Expectancy Theory: How to Tailor Motivation

The Expectancy Theory of Motivation has become increasingly popular within the management world as a strategy for aligning employee and company incentives. This is one of the key responsibilities and challenges a manager has. Incentives are malleable, however. Effective management can help bring employee and company incentives into a more synergistic relationship. This is exactly what the Expectancy Theory of Motivation is designed to achieve. Let’s dive into the theory!

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Expectancy Theory of Motivation

What is the Expectancy Theory of Motivation? First, it’s helpful to understand what drives human behavior (AKA motivation). Humans are driven to adapt their goals and behaviors to serve an external entity only when their own goals are seen as in alignment with that entity’s goals.

The Expectancy Theory of Motivation offers a framework for motivating people that does not ignore nor focus entirely on the natural force of individual self-interest. Instead – and this is a well-rounded Expectancy Theory of Motivation definition – the theory is a set of managerial tools driven by the insight that individuals choose how to behave based on what they think will lead to the best outcome. Also known as Vroom’s Expectancy Theory for its inventor Victor Vroom, the theory helps managers adapt employee behaviors to best serve the company in a way that also meets the desires and expectations of employees.

3 Key Elements of Expectancy Theory

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory can be broken down into three key elements:


Expectancy can be defined as an individual’s belief that if they increase their effort toward a goal, their reward will increase as well. It’s expectancy that moves people to do what needs to be done to complete a job. But it’s not as simple as injecting employees with motivation. The right factors need to be in place. Employees need to be equipped with the tools, skills, resources, information, and support to get the job done. Expectancy rests on a sense of A) self-efficacy, B) a realistically attainable goal, and C) a sense of personal agency.


This element refers to an employee’s belief that their performance will make the difference in determining their reward. For an employee to develop a sense of instrumentality, the expectations regarding the work and the reward should be clearly defined and communicated. Employees must also have a sense of trust that management will follow through on delivering the reward. Employees may feel instrumentality more strongly if they can negotiate what their reward will be. Rewards include compensation, job advancement, personal satisfaction, and a sense of recognition or prestige.


Valence refers to how much value or importance an employee places on the expected reward. If managers try to incentivize employees with rewards employees don’t care about, the efforts will fall flat.

Expectancy Theory Example and Business Application

Let’s look at some Expectancy Theory examples so we can see Vroom’s ideas at work in business settings.

TruWalls, a company that manufactures prefabricated homes, has noticed its productivity has consistently failed to meet expectations. There haven’t been any obvious problems, but shift leaders have noticed a lack of motivation among the employees. Management discovered that employees have been dissatisfied with subpar tools they’ve been given to work with. These tools make the work not only inefficient, but difficult. Management invests in upgrading and maintaining the fleet of tools, and employees feel more empowered. As a result, productivity rises.

GoodSend, a shipping and retail distribution logistics company, has observed consistently mediocre results among its 10,000 warehouse workers. The company has offered team-based rewards for strong performance, but these have failed to make any difference. Management discovers that, because the workforce is so large, individual employees feel their contributions don’t make a big enough difference in determining whether or not they’ll earn the reward. In other words, the Instrumentality factor of Expectancy Theory is inhibited. Management pivots to a payment structure that rewards performance on an individual level, so each employee knows they have the power to determine if they will qualify for the bonus.


There is a powerful rationale behind the Expectancy Theory of Motivation. Think about it: the choice of what to do, in any situation, is virtually unlimited. On some level, that decision is constantly being made in negotiation with our expectations about what will happen. And it makes sense that we’re measuring our expectations based on what we consider the greatest benefit relative to what we value most.

Managers looking to keep their workforce inspired and on the same page would do well to learn from the insights of Vroom’s Expectancy Theory. By considering the factors that really drive employee behavior, managers can create synergies between a company and its workers. When an organization is run by employees whose goals are aligned with the organization’s, there’s almost no limit to what they can all achieve!

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