectancy Theory – what do you think?

Hit me up in the comments below….

* Reference for this paragraph: Guest, D (1986), “What’s new in motivation”, in Landy, F.J. (ed), Readings in Industrial and Organisational Psychology, The Dorsey Press, Chicago, pp. 177-183.

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One thought on “Victor Vroom Expectancy Theory

  1. Hi Andy – great chatting after class on Wednesday.

    Maybe if we consider that the rewards expectancy theory speaks of may not be financial (i.e. they may satisfy McClelland’s needs for power, achievement, or affiliation instead) then it gives the theory a fresh breath of life.

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