50 Years of Motivation

A few years ago I had the good fortune to spend time with Professor Victor Vroom while I was presenting at the Yale School of Management’s CEO College in New York.

Victor is an academic hero of mine, an expert on motivation and one of the most influential scholars in management and leadership.

Victor’s landmark book Work and Motivation was published over 50 years ago and continues to be widely cited.  Indeed I used Victor’s in my own PhD.  Victor’s book provided a new explanation for what motivated employees – he called it: ‘Expectancy Theory’. At the time Victor’s book was published, it was a major shift from the behaviourist and mechanistic theories that dominated management thinking.  In addition, it is a simple concept –one that’s easy to apply as a manager/leader.

Employee Motivation

Expectancy theory uses 3 linked ideas to explain employee motivation:

Expectancy (an employee’s assessment of the likelihood their efforts will lead to the performance expected of them);

Instrumentality (an employee’s belief that their performance will lead to reward); and

Valence (how much an employee wants a reward).

Expectancy Theory looks like this:

Expectancy Theory of Motivation

Three Motivation Questions

How can you apply expectancy theory to an employee motivation issue? First of all, I recommend you don’t automatically assume that simply offering positive reward or negative reinforcement will be sufficient to solve the motivation problem.  The best way to apply it is to ask yourself 3 questions.

  1. Do employees believe their efforts will lead to successful performance?
  2. Do employees believe successful performance will be rewarded?
  3. Are the rewards (intrinsic or extrinsic) for successful performance of value to employees?

If your answer to any of these 3 questions is no, employee motivation will suffer. On the other hand, if you can get alignment between effort, performance, rewards and value, it will make a positive contribution to sustained employee motivation.

Self-efficacy beliefs and Expectancy Theory

Expectancy theory is closely linked to the concept of self-efficacy – an employee’s confidence in their competence to undertake a challenging task. Victor’s insights were a major input to Albert Bandura’s work on Self-Efficacy Theory and I used the concept of self-efficacy beliefs in my own research.

Bandura added the idea that an individual’s confidence in their competence to undertake a challenging task. In addition, an indviduaal’s sense of personal agency and control to undertake are critical. He then added Victor’s concept of expectancy as the 3rd leg to explaining motivation. Bandura’s work provides a further refinement to the eternal employee motivation puzzle. Nevertheless, using Vroom’s expectancy theory is a great place to try a different approach to solving the motivation challenge.

Victor Vroom and Albert Bandura’s ideas make an important contribution to employee motivation. Motivation relies on confidence, agency and effort leading to a relevant reward. These are concepts that managers and leaders can weave into their day to day activities. Simple really.


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