Expectancy Theory

As human beings we are constantly predicting potential future outcomes, and based on these we create our expectations. Do you show up at the office early, work hard, often staying late, and in return expect to be promoted quickly and given pay rises? Would you still start early and stay late if you did the same job but worked from home and thus only interacted with your boss through email and were judged solely on results?

Expectancy Theory is about the mental processes we go through when making choices. Expectancy Theory says that as humans we will choose one behaviour over another based on what we expect the result of that behavior to be. By inference we can also say that the outcome (the products the behaviour produces) is not the sole motivational factor in choosing a particular behavior – we also want to know what’s in it for us!

As a program manager or project manager, Expectancy Theory helps us understand motivation which is important as having a motivated team is a huge step in the direction of having a successful project or program. In general we can say that if team members expect a good outcome for themselves from behaving in a certain way, then they will usually work hard to exhibit that behavior.

Expectancy Theory was proposed by Victor H. Vroom in 1964. He wanted to understand the motivations behind the different decisions that people make. As managers, Expectancy Theory can help us to understand how individual team members make decisions about behavioral alternatives in the workplace.

Expectancy Theory is expressed using the following equation:

MF = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence

The components of this equation are as follows:

  • MF: Essentially, the theory is making the proposition that when choosing between different behavioural options, we will choose the option with the highest motivational force (MF), or biggest benefit to us.
  • Expectancy: this refers to the expectancy or perception that the effort we put in will lead us to our set performance goal. How we set this goal is based on a number of factors including our past experience and self-confidence. An example of expectancy is, “if I work longer than everyone else, then I will noticeably be working harder and getting more done.”
  • Instrumentality: refers to the strength of our individual belief or perception that if we achieve our performance goal then we will be rewarded. An example of instrumentality is, “if I noticeably work harder and get more done than everyone else, then it is almost certain that I will be promoted”.
  • Valence: this refers to the value we place on the reward (our perception of the value of the reward), and will differ by individual. For example, “do I want to be promoted? Will the extra work mean even less time with my family? Is it really worth putting in serious effort for six months to a year to receive a promotion and 10% pay rise?”

Note that in the above equation, because we are multiplying three factors together, if any one of those factors is zero, then the whole equation becomes zero – and we have no motivational force.

That is the theory, but how can we apply this as managers?

Primarily we will want to encourage the believe in our team that increased effort leads to increased performance and reward. We can do this by setting targets with rewards attached for employees. These targets should be achievable but should a stretch for the employee to achieve. We may also want to not just promote performance, but also behavior, because the organization may have environmental or ethical goals, for example. These behaviors can be encouraged by linking rewards to not just what is achieved (the target), but also the how the employee (their behavior) achieved the target.

Another consideration to enhance behavior or performance is to closely tie rewards to the wants of the individual, for example, someone with a long commute time might appreciate earning days working from home as reward for hitting certain targets, more than they would appreciate a small financial reward.


Expectancy Theory helps us to understand what motivates people to make particular decisions amongst an array of possible options. As managers Expectancy Theory helps us to understand what motivates employees in the workplace. This understanding can be used to help us create highly motivated and productive teams. Examples of how to improve behavior and/or performance include setting stretch targets with rewards attached, attaching behavior to rewards, and linking the reward closely to each individual’s wants.