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Employee Motivation and the Expectancy Theory

Updated on December 13, 2014
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Cara-Noelle is a HR professional and has been working in human resources for 20 years. She holds a Master's degree in HR Management.

What is Expectancy Theory?

The Expectancy Theory really centers around three main relationships according to Victor Vroom: effort-performance relationships, performance-reward relationships and rewards-personal goals relationship. All of the relationships are about the linear perception of the individual involved; basically however much effort the individual puts in will result in a certain level of performance, that level of performance will lead to a reward or desired outcome, and that reward or outcome satisfy the individual who put out the initial effort. When applying this theory to an organizational setting, we can look at employee performance and see this theory in action. An employee will exert as much effort in doing their job in order to meet organizational goals and expectations that will gain them acknowledgement and potential organizational rewards, such as performance rewards, and satisfy their personal desire for said rewards.


This theory can work conversely as well, though. Meaning, if an employee perceives that the outcome is not on par with the level or initial exertion they might not work as hard or perform as well. For example, if an employee feels that they work diligently, always going above and beyond, and the organization fails to acknowledge the level of work the employee is doing, or they are not being rewarded, they may feel the lack of reward does not warrant their level of work ethic and they may dial back their performance. Most employees start out by working hard and being driven, because they want to succeed, but if they are not met with the level of success they believe their work performance warrants this can actually discourage the employee’s level of performance.

This is not the only criticism that surrounds Vroom’s model of Expectancy Theory though. Many other theorists feel that Vroom’s theory is just too simple, and that human behavior is too complex in nature for such a theory to be valid. For example, there is a claim that a reward will not always motivate an employee to put out a certain level of effort. Lawler and Jenkins claim that simply putting a reward system in place is not enough to work to motivate employees, especially when you are talking about a financial bonus or promotion (1992). Often times the reward does not meet the immediate need of the employee and as such is not beneficial to the employee in regards to the level of effort in which they must exert.

How Expectancy Theory relates to Human Behavior

The Expectancy Theory has been illustrated not only in a work environment though, but in human behavior all over; beginning with children and adolescents. It was found through a series of studies that children as young as 1st grade students form a belief around education and school work, and formed distinct thoughts and opinions around their belief of how much effort they have to put into their work to have their expected level of educational success (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Another human behavior theorist, Abraham Maslow, developed his theory about the Hierarchy of Needs. This theory takes human needs and structures the needs like a pyramid with physiological needs being at the bottom of the pyramid, followed by safety, then belonging, then self-esteem, and at the top of the pyramid being self-actualization. Self-esteem and self-actualization can be greatly impacted in a work environment and can be directly affected by their manager or management team.

“Leaders' behaviors influence how followers view past successes and failure; they direct learning and other experiences that increase follow self-efficacy, and they either reinforce or weaken outcome expectancies. Follower motivation will wane if leaders raise reward expectations and do not honor them,” (Kroth, 2007). This means that as an employee learns from their manager about the level of required effort that is required for a desired outcome, they can either be influenced to continue to work hard or they can lose their motivation through a lack of reward and acknowledgement.

Using this Information

When taking this information into account when looking at my own approach to workplace relationships, workplace behavior and organizational change, I think that I can use this data to help me be a great leader. Many times employees just want to be recognized and acknowledged for a job well done, because it can help meet the immediate satisfaction of the employee. Putting a financial reward system in place is not always enough to motivate employees, and as Human Resource professionals this is something we need to keep in mind. Performance reviews and financial merit increases are great for long term happiness and motivation, but when looking at Expectancy Theory, employees like having immediate recognition and reward for their performance as well.

In order to be the most successful I think organizations need to have a combination of ways to reward employees. I am in favor of financial rewards based on performance, but I also think that we need to work harder to reward employees ongoing throughout the year. As a Human Resource professional, I would urge an organization to train their supervisors and managers on other ways to recognize and reward employees throughout their employment not just at performance appraisal times. There are many different ways that we can motivate employees that are not solely financially based which can be done. Creating a “Kudos” reward system where supervisors, managers, and even other employees can recognize employees for a job well done is a great, and a really easy, way to motivate employees. Allowing employees to recognize one and other will also be a great motivation as well, because they will feel that their opinion matters.

Using incentive programs are another great way to offer reward for performance that can help drive employee effort. For example, I would develop different incentives that can be done periodically that offer immediate rewards for specific performance. In a sales environment, offering gift cards to employees to hit certain goals would be a great way to offer an immediate reward to a specific behavior. The problem with creating incentive programs like this though is that they can lead to a situation where employees only perform in this manner when there is an incentive taking place. Meaning, that when there is no incentive program in place or when an incentive program has ended performance could drop off or wane again. This is where employee performance appraisals could help, in my opinion though.

By combining an incentive program or recognition program that can be used either periodically or throughout the year along with an annual or semi-annual performance review that is accompanied by a merit increase employees would have ongoing incentive to keep their performance up. Motivation is also driven from within though, and we need to remember that we need to do what is best for the organization, what gets us the best results from our employees, and that some employees cannot be motivated through external factors, and that other employees do a great job motivating themselves simply because they want to do well. No two people are the same, and when it comes down to it, human nature is very complex. We need to do our best to do what works best for the majority, we cannot always please everyone.

How do you, as an employee prefer to be recognized?

See results

Research References

Kroth, M.. (2007). Maslow — Move aside! A heuristical motivation model for leaders in career and technical education. Journal of industrial teacher education, 44(2), 5-36.

Van Eerde, W., & Thierry, H. (1996). Vroom's expectancy models and work-related criteria: A meta-analysis . Journal of applied psychology, 81(5), 575-586.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy–value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary educational psychology, 25, 68-81.

© 2014 Cara Noelle Guzman


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