Thursday, July 26, 2012

Expectancy Theory

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Expectancy Theory

The expectancy theory of motivation is a common accepted theory for explaining how individuals makes decisions on how to behave in certain situations, how much effort to use. This theory is widely used in education, management, psychology, coaching and most probably several other areas as well. There are several models of motivation ranging from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory that describes motivation, and sides of motivations that can help understand why people are acting in particular ways in certain situations, and why something that motivates one person does not motivate another person. What really differentiates the expectancy theories from the rest of the motivational theories, is that it can be used as a mental tool for a leader, manager, teacher, parent or coach when they are trying to motivate another individual to perform a task.

The expectancy theory has an important basic premise. It assumes that if you perceive that you will be rewarded in some way meaningful for you, by behaving in a certain way to reach a certain goal, you will be motivated to do this. This is supported not only by scientific models, theories and evidence, but also of common phrases used by parents and teachers for a long time:

- If you think you can, you will. If you think you can’t, you won’t.

- There is only one way you will make it; work hard and do what you are told!


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The Expectancy theory of motivation assumes that an individual is able to choose a particular behavior out of several possible behaviors, based upon the motivational force of the option. The motivational force for any behavior is given as a function of three perceptions.

MF=Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence.

Expectancy is a probability measure based upon how the person views the effort-performance relationship. If the person beliefs that high effort will lead to a desired performance, then the expectancy is high.

Valence refers to the value that particular person places upon the reward that the action leads to. If the reward is worthwhile, the valence is high.

Instrumentality refers to the perceived relationship between the performance and the reward. If the person beliefs there is a high probability for the performance to lead to a reward, the instrumentality is high. If the individual beliefs that there are only a small probability that the performance will lead to a reward the instrumentality is low.

The Motivational Force is a product of these perceptions. This means that if either of them is zero, the motivation can be zero too, even if the two other perceptions are reasonable high.

This can be illustrated by an example from my own work life. I was in a job where working hard, traveling from one business location to another diagnosing and fixing database problems, lead to good results and recognition. When I got this assignment we were told that our results would be an important factor in deciding our next assignments. We were also told that those of us with the best results would get the best assignments when this period was done. So I was under a clear impression that if I only worked hard, fixed these problems, and my customers reported back to my leader the positive results, then I would not have to travel and be away from the family so much.

The time for the appraisal came, and I got really good evaluations, and my leader told me what an exceptionally good job I had done, and that our customers repeatedly asked for him to send me to help them. Then he told me that since I had shown such a gift for this line of work he would keep me on this assignment for another 6 months, as the leader of the team, and I got a significant rise.

The motivation for doing this job was zero after this. The expectancy was as before. The instrumentality was also present but weakened, but the valence was not there. I did not want this job, so the reward was not what I perceived as a reward. The reward felt like a punishment. So I used my review to transfer to another division within the company.

When you use the expectancy theory of motivation, you need to make sure that all three factors in the equation are positive in order for it to motivate. This requires that you know the persons perceived abilities, you are sure that there are trust between you so he or she is reasonable sure that good performance will lead to the award, and that the award is something meaningful for the person.

When it comes to my own kids, I have used this theory for what it is worth. My 14 year old daughter came and asked me if I could take her to a No Doubt concert. I asked her if she had tickets for the two of us, then sure I would drive and come with her. Of course, she did not have the tickets. She had not even thought that she should pay for the concert she wanted to attend. So I told her if she really wanted this so bad she needed to do some work for me, before I even considered buying the tickets. So If she would clean out all the stuff from the garage that we did not use, wash and clean it, and put the stuff we still use nicely into their correct places, then I would buy the tickets and take her to the concert.

I could se that she was thinking, and I assume she asked herself questions like

- Can I do this soon enough for the tickets not to be sold out?

- Do I really want to go the concert that badly?

And I really hope she did not ask herself the question

- Will she really take me if I do it? I hope she has enough experience to know that I will, but I know some kids would ask that question in a situation like this.

When it comes to my own family I also work very hard to avoid a strong instrumentality, that is that you need a reward for any good performance. I believe that many situations with goals set by parents- kids reaching the goals-reward destroys the children’s ability to set their own goals, to do an effort for someone else, without expecting a reward for it, or personal benefits. I am worried that to much focus on external motivation kills the more important internal motivation. So this is a tool to be used with care so it does not backfire.

Also if you use to high rewards, the expectation for a later situation might lead the kids not to find the effort worthwhile since they have an image of a larger reward installed from earlier experiences.

What I like about this theory is that it perceives the individual person as a decision maker, not as a passive entity given input to perform an output. If the tasks are wrong, not suitable for the intellectual capacity, for the abilities, for the experience level, then the person will not perform the task. This is because the person does not accept the challenge given the link between the effort-performance is not acceptable. The person is able to see that no matter how hard he or she works, the result will not be good enough, and there will be no way that this leads to wanted result, and a reward no matter how bad you want it, is out of you reach.

This theory has some simple but clear implication for me as a manager.

- I need to make sure that the reward system used for my subordinates have attainable goals that challenge my employees, and rewards that have meaning for each of the employees. And I will make sure that the reward we agree upon will be given if the goals are reached, not another reward. There will never be a situation where I promise something I can not keep, or assume that something else are as rewarding because I find it rewarding my self. (like money if the employee want something else).

- I also need to work hard on making the employees believe that they can do the task, and provide them the support they need to get the job done.



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