Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation

Expectancy Theory of motivationMotivation is vital to beginning and maintaining healthy behavior in the workplace, education, and beyond, and it drives us toward our desired outcomes (Zajda, 2023).

While many motivation theories exist, a few stand out for their enduring practical and ecologically sound application. Victor Vroom’s (1960) expectancy theory of motivation is one of the most popular, based on the suggestion that an individual’s behavior is motivated by anticipated results and potential success (Riggio, 2015).

This article examines the expectancy theory model and highlights its limits and criticisms before exploring how to apply it in the workplace and elsewhere to improve motivational outcomes.

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What Is Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation?

“Cognitive theories of motivation are based on the idea that individuals’ behavior, thinking and actions are directly caused by the internal processes of the brain” (Zajda, 2023, p. 31).

Such motivational theories attempt to account for and represent these internal activities as the origins of how we develop and respond to stimuli.

Three popular models that can be applied in the workplace and elsewhere include (Zajda, 2023; McClelland, 1961; Ryan & Deci, 2018; Vroom, 1964):

  • Achievement motivation theory, which explains how we behave according to our need for affiliation, achievement, and power
  • Self-determination theory, based on our desire to satisfy our basic psychological needs
  • Expectancy theory of motivation, which we discuss in detail below

Canadian psychologist Victor Vroom formulated and developed the expectancy theory in 1964 at the Yale School of Management, and it has since held a significant position in the study of motivation in the workplace (Van Eerde & Thierry, 1996; Zajda, 2023).

Vroom (1964) suggested that an “individual’s behavior was motivated by anticipated results or consequences,” and the intensity of their work was driven by the perception that their effort would lead to the desired outcome (Zajda, 2023, p. 38).

Similar to behavioral theories, it recognizes the importance of consequences in motivating our actions. Vroom (1964) also claimed that we are more driven to perform if we know (or at least believe) that our extra performance will be recognized and rewarded (Zajda, 2023).

In recent years, there have been some developments beyond Vroom’s original theory. There is further recognition that a worker’s focus often goes beyond the particular outcomes associated with the job, including the potential results of work behavior — positive or negative — such as job satisfaction, promotion and demotion, reprimands, and even being fired (Riggio, 2015).

Expectancy theory is also known as the VIE theory due to its three core components: valence, instrumentality, and expectancy (Riggio, 2015).

Watch Mike Clayton provide an introductory video to Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory to learn more.

What is Victor Vroom's Expectancy Theory?

The Three Components of Expectancy Theory

The VIE theory has served as a valued source for theoretical innovation and research focus (Riggio, 2015).

The theory states that the motivation to perform is underpinned by whether the outcome is desirable, whether performing the behavior will lead to the expected (or desired) outcome, and whether the individual has the ability, skills, and energy to get the work done (Riggio, 2015).

As a result, the VIE theory consists of the following three core components (Riggio, 2015; Van Eerde & Thierry, 1996; Zajda, 2023):

  • Valence: How desirable (or undesirable) is a particular outcome to an individual?
  • Instrumentality: How strong is the perceived relationship between performing a behavior and the desired outcome?
    For example, “If I complete Y amount of work, I will likely get promoted” (Riggio, 2015, p. 208).
  • Expectancy: How strong is the perceived relationship between the individual’s effort and performance of the behavior?
    For example, “If I expend X amount of effort, I will probably complete Y amount of work” (Riggio, 2015, p. 208).

We can represent valence, instrumentality, and expectancy as probabilities that can be measured in research environments and when applying the theory to real-world situations (Riggio, 2015).

In work, education, and beyond, individuals may decide that the probability of achieving the desired outcome is low, even if they perform at the required level, so their motivation is poor. Others may determine that the likelihood of achieving their goal is not so bad, so their motivation remains strong (Riggio, 2015).

“Expectancy is the individual’s belief and hope that increasing effort on a given task will result in desired outcomes” (Zajda, 2023, p. 39).

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These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques for lasting behavior change.

Criticisms and Limitations

It’s vital to remember that motivation is highly complex and nuanced, with multiple factors vying against one another in many differing environments (Riggio, 2015).

The expectancy theory is a popular approach for understanding and increasing motivation, particularly in workplaces. However, it has its critics and several significant potential limitations, highlighted by the following questions and assumptions (Riggio, 2015).

  • How do we measure expectancy accurately? Which is the best approach?
  • What is the best way to apply the theory – in multiple situations?

Critics also point out:

  • Individuals are not equally rational. They vary in their degree of rationality and often behave irrationally.
  • Even when behaving rationally, we all differ in how we process information.
  • We may not be aware all the time.
  • We are not consciously processing all the information we receive.

While intuitively correct — increasing effort on a task will result in desired outcomes — the factors driving our behavior may be more complex and varied than they initially appear (Riggio, 2015; Zajda, 2023).

Applying Expectancy Theory in Goal Setting

Expectancy ModelMotivation is vital to goal framing and attainment (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

When attempting to apply the expectancy theory to goal setting with our clients, it is crucial to understand the motivational underpinnings of their actions.

Consider each of the following goal-setting points in line with the theory’s three core components (Zajda, 2023; Riggio, 2015; Ryan & Deci, 2018):

  • Aligning goals with valence

Work with your clients to pinpoint goals that resonate with their deeply held values and desires. Goals high in valence are more likely to motivate and sustain their actions.

Ensure goals are desirable but also clearly defined. Outcomes must be highly anticipated and valued.

  • Instrumentality in goal achievement

Make sure clients fully understand the direct link between their efforts and goal achievement, increasing their belief in the instrumentality of their actions.

Break the goals into manageable chunks to make the connections between the actions and outcomes more evident.

  • Boost expectancy through building skills

Identify skill gaps that might hinder goal achievement, then work on strategies to develop them, boosting the client’s success expectancy.

Focus on positive reinforcement and past successes to boost the client’s self-efficacy in achieving their goals.

A skilled coach or counselor can combine each of the above points with various goal-setting frameworks.

The SMART Goals Worksheet is particularly valuable for defining and documenting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals. The practitioner can ensure each aspect of their SMART goals enhances the model’s three components: valence, instrumentality, and expectancy.

While working toward the goals, offer regular feedback and adjust as needed to ensure they remain aligned with the client’s values, capabilities, and changing circumstances (Zajda, 2023; Riggio, 2015; Ryan & Deci, 2018).

How to Use Vroom’s Theory in the Workplace

“Employees’ engagement and participation in developmental activities is a critical issue in the workplace learning literature” (Cheng et al., 2012, p. 885).

To that end, expectancy theory is considered “one of the most complicated yet thorough models of work motivation” for professional development and goal achievement (Riggio, 2015, p. 209).

Research suggests that Vroom’s theory is particularly valuable in the workplace, helping managers and leaders motivate their staff (Riggio, 2015).

While there is no single, agreed-upon strategy for implementing the expectancy theory in a working environment, practical suggestions include (Riggio, 2015):

  • Clearly defining staff outcomes and goals, including potential rewards and costs associated with performance
  • Making the relationship between performance and rewards uncomplicated and explicit
  • Ensuring that performance-related goals are within the grasp of employees

Ultimately, staff must know that rewards will follow when they achieve their goals (Riggio, 2015).

Recent research has also identified expectancy theory as a valuable tool in understanding and potentially alleviating workplace bullying (Julius et al., 2024).

Psychologists recognize that abusive behavior in working environments directly impacts employee wellbeing while damaging their ability to perform their roles. Studies exploring how to address the problem have identified that violations of the expectancy theory framework can predict bullying behavior and signal the need for managerial intervention (Julius et al., 2024).

Other studies suggest that considering the expectancy theory’s core components (valence, instrumentality, and expectancy) can support continuous learning and professional development. Findings indicate that employees’ perceived managerial and job support significantly boost motivation and learning success (Cheng et al., 2012).

Leveraging Strengths to Increase Motivation

Using strengths to increase motivationIdentifying and knowing our strengths boosts motivation and engagement (Niemiec, 2018).

The Aware–Explore–Apply Model offers a powerful approach for combining strengths awareness/use and the expectancy theory to significantly enhance motivation (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).

The following guidelines are helpful when leveraging strengths with clients to increase motivation (Niemiec, 2018; Niemiec & McGrath, 2019; Riggio, 2015):

  • Awareness of strengths
    Work with your clients to become aware of their personal strengths. Use assessments, reflective exercises, and discussions to help uncover them.
  • Exploring strengths
    Reflect on how such strengths can influence their perception of valence (the value of outcomes), instrumentality (the belief that outcomes are achievable), and expectancy (the belief in their ability to perform the actions required).

For example, ask the clients:

Valence: How has using your strengths in the past led to outcomes that felt especially valuable or rewarding?
Instrumentality: Reflect on occasions when your strengths were crucial for navigating difficulties. How might they apply to current or future goals?
Expectancy: How could you use your strengths in unfamiliar situations, and why might it boost confidence in your capabilities?

  • Application of strengths
    Work with clients to set goals that align with their strengths, increasing their valence and instrumentality.

Create detailed action plans that engage with their strengths to ensure goals feel more attainable, boosting expectancy.

Regularly reflecting on how strength awareness and use have helped clients overcome challenges and achieve goals will boost their motivation and increase their likelihood of initiating and sustaining goal-directed behaviors (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019; Riggio, 2015).

By integrating strengths-based coaching and counseling with expectancy theory, it is possible to identify, explore, and apply strengths to increase motivation while fostering a more profound sense of self-efficacy and personal growth (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019; Riggio, 2015; Ryan & Deci, 2018).

Check out How to Perform Strengths-Based Therapy and Counseling to dig deeper into the potential of strengths-based therapy to promote positive change in clients.

In his insightful TEDx talk, Shane Lopez offers further insights into the importance and value of knowing and using your strengths.

Focusing on your strengths

Resources From

We have many resources available for boosting motivation in ourselves and our clients.

Our free resources include four motivational interviewing worksheets based on the desire, ability, reasons, and need (DARN) approach.

Asking open-ended questions is one of the most direct ways of evoking change talk during motivational interviewing and can invite change to happen (Miller & Rollnick, 2013).

I want a new job.
I would like to buy my house.

I would like to train to be a surgeon (desire), but I don’t think I could get the grades (ability).

If I exercise, then I will feel healthier.

I need to earn more money to support and care for my family.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Chasing Happiness
    Many people chase future happiness at the cost of appreciating what they already have or precious moments along their life journey that brought them deeper happiness.

We must recognize and cherish those moments and how they transform our life experiences.

    • Step one – Think about the moments in the past that made you happy. Were you finally happy when you achieved these moments?
    • Step two – Now reflect on events of the past that contributed significantly to your happiness. Write down the events that come to your mind.
    • Step three – What kind of conclusions can you draw about the authentic sources of your happiness?
  • Boosting Motivation by Celebrating Micro-Successes
    Celebrating small wins can enhance our clients’ life experiences while boosting motivation for future tasks and goals.

    • Step one – Write down the micro-successes you experience each day, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, in a celebration journal.

Use the following prompts to help:

What have you achieved today, no matter how small?
What did you achieve today that signified a potential breakthrough?
What did you achieve today that has motivated you to do more?
What small steps did you take today that you can celebrate?

    • Step two – Celebrate each of the small achievements. It doesn’t need to be anything big and should be proportionate to the win.

Perhaps take a moment to reflect on what you have achieved and why it matters, send a well-done email to yourself, or share the success with others who support you.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, check out this collection of 17 validated motivation & goal achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.

17 Tools To Increase Motivation and Goal Achievement

These 17 Motivation & Goal Achievement Exercises [PDF] contain all you need to help others set meaningful goals, increase self-drive, and experience greater accomplishment and life satisfaction.

Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

A Take-Home Message

The internal processes of our brain drive action — and inaction.

Understanding the motivation to initiate and continue behavior is vital to implementing psychological theory in the workplace, learning environments, and beyond.

While there are many psychological models and theories, Victor Vroom’s (1964) expectancy theory has proven to be enduring and influential across multiple groups and situations (Zajda, 2023).

According to the theory, much of our motivation arises from anticipated outcomes and how we perceive the relationship between effort and the likelihood of success.

As such, we are more driven or motivated if we believe our performance will be rewarded, in whatever form that takes.

Expectancy theory rests on three core components: valence (the outcome desirability), instrumentality (our belief around effort versus outcome), and expectancy (our perception of the connection between effort and performance).

Expectancy theory also lends itself to being combined with coaching and counseling on goal setting and goal achievement, particularly when combined with strengths, whether for an employee, student, or another role.

As almost all our work with clients involves engaging the drive to change, why not reflect on how the three components of expectancy influence their behavior and how you can support or boost each one to help them achieve desirable outcomes from coaching and counseling?

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.

  • Cheng, B., Wang, M., Moormann, J., Olaniran, B. A., & Chen, N.-S. (2012). The effects of organizational learning environment factors on e-learning acceptance. Computers and Education, 58(3), 885–899.
  • Julius, K., Rentsch, J. R., & Bernhold, Q. S. (2024). Barbaric bullies, tormented targets, and muddled managers: An expectancy violations theory framework for predicting managerial intervention to alleviate workplace bullying. Western Journal of Communication, 88(1), 147–169.
  • McClelland, D. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton.
  • Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change. Guilford Press.
  • Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Hogrefe.
  • Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. VIA Institute on Character.
  • Riggio, R. (2015). Introduction to industrial and organizational psychology. Routledge.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
  • Van Eerde, W., & Thierry, H. (1996). Vroom’s expectancy models and work-related criteria: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(5), 575–586.
  • Vroom, V. H. (1960). Some personality determinants of the effects of participation. Routledge.
  • Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation. Wiley.
  • Zajda, J. (2023). Globalisation and dominant models of motivation theories in education. Springer.

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