Strengths & Weaknesses of the Expectancy Theory

by Cynthia Gaffney - Updated October 25, 2018
Professor explaining to multi-ethnic students

Victor H. Vroom, Professor Emeritus of Management at Yale University, developed a theory in 1964 about management and the drivers behind employee behavior as it pertains to motivation. Called expectancy theory, his work focused on explaining choices individuals made at work concerning their ability, leadership and the effectiveness of their decision making. Vroom has several published works on management and organizational behavior that have been widely considered breakthroughs in this field.

About the Theory

Vroom's expectancy theory of motivation concerns the process of individuals choosing one way to behave over another. It says that if people think that putting in effort leads to good performance and that good performance brings desirable rewards that satisfy one or more of their important needs, then they will be motivated to make the effort.

Vroom explains his theory using three variables: valence, expectancy and instrumentality. Valence basically refers to the reward for good work, and how desirable the reward is to them. Expectancy represents each employee's own confidence in his or her capability when it comes to possessing the work skills needed to perform well enough to achieve the reward. The instrumentality variable refers to employees' need to believe that when management offers a reward for good work performance, they actually deliver the rewards consistently.

Strengths of the Theory

Employee expectations are boosted by rewards and incentives. With proper goals set, this may trigger a motivational process that improves performance.When management has a solid grasp of expectancy theory principles, they can employ the concepts to assemble more effective work teams to accomplish their business goals. They'll better understand exactly what they need to offer to motivate their employees, look for any gap in skills that needs training, and commit to delivering a reward.

One of the advantages of expectancy theory, if applied well, is that employees willingly and happily participate in work projects because management has planned participation based on the staff being motivated by the chance to perform, and get rewards that they see as meaningful.

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Some Weaknesses

The theory won't work in practice without active participation from managers. The theory assumes all components are already known. In reality, leaders must make an effort to find out what their employees value as rewards (valence).They must also accurately assess employees' capabilities (expectancy) and make available all of the right resources to help employees be successful in their jobs. Managers must also keep their word; employees need to trust that if they put in the work and effort, they will actually get the promised reward (instrumentality).

Another weakness of expectancy theory is when management offers certain motivations and rewards, but the employees don't value or believe in them. This is the main leverage management has to guide their team's behavior, so if they don't choose rewards with enough perceived value, employees will lose motivation to perform. For example, managers believe that an extra $5 of wages should motivate an employee, but that employee might only find an increase rewarding and immediately valuable if it were at least $10. Because of management's lack of understanding, the employee isn't motivated.

About the Author

Cynthia Gaffney has spent over 20 years in finance with experience in valuation, corporate financial planning, mergers & acquisitions consulting and small business ownership. She has worked as a financial writer and editor for several online finance and small business publications since 2011, including AZCentral.com's Small Business section, The Balance.com, Chron.com's Small Business section, and LegalBeagle.com. A Southern California native, Cynthia received her Bachelor of Science degree in finance and business economics from USC.

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