Expectancy Theory of Motivation

Expectancy theory (or Expectancy theory of motivation) proposes an individual will behave or act in a certain way because they are motivated to select a specific behavior over other behaviors due to what they expect the result of that selected behavior will be. (Wikipedia)

This means that motivation for any behavior performed by an individual depends upon the desirability of the outcome. For instance, A football player is likely to play well in World Cup because he aims to win it. 

Still, the core of this theory depends on the cognitive process of how an individual analyses and processes motivational elements. Expectancy theory of motivation was first developed by Victor Vroom of the Yale School of Management. His theory assumes

"An individual behaves after contemplating his choices, thus choosing the one that result in maximum pleasure and minimum pain."

[Related Reading: Theories of motivation]

Key elements

In explaining the correlation between a persons' efforts and performances, Vroom outlined three core variables in his theory, namely Expectancy (E), Instrumentality (I) and Valence (V). 

Expectancy (E)

It’s a belief that increase in effort leads to increase in performance. For instance, If you work harder, then you'll prepare a great presentation on Global Warming. Various factors affecting this belief are

  • The available resources such as raw materials and time to get the job done.
  • Having the right skills for the job.
  • Necessary support from supervisors and having correct information about the job. This leads to belief that the job is in fact under control.

Instrumentality (I)

Instrumentality is a belief that appropriate reward will be received for right performance. The reward for the first performance also affects the second level performance. For instance, you will receive “this” reward (say, a car) if you do this job (sell a house) well. This belief is affected by following factors.

  • Rules of the reward game must be clear. Meaning, there should be clear understanding about what the reward will be for the required performance.
  • The individuals performing must have trust in the authority figures who decide what outcome to be received by which individual.
  • The process of rewarding for given performance must be transparent.

Valence (V)

Valence is the importance one places on the outcome that is expected. For instance, if you are already earning $1000 a week, you would only be motivated by the sum that is higher than that. Again, if the person values earning money above anything else, he won’t be intrigued by the opportunity to get time off.


The three elements are important behind choosing one element over another because they are clearly defined: effort-performance expectancy (E>P expectancy) and performance-outcome expectancy (P>O expectancy).

E>P expectancy: our assessment of the probability that our efforts will lead to the required performance level.

P>O expectancy: our assessment of the probability that our successful performance will lead to certain outcomes.

Vroom’s expectancy theory works on perceptions. Meaning, an employee might think that the company atmosphere is perfect to boost his motivation. However, in the same company, there might be someone who feels that the process doesn’t work for them.

Because Vroom proposed the theory as management and motivation, it’s often confused to be applicable only to traditional work places; however, it’s not true. Let’s say, you are studying for your exams because you can score better in your exams (valence); You put more and more effort into studying because the more you study, better you will score in your exams (expectancy); and you think the more you study beforehand, less pressure you will have later on (instrumentality).

Hence, the expectancy theory developed by Vroom isn’t really about the an individual’s self-interest in rewards, rather it’s about the associations people make towards expected rewards and the level of performance they can offer in order to attain those rewards.


The main goal of expectancy theory is to yield best possible outcome. So in that sense, in order to receive maximum performance from individuals, employers must use transparent systems that closely relate rewards with performance. Another thing to consider is that the rewards offered must be desired by the employees. And the vital aspect is that the employee must believe that more effort he puts in, better the outcomes will be.


An employee would be motivated to put in higher amount of effort to perform better on the job. This would occur at an even rate if he knew what the rewards were going to be. For instance, an extra day off or increase in salary. Also, the employee who wants to earn more wouldn’t be tempted by additional day off. And the last thing to be considered is that the employee is well equipped for the job at hand with the resources, time and the required skills.

Critical Evaluation

The simplicity of this theory has been criticized by researchers. The employee wouldn’t be motivated if he only received, say $2 more in his salary. The employee would only be motivated if the benefits allowed him to fulfill his immediate needs. Also, the compromise and sacrifices involved as part of the benefits isn’t covered by Vroom's expectancy theory.