How Does Expectancy Theory Explain Motivation?

The most comprehensive explanation of how employees are motivated is Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory. Although the theory has its critics, most research evidence supports it.

Expectancy theory states that an individual tends to act in a certain way based on the expectation that the act will be followed by a given outcome and on the attractiveness of that outcome to the individual. It includes three variables or relationships:

  1. Expectancy or effort-performance linkage is the probability perceived by the individual that exerting a given amount of effort will lead to a certain level of performance.
  2. Instrumentality or performance-reward linkage is the degree to which the individual believes that performing at a particular level is instrumental in attaining the desired outcome.
  3. Valence or attractiveness of reward is the importance that the individual places on the potential outcome or reward that can be achieved on the job. Valence considers both the goals and needs of the individual.

This explanation of motivation might sound complicated, but it really isn’t. It can be summed up in the questions: How hard do I have to work to achieve a certain level of performance, and can I actually achieve that level? What reward will performing at that level get me? How attractive is the reward to me, and does it help me achieve my own personal goals? Whether you are motivated to put forth effort (that is, to work hard) at any given time depends on your goals and your perception of whether a certain level of performance is necessary to attain those goals. Let’s look at an example.

Many years ago, when a woman went to work for IBM as a sales rep, her favorite work “reward” became having an IBM corporate jet fly to pick up her best customers and her and take them for a weekend of golfing at some fun location. But to get that particular “reward,” she had to achieve at a certain level of performance, which involved exceeding her sales goals by a specified percentage.

How hard she was willing to work (that is, how motivated she was to put forth effort) was dependent on the level of performance that had to be met and the likelihood that if she achieved at that level of performance she would receive that reward. Because she “valued” that reward, she always worked hard to exceed her sales goals. And the performance-reward linkage was clear because her hard work and performance achievements were always acknowledged by the company with the reward she valued (access to a corporate jet).

The key to expectancy theory is, understanding an individual’s goal and the linkage between effort and performance, between performance and rewards, and finally, between rewards and individual goal satisfaction. It emphasizes payoffs, or rewards. As a result, we have to believe that the rewards an organization offers align with what the individual wants.

Expectancy theory recognizes that no universal principle explains what motivates individuals and thus stresses that managers understand why employees view certain outcomes as attractive or unattractive. After all, we want to reward individuals with those things they value positively. Also, expectancy theory emphasizes expected behaviors. Do employees know what is expected of them and how they’ll be evaluated?

Finally, the theory is concerned with perceptions. Reality is irrelevant. An individual’s own perceptions of performance, reward, and goal outcomes, not the outcomes themselves, will determine his or her motivation (level of effort). LSBF is one of the most popular sources to learn best management practices and things related to job satisfaction.

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