How to Improve Incentive Programs with Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation

November 20, 2017 | Thought Pieces

By Deirdre Conde


In the second part of our blog series about Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Job Satisfaction, we discussed how motivation factors can be applied in rewarding and recognizing in the organization. We were able to give practical tips on what to offer employees based on Herzberg’s two-factor model, which is a content theory of motivation. Content theories provide insight into employee needs; however, that covers only one part of the problem.

The next question now is: how do you offer these motivators to your employees? For that matter, we consult Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of motivation, which is a process theory. Process theories try to explain the thought process of employees and help identify actions that will fulfill the needs covered by the content theories.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory is rooted in the premise that employees make their behavioral choices on the basis of their expectations, and that expectation is based on the fact that a certain reward may be the result of their behavior. The theory works on the assumption that to motivate employees, they must be able to expect that their behavior (effort) will lead to a desirable outcome for the company (performance) and for themselves (reward). Without this perception of positive outcomes, employees won’t be driven to exert effort.

How to Improve Incentive Programs with Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation

As simple as this may be to grasp, organizations of the 21st century still struggle to incorporate this process into their incentives programs. Here are some tips for applying theory into practice:


Effort: Be clear with what’s expected.

In communicating any incentives program, be definitive with your mechanics. It’s not just saying “hit target X, get Y reward,” it’s also specifying the steps that need to be taken to qualify for an incentive. If one has to submit documentation by a particular date, then it has to be clearly explained to employees.

Some employers focus too much on promoting rewards that the behavior needed to achieve the reward gets buried in the messaging. If employees don’t understand exactly how they can qualify for rewards, then you lose them too early in the Expectancy model by fostering uncertainty.

Overcommunicate if you must. That’s also a good way to keep the desired behavior on top of your employees’ minds.

See related: Five Insights for Implementing a Successful Performance and Rewards System


Performance: Connect actions to outcomes.

Employees must be able to equate their efforts to positive results for the business. That their work is significant and valued is instrumental in reinforcing the very same behavior. For example: closing a deal is part of the job for sales employees, but inching closer to a monthly target is how they know they did well.

To translate that effectively, make sure you set goals with impact.  If employees feel like the work they do won’t help the organization achieve success, they won’t be motivated to do it even if you’ve been clear about what action is expected.

Celebrate the milestones as much as possible. Don’t wait for performance appraisal season or the year-end review to let your employees know what their jobs mean to the company.


Reward: Account for individual preferences.

The anticipation of the reward is a key feature of Vroom’s motivational theory. The caveat to this is that the reward for the desired effort should also be desirable. Employees aren’t driven to perform for a reward item that they do not find personally attractive. Offering travel incentives, for example, does not take into consideration individual wants and needs: younger employees might be encouraged to travel, but some might prefer recreational or relaxational experiences instead.

By prescribing a limited set of rewards, you’re also setting your incentives program up to motivate only a limited group of employees within your organization. In that set-up, the rest of the employees will feel like the reward isn’t worth putting in the effort for.

Try a cafeteria approach with your reward items and empower your employees to choose their incentives. Another point to remember is that these may not necessarily be material motivators; they can be given in the form of a promotion or opportunities to learn, as explained in our previous post on Herzberg’s motivators.

By combining the learnings from content (Herzberg’s Motivators) with the process (Vroom’s Expectancy Theory), an effective incentives program should be easier to design and implement. Go back and ask yourself:

  1. Do the employees know what efforts are expected from them?
  2. Do they know that these result in organizational success?
  3. Do they think that the personal rewards are worth it?

A “yes” to all three questions doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve nailed motivation in your company; it simply means that you’ve got the foundations covered. Now it’s time to build on them and innovate.


Parijat, P., & Bagga, S. (2014). Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory of motivation–An evaluation. International Research Journal of Business and Management (IRJBM), 7(9), 1-8.

Wiese, M., & Coetzee, R. (2013). The importance of non-financial motivators to pharmaceutical sales representatives: A demographic study. Southern African Business Review, 17(1), 23-56.

Zeb, A., Rehman, S., Saeed, G., & Ullah, H. A. (2014). Study of the Relationship between Reward and Recognition and employees Job Satisfaction: A Literature Review. Abasyn Journal Of Social Sciences, 7(2), 278-291.



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