Become a Better Leader by Using Expectancy Theory to Enhance Leadership Skills

expectancy theory, expectancy theory examples

Become a Better Leader by Using Expectancy Theory to Enhance Leadership Skills

As leaders, we all know the frustration of unmotivated employees. Studies by Gallup show that highly engaged teams outperform their less-engaged counterparts by a staggering 21% in profitability. That’s a significant chunk of change left on the table!

But what if there was a framework you could use to unlock your team’s full potential, turning disengaged employees into enthusiastic contributors? Enter Expectancy Theory is a powerful tool that can revolutionize how you approach leadership and motivation.

I know what you might be thinking: “Another leadership theory? Do I really need another framework to juggle?” The answer is a resounding yes, but for a particular reason. Expectancy Theory isn’t just another management fad; it’s a practical and evidence-based approach that focuses on understanding the core drivers of employee motivation.

At its heart, Expectancy Theory has three key components: Instrumentality, Expectancy, and Valence. Trust me, these terms sound more intimidating than they are. In simpler terms, Instrumentality asks, “Do my employees believe their effort will lead to achieving the goal?” Expectancy focuses on “Do they feel confident in their ability to succeed?”  Finally, Valence asks, “Do they see value in the rewards associated with achieving the goal?”

Understanding these core elements can tailor our leadership strategies to address each team member’s needs and motivations. The result? A more engaged workforce, increased productivity, and a happier, more fulfilling work environment for you and your team. Sound good? Then, let’s dive deeper and explore how Expectancy Theory can transform your leadership approach!

Key Takeaways 

  • Expectancy Theory for Leaders:  Understanding the core components – instrumentality (effort leads to results), expectancy (confidence in the ability to succeed), and valence (value placed on rewards) – is critical to unlocking employee motivation.
  • Boosting Instrumentality:  Set clear goals, provide necessary resources and training, and eliminate roadblocks to ensure your team sees a direct link between their effort and achieving desired outcomes.
  • Building Expectancy:  Offer coaching, mentorship, and positive reinforcement to cultivate confidence in your team’s capabilities. Foster a culture of learning where mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth.
  • Elevating Valence:  Tailor rewards to individual motivations, connect goals to a higher purpose and create a culture of recognition where hard work is celebrated.
  • Empowerment Through Leadership:  By applying the Expectancy Theory, you can move beyond managing your team and become a leader who inspires peak performance through motivation and focusing on individual potential.

What is the Expectancy Theory?

Expectancy Theory, initially proposed by Victor Vroom in 1964, is a psychological framework that explains motivation and decision-making processes. It suggests that individuals are motivated to perform actions based on their expectations of the outcomes of those actions.

According to this theory, motivation is influenced by three key factors:

  • Expectancy refers to the belief that increased effort will lead to improved performance. It is influenced by factors such as self-efficacy, past experiences, and the perceived difficulty of the task. High expectancy means that individuals believe their efforts will lead to better performance.
  • Instrumentality: This is the belief that if one performs well, then a valued outcome will be received. Essentially, it’s the perception that good performance will lead to rewards.
  • Valence: This represents the individual’s importance on the expected outcome. It is the value or attractiveness of the reward to the individual. High valence means that the reward is beautiful to the individual.

The theory posits that individuals will be motivated to perform if they believe that their effort will lead to good performance (high expectancy), that good performance will be rewarded (high instrumentality), and that the reward is valuable to them (high valence). Therefore, for motivation to occur, all three conditions must be met.

The Components of Expectancy Theory

Let’s go further into the components of expectancy theory

#1. Expectancy: The Confidence Factor

Imagine this:  You hand your star designer, Michael, a groundbreaking design project. He stares at the brief, overwhelmed by its complexity. Suddenly, that spark of creativity you usually see in his eyes dims. Why? Because Michael lacks expectancy. He doubts his ability to achieve the desired outcome. This, my friends, is the essence of expectancy.

Expectancy refers to an employee’s belief in their ability to complete a task or achieve a goal successfully. When someone feels confident in their skills and capabilities, they’re more likely to put in the necessary effort.

Here’s how leaders can boost Expectancy:

  • Clear Goals & SMART Objectives: Vague instructions breed uncertainty. Set clear, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals that outline what success looks like.
  • Break Down the Mountain: Don’t overwhelm your team with Mount Everest-sized projects. Break down significant goals into smaller, more manageable tasks, creating a clear roadmap to success.
  • Ongoing Support & Coaching: Be a reliable guide, not just a delegator. Offer regular feedback, mentorship, and training opportunities to equip your team with the skills they need to thrive.

Example:  Remember Michael, our designer? By providing clear design briefs, breaking down the project into more minor phases, and offering ongoing feedback and support, we can increase his expectancy, boosting his confidence and motivation to tackle the project with enthusiasm.

#2. Instrumentality:  Effort Equals Outcome?

Let’s say Michael tackles the design project with renewed confidence. But what if he starts pouring his heart and soul into it, only to discover that his efforts won’t translate into the desired outcome? This lack of instrumentality can be incredibly demotivating.

Instrumentality focuses on an employee’s perception of the link between their effort and achieving the desired results. Simply put, they need to believe that putting in the hard work will lead them to the finish line.

Leaders can strengthen Instrumentality by:

  • Providing Resources & Tools: Ensure your team has the necessary resources (software, equipment, training) to perform their tasks effectively.
  • Clear Performance Metrics: Establish clear metrics that define success and track progress. This allows employees to see the direct impact of their efforts on the overall goal.
  • Eliminate Roadblocks: Be proactive in identifying and removing any roadblocks hindering your team’s progress.

Example:  Imagine Michael discovers the design software needed for the project needs to be updated and fixed. This disconnect between effort and outcome (instrumentality) can cripple his motivation. By providing him with the latest software, we ensure his hard work translates into tangible progress, strengthening his belief in the link between effort and success.

#3. Valence:  The Power of Meaningful Rewards

Michael pours his heart and soul into the design project, overcomes challenges, and delivers a stunning final product. But what if the only reward is a lukewarm “good job”? This lack of valence can leave him feeling undervalued and less motivated in the future.

Valence represents the importance or value an employee places on the rewards associated with achieving a goal. It’s not just about money; recognition, growth opportunities, and a sense of purpose can all be valuable motivators.

Leaders can influence Valence by:

  • Tailoring Rewards: You need more than one-size-fits-all rewards. Understand what motivates each team member and tailor rewards accordingly. Public recognition might be ideal for one person, while another may value additional training opportunities.
  • Connecting Goals to Purpose: Help your team see the bigger picture. Explain how their work contributes to the organization’s success and aligns with their career goals.
  • Creating a Culture of Recognition: Don’t let achievements go unnoticed. Celebrate big and small successes to show your team their hard work is valued.

Example: A simple “good job” won’t cut the fantastic design when Michael delivers it. Publicly acknowledge his accomplishment, consider a bonus or additional training he desires, and emphasize how his work contributes to the company’s success. This high valence will leave him feeling valued and motivated to excel in future projects.

Expectancy Theory Examples

Now that we’ve unpacked the power of Expectancy Theory, let’s see it in action! Here are a few real-world scenarios where leaders used Expectancy Theory to address specific challenges and ignite a fire under their teams:

Example 1:  Motivating During a Challenging Project

The marketing team is tasked with launching a groundbreaking new product in a crowded market. The project is complex, the deadline is tight, and a sense of overwhelm is starting. Here’s how I, as their leader, used Expectancy Theory to turn things around:

Boosting Instrumentality: I held a kickoff meeting to outline launch goals and break them into manageable weekly milestones. The team then brainstormed specific action steps for each milestone, ensuring everyone understood their role and how it contributed to the overall success. Additionally, I secured access to the latest marketing automation tools and provided in-depth training to equip them with the resources needed to excel.

Building Expectancy:  Recognizing the potential for doubt, I scheduled regular coaching sessions to address challenges and provide targeted support. I also highlighted the team’s past successes on similar projects, reminding them of their talent and ability to achieve remarkable things. This focus on past accomplishments boosted their confidence and belief in their ability to conquer the current challenge.

Elevating Valence:  Throughout the project, I made a point of publicly acknowledging individual and team achievements. Reaching a key milestone? A company-wide email shout-out celebrating their hard work. Exceeding a target? Team lunch on the company dime! These celebrations recognized their efforts and reinforced the connection between their hard work and positive outcomes, keeping them motivated and engaged.

By addressing each component of the Expectancy Theory, I transformed a potentially daunting project into a collaborative and successful launch. The team thrived under clear direction, felt confident in their abilities, and saw the value of their contributions, leading to a motivated and high-performing team.

Example 2: Encouraging Innovation

The product development team has fallen into a rut, churning out incremental improvements instead of groundbreaking ideas. Innovation is stagnant, and the company needs a fresh perspective. Here’s how I, as their leader, leveraged Expectancy Theory to reignite their creative spark:

Strengthening Instrumentality:  I introduced a “hackathon” week, where teams were encouraged to experiment with new ideas outside the constraints of traditional development cycles. I secured funding for prototyping tools and resources, ensuring they had the means to bring their ideas to life.

Building Expectancy: I created a “safe space for failure” environment to foster confidence in taking risks. I emphasized that learning from mistakes is essential to the innovation process. Mentorship sessions were offered to guide teams through creative roadblocks, boosting their confidence in exploring new concepts.

Elevating Valence:  Public recognition became an essential tool. Teams presenting innovative ideas, even if they have yet to develop fully, received recognition during team meetings and company newsletters. This recognition celebrated their efforts and highlighted the value of creative thinking, inspiring others to step outside the box.

By addressing each component of the Expectancy Theory, I encouraged experimentation and risk-taking. The team felt empowered to explore new possibilities, confident in their innovation ability, and saw the value placed on their creative ideas. This shift in mindset led to a surge of innovative concepts and a renewed sense of excitement within the product development team.

Example 3: Encouraging Collaboration

The sales and marketing teams have historically operated in silos, leading to missed opportunities and frustrated clients. To bridge the gap and foster collaboration, I used Expectancy Theory as my guide:

Enhancing Instrumentality:  I established clear, joint goals that required collaboration between sales and marketing for success. For instance, a target for qualified leads is generated through joint marketing campaigns. This created a shared purpose and a clear understanding of how each team’s efforts contributed to the overall objective.

Building Expectancy:  I facilitated joint team-building exercises to break down silos and encourage communication. Regular inter-departmental meetings kept both teams informed of each other’s strategies and challenges. This fostered a sense of understanding and trust, building confidence in their ability to work together effectively.

Elevating Valence:  Team successes were celebrated jointly. When a marketing campaign generated a surge of qualified leads, both teams received recognition for their collaborative efforts. This emphasis on shared rewards reinforced the value of teamwork and motivated both departments to continue working together seamlessly.

By addressing each component of the Expectancy Theory, I transformed two isolated teams into a collaborative force. Shared goals, a focus on communication, and recognition for combined achievements fostered a “we’re in this together” mentality. This newfound collaboration led to a more streamlined customer experience and improved sales performance.


So there you have it! We’ve delved deep into Expectancy Theory, dissecting its core components and exploring how it can revolutionize your approach to leadership. Remember, motivated employees are the backbone of any thriving organization. By understanding the drivers of motivation within each team member, we can create an environment that fosters instrumentality, expectancy, and valence, propelling our teams toward peak performance.

Focusing on instrumentality ensures your team has the precise direction, resources, and support they need to succeed. By nurturing expectancy, you build confidence in their abilities and equip them with the tools to overcome challenges. By elevating valence, you create a culture of recognizing and valuing hard work, keeping your team motivated and engaged.

I know what you might think: “This all sounds great, but where do I start?” The beauty of Expectancy Theory lies in its practical application. Start by reflecting on your current leadership style. Are you fostering a clear sense of purpose and direction for your team? Do they have the resources and support they need to excel? How are you recognizing and rewarding their achievements?

You can identify areas for improvement by taking some time to assess your approach honestly. It could be implementing regular performance reviews with clear feedback and development plans. It could be establishing a culture of open communication and knowledge sharing. Every team is unique, so your strategies must be tailored to their needs and motivations.

So, take a deep breath, embrace the power of the Expectancy Theory, and step into your role as a leader who inspires, motivates, and empowers. Your team is waiting, and together, you can achieve remarkable things.


Expectancy theory consists of three main concepts: expectancy (e), instrumentality (i), and value (v). Expectancy is the belief that increased effort leads to improved performance, instrumentality is the belief that good performance results in desired outcomes, and value is the importance of the outcomes.

What are the two factors of expectancy theory?

Expectancy theory, introduced by Victor Vroom, focuses on effort-performance expectancy (E→P) and performance-outcome expectancy (P→O). It suggests that individuals are motivated to exert effort for desired performance outcomes.


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