Expectancy Theory - The Decision Lab (2022)

The Basic Idea

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When people ask me how I spent last summer, I tell them that I studied for the LSAT from May through August. This typically results in musings of how terrible it must have been and questions of how I motivated myself. While studying for the test was a stressful experience, it was nowhere close to being terrible. I was motivated to study because I knew that it would be a valuable step toward my larger goal, which was getting into law school. I expected that increasing my efforts to study would increase my chances of a high score, which I believed would help me achieve my overall goal.

My experience was one that followed expectancy theory, which assumes that people are motivated to engage in certain behaviors because of their expected outcomes.1Thus, the values associated with said outcomes are the discerning factors for choosing one behavior over another. Expectancy theory separates the decision making process into expectancy (efforts will lead to high performance), instrumentality (performance will lead to predicted outcomes), and valence (predicted outcomes are desirable).

Motivation depends on how much we want something and how likely we think we are to get it.

– Victor Vroom, pioneer of the expectancy theory of motivation

Theory, meet practice

TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.

Our consulting services

Key Terms

Expectancy theory:A theory which proposes that behaviors result from conscious choices among alternatives, based on the expected utility and rewards of said behaviors. Expectancy theory consists of expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

Expectancy:The belief that increased efforts will lead to better performance (E -> P).

Instrumentality:The belief that if better performance is achieved, it will result in a certain outcome (P -> O).

Valence:The significance or value expected of an outcome.


Developed by Canadian organizational behavior and motivation researcher Victor H. Vroom, expectancy theory was inspired by the realization that employee performance is based on individual factors like personality, past experiences, confidence, skills, and knowledge.1This theory recognizes that what motivates one employee to complete their work may not work for all employees. In other words, the relationship between behaviors and goals was not as simple as previously believed.2

When choosing behaviors to engage in, motivation is the most important factor.1Vroom suggested that people can be motivated toward their goals if they believe that:

  • There is a positive correlation between efforts and performance, such that as one increases, so does the other;
  • Better performance will result in a desirable reward;
  • Rewards will be valuable and satisfy important needs; and/or,
  • The desire to satisfy the need is strong enough to make their efforts worthwhile.2

Vroom introduced three variables that drive expectancy theory: expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.1The relationship between these variables was also clearly defined.Expectancyrefers to the belief that one’s effort (E) will lead to a desirable and improved performance (P). Thus, expectancy is based on the relationship from E -> P. Expectancy is theorized to be influenced individual factors including:

  • Self-efficacy: One’s belief about their ability to perform the behavior;
  • Goal difficulty: Whether one has the necessary skills to perform the behavior; and,
  • Perceived control: One’s belief about how much control they have over the outcome.3

Following expectancy,instrumentalityis the perceived probability that good performance (P) will lead to desired outcomes (O), so it is based on the relationship from P -> O.1Notably, instrumentality is low when rewards remain the same across all levels of performance. Factors that influence instrumentality include:

  • Trust for those who distribute rewards based on performance;
  • Control over how the decision is made; and,
  • Evidence of policies that reflect an acceptable correlation between performance and outcomes.3

Finally,valenceis the perceived value of the rewards of an outcome, based on one’s needs, goals, values, and preferences.1Importantly, the expected satisfaction of an outcome can vary depending on the person who will experience it. Vroom developed expectancy theory to explain the process of motivation: rather than simply stating what will motivate someone, the theory defines how motivation comes about.3Ultimately, process theories are models of the decision making processes that people perform to decide whether they will be motivated to expend the energy needed to pursue a certain activity.


Vroom’s expectancy theory is generally supported by empirical evidence and is one of the most commonly used theories of motivation in the workplace, highlighting how the intensity of work effort depends on one’s belief that it will be valuable.3Although originally developed for employee motivation in the field of management,4expectancy theory has been applied to other fields such as education.5,6,7

Expectancy theory can help managers understand how employees are motivated to choose among behavioral alternatives.4To enhance the connection between performance and outcomes, expectancy theory suggests managers tie valuable rewards closely to performance, as well as increase self-efficacy by training employees to improve their abilities. Managers should not discount individuals’ proclivity to act in their self-interest: maximizing valuable rewards will increase opportunities to satisfy both employee needs and organizational requirements.

Educators are constantly trying to understand what enables and motivates students to excel in their learning, and expectancy theory has been used to assess motivation.5Research has found that the potential for a higher GPA, greater post-university job performance, and increased self-esteem are important motivators for students in university. Notably, it was found that valence tied to the aforementioned variables is more influential on a student’s effort levels, compared to the sole expected probability of attaining said outcomes. In fact, researchers have found that valence is the best overall predator of university students’ academic performance, in terms of cumulative GPA.6

Motivation is especially important in adult education due to the increased external demands placed on students.7Applying the expectancy theory, researchers have suggested that increased planning and structure will provide educators with more opportunities to manipulate expectancy variables, while providing students with clear learning expectations. Clear rewards and achievements from work can be maximized through marketing and teaching strategies that connect adult education to personal outcomes, such as employment opportunities.


While expectancy theory provides a good framework to assess, interpret, and evaluate employee behavior as it applies to learning, decision making, motivation, and attitude formation, some critics have suggested that the variables remain misunderstood.3This has resulted in different interpretations, applications, and methods of statistical analysis when researchers explore expectancy theory. As a result, the validity of Vroom’s expectancy theory has been questioned.

For example, some have suggested a need to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards on the basis of effort and performance.3Extrinsic outcomes would be rewards distributed by someone else, such as a manger, while intrinsic outcomes are personal rewards like self-fulfillment and a boost in self-esteem. As an extension of this distinction, other researchers have suggested that intrinsic outcomes are better predictors of job performance and satisfaction than extrinsic outcomes,8,9while others have suggested that intrinsic outcomes are more powerful motivators than extrinsic outcomes.10

It’s important that expectancy theory is not interpreted too simplistically: managers must ensure that rewards are perceived to be valuable, taking valence into account.11Since valence is subjective, executives who hope to motivate employees should consider personal characteristics such as culture. One example of culturally inappropriate rewards comes from ASMO, a Japanese motor company that opened a manufacturing plant in the United States. Despite maintaining a large workforce of Japanese employees, a team of American managers was hired to oversee plant operations.

Wanting to motivate employees, the American managers at the ASMO plant implemented an employee of the month program that required employees to nominate their coworkers.11However, Japanese culture values conformity, teamwork, and modesty, so it was embarrassing for Japanese employees to be named the employee of the month. If the management team had considered the influence of such cultural characteristics on valence, they could have developed a more motivating reward system.

Case Study

Implementing information systems

Expectancy theory has been applied to user acceptance of new information systems, with implementation research suggesting that user attitudes toward technological systems are critical.12If organizations hope to implement expert systems, employees must believe the outcomes associated with learning the new system are valuable.

A team of American researchers used expectancy theory to examine the necessary motivations for successful implementation of new information systems.12They were curious about four potential outcomes:

  1. Improved and more effective decision making;
  2. More efficient decision making;
  3. Higher frequency of making correct decision; and,
  4. Increased job insight based on the learning stimulated by the system.

Ninety-five MBA students completing an information systems course were given a case study, where they were loan officers at a commercial bank.12They were told that a new expert system was available to help determine eligibility of loan applications. This problem-solving computer program assisted in making loan approval decisions by judging financial attributes of companies. Regardless of whether the system was used, the loan officers would be responsible for loan decisions. Using the expert system was voluntary and participants could decide the extent to which they used the system.

Participants were asked to judge the overall attractiveness of using the system to its maximum extent, and the perceived likelihood that it would help users achieve the four outcomes listed above.12This judgement was meant to reflect valence, and participants also rated their motivation to use the new system, based on the four outcomes. The researchers found that greater valence was associated with increased motivation to use the new expert system, showing that expectancy theory can be applied early in the design phase of system development.

Tenure and productivity

Universities are increasingly relying on performance assessments to determine salaries and tenure awards for faculty members.13Being denied tenure can result in personal, professional, emotional, and financial consequences for the faculty member, and can decrease their investment in the institution. On the other hand, being awarded tenure will increase job security, and prior motivation research has suggested that productivity tends to suffer on the basis of long-term job security.14

As a result, some worry that once tenure is achieved and job security increases, motivation levels of faculty members will be negatively affected.13Considering the potential impact of tenure on a university’s effectiveness, researchers have applied expectancy theory to examine the motivation and productivity implications of awarding tenure.

Pre-tenure and post-tenure data on research productivity levels was compared among a group of twenty-four faculty members.13Productivity was defined as scholarly research activity in the form of published journal articles. Among these faculty members, there was a significant decline in research publications for tenured faculty, equating to a 42% reduction. Thus, the results supported expectancy theory predictions on increased job security and decreased productivity.

Notably, this effect is also tied to valence, similar to findings in academic achievement5,6and implementing information systems.12Since tenured faculty already achieved research success, it is unlikely that productivity declines were attributed to expectancy effects, such as doubt in their ability to achieve the outcome.13It is also unlikely that there is no value placed on research productivity, ruling out instrumentality effects. Rather, productivity declines were likely attributed to value perceptions of higher sustainability of published research, reflecting valence. While there are other possible reasons for publication declines, the results appear to support expectancy theory and the emphasis on valence, consistent with other case studies.

Related TDL Content

Observer-expectancy effect

Our expectations are powerful and can extend beyond motivation to impact the behavior of others. The observer-expectancy effect describes how awareness of being observed can cause biased behavior aimed to satisfy the observer.


  1. Vroom, V. H. (1964).Work and Motivation.Wiley.
  2. Vroom, V. H., & Deci, E. L. (1989).Management and Motivation.Penguin.
  3. Chiang, C., & Jang, S. (2008). An expectancy theory model for hotel employee motivation.Hospitality Management, 27, 313-322.
  4. Isaac, R. G., Zerbe, W. J., & Pitt, D. C. (2001). Leadership and motivation: The effective application of expectancy theory.Journal of Managerial Issues, 13(2), 212-226.
  5. Geiger, M. A., & Cooper, E. A. (1996). Cross-cultural comparisons: Using expectancy theory to assess student motivation.Issues in Accounting Education, 11(1), 113-129.
  6. Geiger, M. A., & Cooper, E. A. (1995). Predicting academic performance: The impact of expectancy and needs theory.The Journal of Experimental Education, 63(3), 251-262.
  7. Howard, K. W. (1989). A comprehensive expectancy motivation model: Implications for adult education and training.Adult Education Quarterly, 39(4), 199-210.
  8. Graen, G. B. (1969). Instrumentality theory of work motivation: Some experimental results and suggested modifications.Journal of Applied Psychology, 53, 1-25.
  9. Mitchell, T. R., & Albright, D. W. (1972). Expectancy theory predictions of the satisfaction effort, performance, and retention of naval aviation officers.Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 8,1-20.
  10. Wahba, M., & House, R. (1974). Expectancy theory in work and motivation: Some logical and methodological issues.Human Relations, 27, 121-147.
  11. Lumen Learning. (2020).Process-Based Theories.Motivating Employees.https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wmopen-introductiontobusiness/chapter/process-based-theories/
  12. Burton, F. G., Chen, Y., Grover, V., & Stewart, K. A. (1992). An application of expectancy theory for assessing user motivation to utilize an expert system.Journal of Management Information Systems, 9(3), 183-198.
  13. Estes, B. C., & Polnick, B. (2012). Examining motivation theory in higher education: An expectancy theory analysis of tenured faculty productivity.International Journal of Management, Business, and Administration, 15(1), 1-7.
  14. Estes, B. C. (2011). Predicting productivity in a complex labor market: A sabermetric assessment of free agency on Major League Baseball player performance.Business Studies Journal, 3(1), 23-58.

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