Schmidt Labor Research Center

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Motivation: Expectancy Theory

 WebNotesRichard W. Scholl, Ph.D

There are so many theories of individual motivation, that it is difficult to report, master or even understand them all.  Motivation is defined as the force that:

Energies Behavior- What initiates a behavior, behavioral patterns, or changes in behavior? What determines the level of effort and how hard a person works? This aspect of motivation deals with the question of “What motivates people?”

Directs Behavior- What determines which behaviors an individual chooses? This aspect of motivation deals with the question of choice and conflict among competing behavioral alternatives.

Sustains Behavior- What determines an individual’s level of persistence with respect to behavioral patterns? This aspect of motivation deals with how behavior is sustained and stopped.  When we observe behavioral patterns of time, we are looking at this aspect of motivation.

I believe that motivation is behaviorally specific, that is, it is more appropriate to think in terms of an individual’s motivation to excel in a particular job requirement or even to carry out a specific behavior than it is to think about an individual’s overall motivation. While the Duracell battery people are amusing, we do not generally find people that are either always motivated in every situation or not motivated in any situation. While individual dispositional variables may affect an individual’s motivation level at any particular time, motivation itself is not a dispositional variable (See Internal versus External WebNote).

Motivation theories are intended to explain one ingredient in the determination of individual performance.  Performance is viewed as a function of motivation, ability, role perceptions and resources.  Motivation theories explain the amount of efforts and the direction of that effort exhibited by organizational members.  One way untangle the web of motivational theories is to categorize these various theories.  For example, motivation theories are often divided among content theories, that explain the relative amount of effort (energizes behavior), and process theories, that explain the direct of that effort (directs behavior) and behavioral theories, that explain the continuation of a behavioral pattern (sustains behavior).  Content and process theories are not competing explanations of the same construct in that each type of theory explains a part of the entire motivation process.  Some motivation theories are really offering the same conceptual explanation using a slightly different approach or terminology.  Finally there are theories offering entirely different explanations for the same construct.

The Expectancy Theory of Motivation (Porter & Lawler, 1968; Vroom, 1964) is one of the process theories.  I see this theory as a model of behavioral choice, that is, as an explanation of why individuals choose one behavioral option over others.  In doing so, it explains the behavioral direction process.  It does not attempt to explain what motivates individuals, but rather how they make decisions to achieve the end they value.  What follows is a brief summary of this model.


Expectancy theory is comprised of three components: Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valance.


Expectancy- Probability (E→P)

The expectancy is the belief that one’s effort (E) will result is attainment of desired performance (P) goals. This belief, or perception, is generally based on an individual’s past experience, self-confidence (often termed self-efficacy), and the perceived difficulty of the performance standard or goal.


If I spend most of tonight studying will it improve my grade on tomorrow’s math exam?

  • If I work harder than everyone else in the plant will I produce more?
  • If I practice my foul shot more will my foul shooting improve in the game?
  • If I make more sales calls will I make any more sales?


Self-Efficacy. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief about his or her ability to perform a particular behavior successfully. Does the individual believe that he or she has the require skills and competencies required to perform well and the required goals?

Goal Difficulty. Goals that are set too high or performance expectations that are made too difficult, lead to low expectancy perceptions. When individuals perceive that the goals are beyond their ability to achieve, motivation is low because of low expectancy.

Control. One’s perceived control over performance is an important determinant of expectancy. In order for expectancy to be high, individuals must believe that some degree of control over the expected outcome. When individuals perceive that the outcome is beyond their ability to influence, expectancy, and thus motivation, is low. For example, many profit-sharing plans do not motivate individuals to increase their effort because these employees do not think that they have direct control over the profits of their large companies.

Instrumentality- Probability (P→R)

The instrumentality is the belief that if one does meet performance expectations, he or she will receive a greater reward. This reward may come in the form of a pay increase, promotion, recognition or sense of accomplishment. It is important to note that when it is perceived that valued rewards follow all levels of performance, then instrumentality is low. For example, if a professor is known to give everyone in the class an “A” regardless of performance level, then instrumentality is low.


  • If I get a better grade on tomorrow’s math test will I get an “A” in math?
  • If I produce more than anyone else in the plant, will I get a bigger raise? A faster promotion?
  • If my foul shooting improves will I have a shot a team MVP?
  • If I make more sales will I get a bonus? A greater commission?
  • If I make more sales will I believe that I am the best salesperson or be recognized by others as the best sales person?


Trust. When individuals trust their leaders, they’re more likely to believe their promises that good performance will be rewarded.

Control. When workers do not trust the leaders of their organizations, they often attempt to control the reward system through a contract or some other type of control mechanism. When individuals believe they have some kind of control over how, when, and why rewards are distributed, Instrumentality tends to increase.

Policies. The degree to which pay and reward systems are formalized in written policies has an impact on the individuals’ Instrumentality perceptions. Formalized policies linking rewards to performance tend to increase Instrumentality.

Valance- V(R)

The valance of an outcome refers the value the individual personally places on the rewards. This is a function of his or her needs, goals, values and Sources of Motivation.


  • How much I really want an “A” in math?
  • Do I want a bigger raise? Is it worth the extra effort? Do I want a promotion?
  • How important to me is it to be team MVP?
  • Do I need a sales bonus? Is the extra time I spend making extra sales calls worth the extra commission?
  • Is it important to me that I am the best salesperson?


  • Values
  • Needs
  • Goals
  • Preferences
  • Sources of Motivation


  • Pay increases and bonuses
  • Promotions
  • Time off
  • New and interesting assignments
  • Recognition
  • Intrinsic satisfaction from validating one’s skills and abilities
  • Intrinsic satisfaction from knowing that your efforts had a positive influence in helping someone.

We use the Expectancy Theory of motivation to help us understand how individuals make decisions regarding various behavioral alternatives. This model deals with the direction aspect of motivation, that is, once behavior is energized, what behavioral alternatives are individuals likely to pursue. The following are propositions of Expectancy Theory:

When deciding among behavioral options, individuals select the option with the greatest motivational force (MF).

Motivational Force (MF) = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valance

Expectancy and instrumentality are attitudes, or more specifically, they are cognitions. As such, they represent an individual’s perception of the likelihood that effort will lead to performance and performance will lead to the desired outcomes. These perceptions represent the individual’s subjective reality, and may or may not bear close resemblance to actual probabilities. These perceptions are tempered by the individual’s experiences (learning theory), observations of others (social learning theory), and self-perceptions.  Valance is rooted in an individual’s value system.

Expectancy Theory can be used to define what is termed a strong situation. Strong situations act to have base is a strong influence on the behavior of individuals, often overriding their personalities, personal preferences, and other dispositional variables.

Consequences. There are highly valued positive or negative outcomes perceived to be associated with behavior in the situation. This is the same as valance in expectancy theory.

Likelihood. There is a high perceived probability that these consequences will follow behavior (e.g., “I am certain that if I swear at my boss, she will fire me”). This is the same as instrumentality in expectancy theory.

Specificity. Required behavior is well defined and understood by the individual (e.g., “Wear a black tuxedo” is more specific than “dress appropriately”). This is a part of what determines expectancy in expectancy theory.


Porter, L. W., & Lawler, E. E. 1968. Managerial Attitudes and Performance. Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin, Inc.

Vroom, V. H. 1964. Work and Motivation. New York: McGraw Hill.


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