There’s Room For Vroom’s Expectancy Theory in Employee Motivation

In This Article

(Click the links below to move easily to sections of this article)

What is Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation?
Expectancy Theory Case Study Scenario
How to Apply Vroom’s Expectancy Theory in the Workplace
Video: Applying Expectancy Theory to the Workplace
Quiz: Can You Apply Vroom’s Expectancy Theory to the Workplace?
Scholarly Citations for this Article
Motivation in the Workplace Article Series

Member Content

Back to Top


As I coach managers, I often make the point to them that they do not motivate their employees.

Motivation (a strong desire to act in a certain way—good or bad) is internal.

It comes from within. (Either, we want to accomplish something or we do not want to accomplish it, based on internal and external factors that are important to us.)

This does not mean that you do not have any power to affect your employees’ motivation, however.

Given your organizational power, you have many ways to influence your employees’ motivation.  You create the working environment and this affects their internal motivation.

As I learned when I was a young manager, you cannot positively influence your employees’ motivation if you do not understand what is important to them. You have to spend some time with your employees and get to know them.

While motivation is individual, there are some general principles of motivation that can help you get the environment-thing right.

Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory provides some important considerations for you to consider as you work to have a positive influence on your employees’ motivation.

You CAN'T FORCE your employees to be motivated in the workplace. But, you CAN INFLUENCE them to be motivated by what you say and do as their leader. Click To Tweet

Back to Top

What is Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation?

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory does not completely explain motivation (no one theory does).

It is still useful, particularly if you are trying to get your employees to cooperate with you on a particular outcome.

Here’s the principle of the expectancy theory: the degree an employee is motivated to achieve an outcome depends on the combination of three key factors.

These factors are valence, instrumentality, and expectancy.

Valence is the degree to which your employee believes that reaching an outcome is desirable. An outcome has positive valence for your employee when he or she believes achieving it will be desirable. An outcome has negative valence when your employee believes achieving it will be unpleasant.

[Instrumentality] is the degree to which your employee believes that performing at a certain level will lead to an outcome.  It is a performance to reward linkage*.

[Expectancy] is the degree to which your employee believes that he or she can meet an outcome. It is an effort to performance linkage*.

All of this terminology may sound complicated, but it really is simpler than it sounds. Let’s look at it from your employee’s perspective:

  • Valence is about attractiveness. How attractive is the outcome to him or her? (Is it something that he or she WANTS to do?)
  • Instrumentality is about possibility. Is it possible for your employee to meet the outcome? (If your employee does the work, how LIKELY is it that he or she will meet the outcome?)
  • Expectancy is about performance. Can your employee do the necessary work to meet the outcome? (Is it something that he or she CAN do?)
Don't expect your employees to be motivated to achieve something that they believe will bring them negative consequences. Click To Tweet

Back to Top

Expectancy Theory Case Study Scenario

Let’s look further at this with a case study scenario.

Ricardo is a respected manager in a high volume retail store. He wants one of his dependable employees, Mary to remain in his department.

To encourage Mary to stay, he tells her in their monthly one-on-one meeting that she needs a development plan so he can promote her.

Ricardo explains to Mary that this development plan he has made identifies specific work projects that she will work on over the next six months. He assures her that after six months she will be more competitive for promotions in the department.

Ricardo stops talking as he expects Mary will be excited about his development plan. Instead, he is a bit disappointed that Mary — his normally optimistic employee — can barely muster a smile. After an awkward silence that seemed like an hour, he and Mary agree to revisit this topic at their next one-on-one meeting.

As Mary leaves Ricardo’s office, he tries to hide his disappointment. He thinks: This meeting did not go well.


So, what went wrong in this scenario?

First, before we address the Expectancy Theory, let’s talk about that meeting. While Ricardo’s heart was in the right place, it was a top-down, directive meeting. Mary was pretty absent from the “development phase” of the development plan.

Had Ricardo engaged Mary in discussion and worked on the development plan with her, he could have properly addressed the three factors in the Expectancy Theory.

Again, while Ricardo’s heart was in the right place, he was not able to positively influence Mary’s motivation as he did not understand her Expectancy Theory factors.

From Mary’s perspective, here’s how she viewed the development plan to promotion linkage:

  1. Valence: Is this future promotion, something that I want? (Do I really want a more responsible position in Ricardo’s department? Everyone on his management team seems stressed out all of the time.)
  2. Instrumentality: If I do well on my development plan, will Ricardo really promote me? (Will I ever really get a promotion? Or, will I just be one more qualified employee in Ricardo’s applicant pool who doesn’t get the job?)
  3. Expectancy: If I get the promotion, will I be able to do well in this new role? (How well will I do in this new role? What support will I have to help me succeed?)
Don't expect your employees to be motivated to achieve an outcome that they believe is unattainable. Click To Tweet

Back to Top

How to Apply Vroom’s Expectancy Theory in the Workplace

Vroom explains the importance of your employees’ perceptions of the outcomes you want to meet. If you want them to be motivated to achieve your outcomes, you’ll have to address the Expectancy Theory factors.

Are you trying to achieve something that your employees do not want? If so, you have negative valence (an unattractive outcome). In this case, find ways to make your outcome more beneficial to your employees.

Do they doubt that their efforts will get the outcome you want? If so, you will have to show them why their efforts will have the positive effects you expect.

Are they unsure about their inability to help you achieve the outcome? If so, you have a motivation or training issue to address.

Expectancy Theory is important for you as a manager because it provides some insights on why your employees may behave in a certain way. While you have the power to force your employees to take a certain action, if you use a force strategy too frequently you will harm employee morale and motivation.

Your job will be much easier when your team members want to do what you expect of them.

Using Vroom’s Expectancy Theory with effective communication collaboration, and coaching techniques can give you the ability to achieve your departmental outcomes.

Remember, you get more with honey than you do with vinegar!

Back to Top

Video: Applying Expectancy Theory to the Workplace

To be motivated, employees have to believe that an outcome is desirable, that it will occur if they do the work, and that it is something that they can actually do. Click To Tweet

Back to Top


Back to Top

Scholarly Citations for this Article

This article from Management is a Journey® has been cited in the following scholarly research articles:

Back to Top

Motivation in the Workplace Article Series

*Adapted material from: Robbins, S. P. Organizational behavior: Concepts, controversies, applications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This article is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Content is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional advice in business, management, legal, or human resource matters.

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

Expert Interview

Wall Street Journal

Expert Presenter

Association of Talent Development

Expert Interview

Society for Human Resource Management

Expert Author

Digital Analytics Association