Expectancy theory

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Expectancy theory is a term referring to specific area of motivation theory, that focuses on how employee’s expectations regarding their ability to execute tasks and achieve desired rewards can affect their work motivation and organizational behavior [1]. It is seen as part of the contemporary theories on motivation [2]. In general, expectancy theory states that motivation is dependent on three different beliefs an employee can hold [3]:

  • Expectancy (E)
  • Instrumentality (I)
  • Valence (V)

Thus, motivation according to expectancy theory can be described as:

Motivation = E x I x V

While different expectancy theories exist, the first theory focusing on work motivation in particular has been developed by Victor Vroom in 1964 [4]. Another model of high importance has for instance been published by Porter and Lawler in 1968 [5].

Expectancy factors

According to expectancy theory, an employee’s motivation is the outcome of the following three factors. It is important for managers to pay attention to each factor, since a theoretical score of zero for one of the factors would lead to an overall score of zero in motivation, as visible in the equation presented above [6].


Expectancy, or also called effort-performance expectancy, describes the degree to which a person believes that putting in effort will result in the expected level of performance [7]. Thus, expectancy consists of an action-outcome interconnection [8]. An employee who believes that an increase in effort for their work will also lead a better performance would therefore have a high effort-performance expectancy [9].


Instrumentality refers to a person’s belief that a good performance will lead to a valid outcome or reward [10]. Therefore, instrumentality can also be called performance-outcome expectancy. Accordingly, a person who delivers a high performance but is not rewarded appropriately will have a rather low perceived instrumentality. Instrumentality describes an outcome-outcome interconnection [11].


Valence describes how valuable a person perceives a possible reward or outcome of their work to be [12]. In general, a positive valence would indicate that an employee would prefer having the outcome to not having it, a negative valence would mean a person would not like to achieve the outcome [13].

Managerial implications of expectancy theory

According to expectancy theory, managers should have knowledge about employees’ needs, make outcomes of their work clear to them and ensure that everyone is able to achieve said outcomes, in order to foster employees' motivation [14]. In other words, managers should try to maximize their employees’ expectancy, instrumentality and valence [15]. Increased expectancy could for example be achieved by training or clarification of goals. Valence could be maximized by aligning rewards with employees’ needs. Clearly communicating the possible outcomes of good work could be a means to increase perceived instrumentality. Additionally, expectancy theory holds implications for the design of motivation systems, such as the importance of recognition of differences in individual employees' needs, abilities and values or a clear linkage between effort, performance and rewards [16].

Examples of Expectancy theory

  • Performance-reward expectancy: employees expect that if they perform well, they will be rewarded with tangible or intangible rewards. For example, if an employee receives a bonus after completing a project on time, they are more likely to put in extra effort to ensure similar successful outcomes in the future.
  • Outcome-effort expectancy: employees expect that if they expend effort, they will achieve desired outcomes. For example, a salesperson may invest extra hours into researching potential customers in order to increase their chances of making a sale.
  • Valence-effort expectancy: employees expect that the effort they expend will result in outcomes that they value. For example, an employee may be willing to put in extra hours at work if they know that the outcome will be a promotion or increased recognition in the organization.

Advantages of Expectancy theory

Expectancy theory is an influential model of motivation that emphasizes how employees’ expectations about their ability to accomplish tasks and receive rewards can shape their work motivation and organizational behavior. The following are some of the advantages of expectancy theory:

  • It is highly applicable to the real world, as it takes into account the complexities of human behavior in the workplace and provides a framework to understand work motivation.
  • It acknowledges that individuals have different levels of motivation, and that this is influenced by their expectations and beliefs about their ability to complete tasks.
  • It helps to explain why some employees are more motivated than others and why some perform better than others.
  • It provides a tangible path for managers to use in order to increase employee motivation and productivity.
  • By explicitly linking rewards to task performance, it provides a framework for organizations to design reward systems that are more effective in motivating employees.

Limitations of Expectancy theory

Expectancy theory is a useful tool to understand the motivation behind employee’s behavior, but there are certain limitations to it. These include:

  • The theory fails to explain the effect of external factors such as culture, organizational structure, and the political environment on employee’s motivation.
  • It is difficult to measure the exact degree of motivation that employees have for any particular task.
  • The theory does not explain how individuals will react to different levels of rewards and incentives.
  • It does not take into account the impact of intrinsic motivation on employee’s performance.
  • It fails to explain how individuals will respond to different levels of risk associated with a task.
  • It does not consider the effect of personality traits on motivation.
  • It does not explain how people will react to changes in their work environment.
  • It does not consider the long-term effects of motivation on employee’s performance.

Other approaches related to Expectancy theory

Expectancy theory is a specific area of motivation theory that focuses on how employee’s expectations regarding their ability to execute tasks and achieve desired rewards can affect their work motivation and organizational behavior. Other approaches related to Expectancy theory include:

  • Goal-setting theory - this approach emphasizes the positive effect of setting challenging goals and providing feedback to employees on their progress.
  • Equity theory - this motivation theory posits that employees compare their job inputs and outcomes with those of others in similar positions to determine if they are being treated fairly.
  • Reinforcement theory - this theory suggests that employees will seek out rewards and avoid punishments in order to increase their motivation.

In summary, Expectancy theory is one of several motivation theories that seek to explain how employees’ expectations, goals, and rewards can influence their behavior in an organization. Other related approaches include Goal-setting, Equity, and Reinforcement theories.


  1. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 50; Mukherjee & Kumar Basu 2005, p. 120
  2. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 43
  3. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 50
  4. Mukherjee & Kumar Basu 2005, p. 120; Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 50
  5. Miner 2005, p. 98
  6. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 51
  7. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 50
  8. Miner 2005, p. 98
  9. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 50
  10. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 50
  11. Miner 2005, p. 98
  12. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 50
  13. Mukherjee & Kumar Basu 2005, p. 97
  14. Mukherjee & Kumar Basu 2005, p. 120
  15. Rothmann & Cooper 2015, p. 51
  16. Mukherjee & Kumar Basu 2005, p. 122

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Author: Leonie Pöter