Effective Motivation Through Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

Have you ever delved into Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory and its implications for motivation in the workplace?

This powerful framework, developed by Yale professor Victor Vroom in 1964, deciphers the psychological processes driving our motivational levels and subsequently, our actions.

Often explored in-depth during management training programmes, this theory provides a blueprint for leaders and managers seeking to create a motivated and high-performing team.

Join us as we navigate the intricacies of Vroom’s insights and uncover how they can be harnessed effectively in contemporary management practices.


Who is Victor Vroom?

Victor Vroom, a celebrated Yale professor, is a seminal figure in the fields of organisational behaviour and psychology. He was born in Quebec, Canada, in 1932 and sadly passed away in July 2023.

His work, particularly the Expectancy Theory, has revolutionised the way we understand employee motivation and leadership dynamics. Vroom’s insights are considered foundational in the study of management, helping shape modern organisational strategies.

Vroom’s notable publications include Work and Motivation, Leadership and Decision Making and The New Leadership.

Unveiling Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

Let’s unpack Vroom’s Expectancy Theory in a little more depth. We’ll begin with the basics.

Core Components: Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valence

The Expectancy Theory is built on three critical elements: Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valence.

  • Expectancy refers to the belief that one’s effort will lead to desired performance.

    Example: “If I make these 100 sales cold calls, I should expect 10 of these leads to progress to prospects.”

  • Instrumentality is the perception that performance will be rewarded or recognised.

    Example: “If I achieve a 10% conversion rate from cold leads to serious prospects, my boss will be happy, and I may earn a bonus.”

  • Valence is the value the individual places on the rewards.

    Example: “I’d rather have the recognition than the bonus, since it makes it likelier I’ll be promoted.”

Understanding these components is essential for managers to motivate their teams effectively.

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What does Vroom’s Expectancy Theory Say About Motivation?

Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory of motivation explains how people make decisions regarding various behavioural alternatives. Expectancy theory offers the following propositions:

  1. When deciding among behavioural options, individuals select the option with the greatest motivational force.
  2. The motivational force for a behaviour, action, or task is a function of three distinct perceptions: Expectancy, Instrumentality (Reward), and Value.

The motivational force is the product of the three perceptions:

Thus, Motivation = Expectancy x Reward x Value



Expectancy: The Probability of Success

An individual’s assessment of expectancy probability is based on experience, level of self-confidence, and the perceived difficulty of the performance goal. Experienced sales reps, for example, have a fair idea of how much effort translates into effectiveness.

Less experienced employees might not yet know what proportion of leads they can convert. Similarly, reps joining a new company, or moving to a different area of sales (for instance from property to software) might also find it hard to judge expectancy probability to begin with.

The success rate in different sales fields ranges widely. Here are two contrasting statistics:

  • 2% is the average cold-calling success rate according to LinkedIn.
  • BIA/Kelsey claimed a B2B outbound conversion rate of between 10-15% in 2014.

And you’ll find current opinion pieces online describing the cold calling conversion rate as anything from 1% to 10%. That’s a huge variation.

Clearly, whatever level is offered to reps as a target will strongly affect expectation, as employees compare their performance to this theoretical limit.



Instrumentality: The Expectation of Reward

Reward is based on the perceived performance-reward relationship. This is the belief that if someone does meet performance expectations, he or she will receive a greater reward.
There are three elements to instrumentality as a motivating factor:

1. Reward promises are made.
2. These promises are fulfilled.
3. The process of reward is publicised.

Fail in any one of these aspects, and instrumentality will have limited power to motivate. The failure modes are easy to understand:

“There isn’t much of an incentive program at this company.”

“We were supposed to get a bonus, then management said we had to tighten our belts this quarter.”

“I had no idea where to read about the incentive program”

Rewards can take many forms, of course:

  • Status rewards: salesperson of the month.
  • Cash bonuses: automatic or discretionary.
  • Gift schemes: physical rewards, based on performance.
  • Reward events: nights out, days off, team celebrations.
  • Promotion: a new, better-remunerated position.
  • Raise: a pay hike, linked to performance.

As we’ve seen, rewards work as motivators once employees see others receiving them and have a reasonable expectation that their own efforts will garner similar benefits.



Value: The Personal Factor in Motivation

Value refers to the value the individual personally places on the rewards. This is a function of his or her needs, goals, and values.

What someone will value will depend on several factors:

  • Their priorities overall (to earn £100K, to be the best)
  • Their immediate priorities (to pay the rent, to feel recognised)
  • Their psychological preferences (for appreciation, for gifts)

In other words, people may differ between one another in terms of what they value. However, an individual’s own priorities might also vary from day to day.

A wise manager pays attention to the different value systems of their employees, and knows how best to reward each one, so that the greatest motivation is derived.

Even if it’s impossible to keep track of how each rep in a large sales team is best motivated, by offering a range of possible benefits, managers can increase motivational value overall.

In other words, they can provide a supportive nurturing workplace (value 1), a published financial bonus scheme (value 2), public recognition for successes (value 3) and great training and development opportunities (value 4).

In this way, regardless of the psychological make-up of each team member, there is something to remind them how valuable the work they are doing is.

How Does the Theory Differ from Other Motivation Theories?

Unlike other motivational theories that often focus on intrinsic factors, Vroom’s Expectancy Theory introduces a more comprehensive approach.

It considers external influences like the work environment, team dynamics, and leadership styles, highlighting the complex nature of motivation in management.

Here are just some of the external factors that contribute to motivation:

  • The organisational culture (competitive, supportive, innovative).
  • Team cohesion and morale.
  • A sense of purpose or meaning.
  • A feeling of appreciation.
  • The opportunity for advancement.

Note how abstract many of these motivating factors are. Some might even seem whimsical – a sense of purpose?

However, for many employees, the work they do needs to have some sense of meaning, or value beyond the pay cheque and having like minded colleagues with whom to hit the pub on a Friday night.

A 2020 McKinsey survey revealed that 82% of workers believe that it’s important their company has a purpose. That’s a startling result.

So even if your business is selling rubber doorstops, you need to locate some purpose to satisfy those office philosophers. Fortunately, studies have also shown that workplace relationships and camaraderie rate highly in employee’s priorities.

A Gallup report found that workers with positive workplace relationships “are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business – actions they may not otherwise even consider.”

In other words, in happy workplaces, workers go the extra mile, whereas they’ll clock-off at their contracted hour in offices where they feel isolated or in conflict with leadership.

This is all common sense stuff, of course, but it pays to be reminded from time to time.


Why Expectancy Theory Matters in the Workplace

Expectancy Theory is worth studying because it digs deep into motivation, and as we’ll see, motivation is hugely significant in the workplace.

Let’s look deeper at how motivation drives performance at work.

The Role of Workplace Motivation

Workplace motivation is a critical driver of productivity and employee satisfaction. A well-motivated employee:

  • Works harder to achieve their goals and hit their targets.
  • Stays longer, and volunteers for more challenges than they otherwise would.
  • Collaborates better with team-members and wants to please management.
  • Feels fulfilled at work or has a sense of achievement.
  • >Isn’t tempted to look at job advertisements to see what else is out there.
  • Consistently delivers more effort, with a positive attitude.

Of course, it’s not realistic to expect all workers to be equally motivated each day. Everyone has bad days, whether due to ill-health, personal problems, or simply a run of bad luck.

However, in terms of average levels of motivation, paying attention to all the factors that contribute to worker satisfaction boosts productivity, improves retention, and reduces employee churn. Your HR department will thank you, in other words!

By leveraging Vroom’s Expectancy Theory, managers can create a more engaging and rewarding work environment, leading to higher levels of employee commitment and reduced turnover.

Achieving Desired Organisational Outcomes Through Motivation

Implementing the principles of Expectancy Theory can significantly impact organisational outcomes. Doing so helps in aligning employee goals with organisational objectives, creating a culture of continuous improvement.

The theory assumes that people act to minimise discomfort and maximise pleasure in all that they do. We are efficient animals, in other wise, which is probably how humanity propelled itself to the top of the food chain, after all.

Managers should therefore create workplaces where it is obviously better to act in a manner that aligns with strategic goals. Better for the company AND better for the individual.

Next, let’s turn to some practical tips and tricks to do just that.



Practical Applications of Victor Vroom’s Motivation Theory

We’ve pulled these lessons from real-world examples of companies maximising motivation for corporate gain, and employee satisfaction.

Real-world Examples and Case Studies

  1. Coca-Cola offers a mix of incentives to keep employees motivated. These include bonuses, pay hikes, airline tickets and scholarships for employee’s children. They have launched a cloud-based platform which allows employees to tailor their own rewards, a clever way of allowing for a range of differently motivated workers.
  2. Mailshake, an email campaign platform, uses a mixture of recognition and staff training to keep their team motivated. Says the company’s VP of marketing Alessandra Colaci, “I strive to keep my team motivated by recognising their work while always helping them level up their skills.”
  3. Thomson Reuters’ employees reveal the different ways they find motivation at work. Here are three quotes from their site (we have highlighted the relevant motivating factors):

    “I seek out ways to contribute to important projects that provide me with a sense of ownership both in my own work and my overall work environment. Making an impact in this industry and in customer’s lives is motivating.”

    “Throughout my tenure at TR I have worked with great colleagues. I can’t stress enough about the culture we have which acts as a catalyst to innovate, try new things, and not to be afraid of failures.”

    “The value that embracing flexible working practices brings to the lives of TR employees should not be underestimated. Work is such a big part of everyone’s life but is always balanced with home life.”

  4. Google, in common with a lot of tech firms, puts motivation front and centre in its work practices. Here are just some of the motivating ideas it employs:
    • 18 weeks maternity pay at 100%.
    • Free lunch and dinner at their HQs.
    • Employees are surveyed about their managers, to improve the latter’s performance.
    • Flexible working, with 20% of work hours to be spent as the employee prefers.
    • Unique and attractive workplaces that emphasise fun.

Let’s be honest, Google is an extreme example – not all workplaces can be like playgrounds for adults. However, that doesn’t mean that the importance of fun, laughter and entertainment should be overlooked.

Worker morale is a collective concept – it’s how a workforce feels, rather than any individual. However, low morale within a workplace often leads to individual demotivation. It’s unsurprising that productivity dips in an office where the boss is unpopular, or a hostile takeover is imminent.

Next, let’s turn to some practical steps that workplaces can take to improve motivation, with Vroom’s Expectancy Theory in mind.

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Seven Steps to Implement the Expectancy Theory in Management

Here are some practical steps you can take to maximise motivation by appreciating the three elements of Vroom’s theory:

  1. Institute a Reward Programme: make sure you are offering meaningful and realistic rewards. Canvass employees first, to find out what they would like. There are numerous commercial reward schemes available, including gift cards, discount schemes, and experiential rewards.
  2. Publicise and celebrate success: when individuals produce excellent results, make sure you acknowledge this publicly. It often feels more meaningful to be appreciated in front of the whole team (and can engender a friendly sense of competition).
  3. Design a more flexible workplace: can workers work in a hybrid or remote manner? Can you offer flexible hours? Do you offer “duvet days,” or carer’s leave? There are many ways to fashion a workplace that’s supportive to different groups and individual’s needs.
  4. Build team morale: make sure you have team celebrations and bonding events. Even simple things like recognising work anniversaries or employees’ birthdays can make a big difference. For more information on this, check out these tips on how to boost team morale.
  5. Be a more empathetic leader: lead with praise, rather than criticism, and offer support when an employee falls short. Make sure you appreciate any external reasons for poor performance before you criticise. You cannot know everything going on in a worker’s life.
  6. Be consistent: This recommendation focuses on expectancy. An employee needs to know what to expect, to stay properly motivated. Capricious or unpredictable leaders make for reduced morale.
  7. Ask for feedback: Leaders that invite feedback and are open to criticism are more welcome than those who feel they can do no wrong. You may need to develop a thick skin if you follow this recommendation, but your leadership will benefit from it!


Challenges and Criticisms of Expectancy Theory

Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation is not a perfect theory. Indeed, it has received some valid criticism over the intervening almost sixty years since its invention.

Let’s look at some of those criticisms now.

Potential Pitfalls and Areas of Concern

While Expectancy Theory is influential, it’s not without its challenges.

The first criticism is simply that the theory is overly simplistic, neglecting the complexity of accurately assessing individual motivations. It doesn’t, for example, explain akrasia, the human tendency to identify the right course of action, yet do something entirely different.

Secondly, motivation is not a static measure.

Were you to map an average worker’s motivation over their working week, you might notice significant drop-offs in performance, for instance, after lunch or at the end of a long week! This is to be expected, and Vroom’s theory can only account for motivation as an average.

Thirdly, the theory neglects worker education and training level, as well as innate ability. In other words, some workers are simply less capable, either temporarily, or fundamentally, to achieve the same targets as others.

Good training and development opportunities can help to bring employees closer to parity in terms of effort and achievement, but there will always be workers who are innately better at their job than others. Most good workplaces can support some level of variance in performance.

Lastly, the theory cannot readily be applied to workplaces where rewards are assigned based upon factors other than effort and achievement, such as seniority or qualifications.

That said, it can be argued that such workplaces would benefit from taking Vroom’s theory more seriously.

Addressing and Overcoming These Challenges

There are a range of ways to overcome the limitations and challenges of Victor Vroom’s motivation theory. Here are some of them:

  • Create achievable milestones and a range of targets, so that all workers feel they are working towards manageable goals.
  • Shape an empathetic workplace environment, allowing for the range of priorities employees may have, and their different needs.
  • Ensure most workers are rewarded at some point in their working life.
  • Offer training and development, so that employees have the best chance of gaining the rewards they seek.
  • Regularly survey staff on motivation, satisfaction, and morale. Make sure this is managed anonymously, so that workers can give honest answers.

MTD’s training courses provide valuable insights into overcoming motivational challenges. Training and development remain one of the best ways to maximise employee motivation, by providing the skills that lift performance and engender a sense of achievement.

Final Thoughts

In summary, Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory offers a powerful lens through which to view and influence workplace motivation. While there are competing theories, Vroom’s schema offers a commonsense analysis of what makes workers tick.

By understanding and applying its principles, managers and leaders can cultivate an environment that maximises employee engagement and drives organisational success.

Key Takeaways for Managers and Leaders

  • Rewards are only meaningful when they are achievable and consistently applied.
  • When some employees rarely achieve rewards, while others frequently receive them, it can have a demotivating effect.
  • The best way to find out what would most motivate employees is to ask them.
  • Realising and respecting that employees value different incentives will help you maximise employee satisfaction and achievement.
  • Training and development can help low-performing colleagues achieve the rewards and recognition that lead to improved motivation.

For more insights and practical guidance on applying Expectancy Theory in your workplace, check out MTD Management’s comprehensive online manager training courses.

Alternatively, if you are looking to improve your management and leadership skills, MTD Training has plenty of courses that can get you there. Take a look at our management skills course and management development programme.

And for some alternative theories of employee motivation, why not check out our articles on McClelland’s Motivational Needs or the Hertzberg Motivational Theory.

Thanks again


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training

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Updated on: 23 January, 2024

Originally posted: 19 November 2010

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