October 19, 2023

Expectancy Theory and How to Develop People With Motivation in Mind

It’s hard to find out what motivates each person. You can’t even tell why one aspect works like a charm. But others do more harm than good. You had an inspiring one-on-one talk with a team member. You feel like you got the point. She is motivated to move the mountains. However, the next day she devotes all her time to coffee breaks and YouTube videos.

It’s time to understand the decisions that people make behind the scenes. Vroom’s Expectancy Theory is just what perfectly explains what happens.

Is expectancy theory just another lab-developed approach that isn’t applicable to your work? Nope, it is not like Maslow’s or Herzberg’s ones. You can and should use it on a daily basis.

I heard this story from Corwin.

I had this meeting with Jessica just two months ago. She wanted to get a higher salary. She has gained lots of valuable experience lately. Moreover, it is her sixth year in the company. We had plans for promotion anyway.

So, I set up a meeting. We work out a development plan and success criteria. It is challenging but nothing beyond her capabilities. To make it formal, we approved it with the Department Manager. I prepared him for a promotion request beforehand. It was neat.

Jessica worked hard but within regular working hours. She marked all the points in the plan with flying colors. I put her on probation period as a Team Lead.

The probation period was successful.

We give her a salary rise and a new role on a project.

A week later, Jessica comes into tears and asks to take it all back and reverse to her previous project.

Guess what I missed?

Her honeymoon had just finished a week before that meeting.

How is it even related, you ask?

That is the kind of story many project managers get to one way or another.

So, what had happened?

It is all in the Expectancy Theory.

What is Vroom’s Expectancy Theory?

The theory explains how a person selects one behavior or another to work towards achieving the desired result.

In other words, here is the benefit of Vroom’s Theory in project management:

It helps to set correct goals that motivate people to increase their performance to achieve what they perceive valuable.

Expectancy Theory Formula

The formula is simple. It is a multiple of three variables that results in a motivational force to achieve the desired result.

Expectancy Theory Formula
Numbers are for illustration only You cant find any exact values

As you can see, each variable weights in on the motivational force. Failing to frame one of them correctly will lead to poor results and lack of motivation.

But what is Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valence are?

That leads us to the next question:

How does expectancy theory explain motivation?

Every time you need to select a pattern of behavior, you evaluate the following three components of the desired outcome.

You think in the following way:
* If I work hard, will my efforts lead to an increase of my performance?
* Will my higher performance guarantee a reward?
* Will the reward be valuable for me?

Should I Even Bother (or Expectancy)?

Expectancy is one’s belief that his or her efforts will result in required performance.

It has three components.

1. Personal Capabilities. A person will evaluate whether he or she has what it takes to get at the required performance level. It is a perceived assessment.

Therefore, it is vital for you, as a project manager, to express trust in a person’s capabilities. That will help to push the performance even further.

2. Goal Difficulty. A person will evaluate whether it is possible or even worth the effort to achieve the performance goal.

Here is the problem.

You need to balance the goal difficulty. Set it too high, and the person will get demotivated to work on it. Set it too low – the perceived value of the reward may also decrease.

It is vital to work out the goal difficulty together. Like Corwin did with the development plan.

On the other hand, setting the bar too low may diminish the perceived value of the reward.

3. Perceived Control. A person will assess his or her impact and control over the task at hand.

First of all, you need to ensure that increased performance leads to tangible results.

Second, the person should see an impact created by the work performed. For example, you can use a Work Breakdown Structure to describe the contribution of a specific team member.

Will my Efforts Result in Benefits (or Instrumentality)?

Instrumentality is one’s belief that his or her performance will actually lead to the desired result.

It means that a person must believe that you can provide the desired reward or outcome.

It may have different aspects:

  • A person must feel that you have enough authority to increase salary or promotion. You may not have direct control over these rewards. Therefore, you need to ensure that you can negotiate it with your management.
  • A person must believe that you have enough expertise to lead a project to a successful outcome. Otherwise, promising something based on the project outcome may not be a good idea.
  • A person must see a clear correlation in the company’s policies between performance and rewards. It goes beyond that. A person must trust individuals who make calls on distributing the rewards.

Do I need it at all (or Valence)?

Valence is the perceived value of the outcome by a person.

In Corwin’s story, he thought that a promotion was the desired outcome for Jessica. At some point, Jessica also considered it as valuable.

But there’s a trick.

Valence should be related to immediate needs.

So, almost everyone has long-term career goals. And moving up the ladder is a valuable achievement. However, it might not be the immediate need.

Jessica wanted a promotion. However, in this period of life, she wanted more free time to spend with her spouse. Therefore, it appeared that Corwin proposed the wrong reward.

That is why you need to know your team on a deeper level.

Personally, I never believed in long term goals as motivation. Even with a clear career path. I prefer a 2–3 months periods for performance appraisal.

How to apply the expectancy theory of motivation

You use this approach on a daily basis. Each time you ask someone to do a task or join a meeting. People go through these assessments unconsciously most of the time.

However, whenever you need to do a serious one-on-one talk. Or when you try to motivate someone personally. You need to make a conscious analysis of these all three factors for a given person.

Here are ten key takeaways you need to keep in mind:

  1. Align your promises with the company’s policies and your management.
  2. Put trust in a person’s capabilities.
  3. Make the required performance challenging but achievable.
  4. Align tasks to the person’s skill set.
  5. Make the correlation between performance and reward clear.
  6. Set transparent expectations.
  7. Know your people to motivate them.
  8. Make reward distribution logical.
  9. Give options for performance and related rewards.
  10. Make sure that any effort has a perceived impact on a project.