A Quick Guide to Expectancy Theory

An engaged, motivated, and productive team is every manager's dream. Employees produce more when motivated, increasing returns to the organization. But how can managers keep teams engaged? How can you communicate business goals in a way that inspires and resonates with each team member? 

Motivating employees is a crucial part of a manager's job. The Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam requires enrolled managers to learn several motivation theories. One of these is the expectancy theory.

What is expectancy theory?

The expectancy theory was developed by Victor Vroom, business school professor at the Yale School of Management, in 1964. It states that the "intensity of work effort depends on the perception that an individual's effort will result in the desired outcome." 

Simply put, people work harder when they believe increasing their efforts will improve their performance and lead to rewards. Employees are motivated when they believe:

  • Their work contributes to a larger goal or value
  • They're competent at the work
  • They'll be rewarded for their efforts

Managers can motivate employees by aligning rewards and values and providing a supportive work environment for everyone to do their best work. The expectancy theory emphasizes the connection between effort, rewards, and goals. People are motivated to work and contribute when they believe they'll achieve a positive outcome and be rewarded for their efforts. 

What are the elements of expectancy theory?

The expectancy theory hinges on three elements: 

  • Expectancy
  • Instrumentality
  • Valence

Let's look at the three elements of expectancy theory in detail. 

Expectancy

Expectancy is the belief that increased effort put into a task will result in the desired outcome. This may be influenced by the individual's confidence and the perceived difficulty of the desired goal. Expectancy is the belief that if you raise your efforts, your rewards will increase as well. Three factors needed to manage expectancy are:

  • Perceived goal difficulty: The perceived difficulty of a goal influences how much effort you put in and thus the eventual performance and outcome.
  • Confidence: A person's belief in their ability to complete a task significantly influences effort, performance, and eventual outcome.
  • Control: This can also be called authority levels. The level of control employees have over their roles can influence their effort. 

Instrumentality

Instrumentality is the belief that you'll be rewarded if you meet the goal expectations. The instrumentality element at work is the belief that the rewards depend on each person's job performance and effort. For instrumentality to increase motivation, managers should follow these guidelines:

  • Communicate the rewards employees can expect to receive
  • Define clear expectations about the reward
  • Build trust and motivation by keeping your word and giving rewards when they're due

Valence

Valence is how much an individual values the reward. It's how important the reward is to you. This typically depends on the employee’s individual needs, goals, preferences, experience, and background. 

Expectancy theory examples

One of the most common expectancy theory examples is people working harder when they believe the added effort will help them achieve a goal and be rewarded. As a manager, if your team is unmotivated, it may be because: 

  • They don't value the rewards associated with the work you're doing
  • They don't believe they'll receive the rewards
  • There's high perceived goal difficulty discouraging them from trying at all

If you assess your team motivation levels through the lens of the expectancy theory, you may identify the causes for demotivation in your team. This helps direct what your solution and next steps should be. 

Expectancy theory advantages and disadvantages

The expectancy theory principles have some advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that when used well, it can get employees to willingly and happily engage and produce more at work. They may become advocates for the organization because their values align with their work. 

A disadvantage of the expectancy theory is it may be difficult to align all employees' values with those of the organization. Everyone's values are different, even if only slightly. This may lead to varying levels of motivation and performance between the employees. 

Expectancy theory in PMP

The expectancy theory in PMP focuses on how project managers can use the expectancy theory to motivate employees to engage and produce more. The expectancy theory and other motivation theories for the PMP exam help project managers learn more about what motivates people to act and gain strategies to keep their teams working productively and collaboratively. 

As a project manager, you must be keen to learn how to set beneficial goals that motivate your teams and employees to increase their performance and act in the best interests of the organization. The best way to do this is to align the organization's goals with each individual's aims by finding synergies and commonalities to strengthen the relationship and their willingness to work hard. 

Are there alternatives to the expectancy theory of motivation?

There are several alternatives to the expectancy theory of motivation. These are also covered in the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exams and offer strong motivation theories to help managers build capable teams. Some of these are: 

How can managers use expectancy theory to motivate employees?

Make rewards align with values and deliver on every promise to create an environment of trust. Challenge employees to reach their full potential with stretch goals while providing adequate support and authority to help them handle their tasks. Remember to set and communicate clear expectations.

Managers can use the expectancy theory to motivate employees by expressing trust in their abilities to handle their duties, despite perceived difficulty and control. 

Reward high-performing team members and encourage others to improve effort and performance. Use project management software to analyze and adjust employee workload and keep overall performance and project progress transparent. 

Are you a manager or team member looking to track your project progress, performance, and expectations for future projects? Start with a free trial of Wrike today. 

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