How to Use the Expectancy Theory of Motivation to Set Better Goals

The Expectancy Theory of Motivation offers key insights on goal setting for both organizations and individuals. Let's discover how it works.

How to Use the Expectancy Theory of Motivation to Set Better Goals


A powerful way to tap into your personal motivation is by applying insights from psychology that relate to employee motivation.


The expectancy theory of motivation is one such framework that provides an explanation of how behaviour can be aroused and then directed, enabling us to set better goals. Let’s explore this theory as well as examples of how we can leverage it in our day to day decisions. 


What is Expectancy Theory? 


Expectancy theory is a concept that was formulated by Yale Professor Victor H. Vroom in the 1960s.


Vroom believed that employees consciously decide whether or not to perform at high levels at work. He explained that this decision solely depends on the employee’s motivation level, which in turn depends on three interrelated factors of expectancy, instrumentality and valence


Expectancy theory states that motivation will be high when employees believe that high levels of effort will lead to high performance (expectancy), that high performance will lead to the attainment of rewards (instrumentality), and rewards will be desired by the employee (valance).


Let’s break down the three building blocks of expectancy theory to find its practical application in personal goal-setting. 


The 3 Components of Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

1. Expectancy


Expectancy is the first part of the motivation equation, and it refers to a person’s perception about the extent to which effort will result in a certain level of performance.


It’s reflected in the question: Will my effort lead to high performance? People are motivated to put forth a lot of effort in their jobs only if they think that their effort will pay off in high performance. 


For example, a marketing manager would likely be unmotivated if he thinks that there is no way to increase sales of an unpopular product, no matter how hard he works.


Similarly, a high-performing student might be reluctant to put effort into a piece of coursework if she thinks that her classmate will enviously hold back marks during a peer assessment.


2. Instrumentality


While expectancy focuses on the relationship between effort and performance, instrumentality focuses on the relationship between performance and rewards.


Instrumentality refers to a person’s perceptions about the extent to which performance at a certain level will result in receiving outcomes or rewards.


People are motivated to perform at a high level only if they think that high performance will lead to (or is instrumental for attaining) rewards.


For example, a child may be motivated to clean his room knowing that if he does a good job, he will be allowed to play outside.


In the workplace, an employee may be motivated to work hard if she expects that she will receive a promotion for exceeding her quarterly targets.


Expectancy Theory in Action: A child cleans, knowing that completing her chores is instrumental to being allowed to play outside.Expectancy Theory in Action: A child cleans, knowing that completing her chores is instrumental to being allowed to play outside.

3. Valence


Expectancy theory acknowledges that people differ in their preferences for outcomes or rewards. When an employee reflects on the results associated with successfully completing their assigned duties, they might privately wonder: Do I find the outcomes desirable?


The same question may arise when individuals decide what job to choose in the first place, especially when they compare the benefits associated with various job offers. 


For many employees, pay is the most important outcome of working. For others, a feeling of accomplishment or enjoying one’s work is more important. 


For example, a professional might be motivated to leave their high-paying corporate career to pursue a teaching career because such work brings them greater personal satisfaction.


On the other hand, consider a blogger who is choosing between two brands for a collaboration. If the blogger is primarily seeking financial compensation for their work, they will likely be more motivated to work with Brand A which has a budget for the project, rather than Brand B, which only offers “increased exposure.” 


Examples of Expectancy Theory in the Workplace


Let's dive even deeper and consider some specific examples of expectancy theory in the workplace:


Employee Training Programs


As the expectancy component of expectancy theory tells us, no matter how closely desired outcomes are linked to performance, if a person thinks that is practically impossible for him or her to perform at a high level, motivation will be low. 


A key way that management can apply this concept is by providing training so that employees have all the expertise they need for high performance. 


AT&T is known for its excellent approach to employee training and development. The company invests about $220 million each year in internal training programs – providing nearly 20 million hours of training a year – and over $30 million annually on tuition assistance to make college more affordable for its workforce.


When employees are highly skilled at their jobs, they believe that if they do try hard, they truly can succeed.


Opportunities for Additional Pay 


Managers promote high levels of instrumentality - the second aspect of expectancy theory - when they clearly link performance to the attainment of rewards. 


A high level of instrumentality is seen in commission-based jobs, where employees are aware that their income is directly related to the amount of sales they bring in for the company. 


For example, according to Glassdoor.com, employees at companies like Oracle, SAP and Cisco Systems earn average annual sales commissions of more than $70,000, on top of their base salaries. 


In fact, rock-star salespeople at SAP have the ability to earn over $100,000 in commissions on top of a $110,000 median base salary, making this global software firm the best company for salespeople. 


As well as linking opportunities for promotion and pay to high levels of performance, managers should provide high performing employees with the recognition and feedback they need to reach their personal and professional goals. 


Related: 10 Important Goals for Leaders


Flexible Rewards Packages 


Valence is another important consideration for management because if an employee does not even desire the outcomes that are linked to high performance, then motivation to perform at a high level will be low. 


For this reason, many companies are starting to hold conversations with employees about what rewards they'd actually prefer. 


N6A is a public relations company that recently introduced a rewards program called Pace Points that allows employees to pick their own perks based on what motivates them the most – whether it's cash, quality of life, housing, travel, or other categories.


Rather than treating employee recognition with a one size fits all approach, this program allows employees to design a rewards package that fits their lifestyle, even as it changes. 


Employee rewards and recognition is an area where expectancy theory can be applied in the workplace.Employee rewards and recognition is an area where expectancy theory can be applied in the workplace.

How to Apply the Expectancy Theory of Motivation on a Personal Level


Finally, let's bring this back to an individual level. How can we use our understanding of expectancy theory to set better goals for ourselves? 


Well, expectancy theory helps us understand the link between the three key parts of the motivation equation: effort, performance and rewards.


When you set goals, you can tweak one of these three aspects - as represented by expectancy, instrumentality, and valence - to increase your overall motivation. 


1. Believe in Yourself


First of all, as you work toward a goal, you must be absolutely convinced that hard work pays off - this is expectancy. You must truly believe that if you push yourself and go all in, you will succeed, even if you are working towards a difficult goal.


One way to increase expectancy is by taking courses and training that improve your ability to perform well. We all have weaknesses, but we also have the choice to do what we can to improve them.


Related: What is Personal Development?


2. Manage Your Time Effectively


Secondly, when creating a plan of action, you should prioritize habits and routines that bring you closer to your goal - this is instrumentality.


To do this, you'll need to honestly assess your daily activities to identify where all of your time and energy is going. When you figure this out, you'll need to eliminate unnecessary distractions while increasing your focus on tasks that drive tangible outcomes and rewards. 


Related: How to Create a Personal Development Plan


Set yourself up for success by carefully planning your goals and going all in to achieve them.Set yourself up for success by carefully planning your goals and going all in to achieve them.

3. Set Meaningful Goals


Finally, you should aim to set goals that are truly meaningful to you - this is valence. It’s all too easy to get caught up chasing other people’s goals while internalizing them as your own.


However, in order to stick with a goal for a long time, you need to devote time to learning about yourself and what you ultimately want. This will help you understand if the outcome or reward of a goal actually holds any value for you.


Many people spend years pursuing an outcome that they eventually realize they don’t even care about - so don’t skip this step!


Final Thoughts 


The expectancy theory of motivation teaches us about three interconnected factors that play a huge role in motivating organizations and individuals. 


Not only does this theory help us understand why people often fail to reach their goals, it provides us with a psychological framework that helps us set better goals.


As you build your confidence, devote more time to result-generating activities, and align your goals with your values, you’ll implement expectancy theory and set yourself up for long-term success. 


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