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Motivation at work Essay

Motivation is a very imprecise and multifaceted term that neither in the sciences, nor in practice is used unitarily. In aspects of leadership or human resource management, motivation can be understood as the cognitive decision making process that initiates, energises, directs and maintains the behaviour to achieve a goal or incentive (Huczinski and Buchanan 2010). In explaining motivation, there are content theories, which focus on specific factors that motivate people, and process theories, which attempts to explain the mechanism by which human needs change.

In this short paper, I will explain expectancy theory and goal theory, which fall in the category of process theories, and evaluate to what extent these theories can explain motivation at work. Being one of the most widely practised motivation theories, V. Vroom’s expectancy theory assumes that motivation is a process in which a person chooses an action among several alternatives that he thinks will result in an outcome of value. Hence, motivation is determined by how attractive the outcome of an action is, and how good the chance of getting a desired outcome by making an effort is.

In expectancy theory, there are three main variables. Valence, Instrumentality and Expectancy (VIE). Valence describes the satisfaction the person

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expects to receive from a particular outcome, rather than the real value the person receives (Vroom 1964). Instrumentality refers to the personal belief or the probability that a good performance will lead to desired outcome and Expectancy describe the expectation that achievement will lead to good performance and organisational rewards. These three variables are put into an equation F = ? (Valence x Instrumentality x Expectancy).

It proposes that a person is motivated by the attractiveness he feels in the relationship of effort, performance and rewards. The three components can be valued each Valence (-1, 0, 1), Instrumentality (0, 1), and Expectancy (0, 1). It predicts that motivation is largest when all the variables are high, but if any one of these is 0, motivation does not arise. Porter & Lawler extended Vroom’s expectancy theory by not just linking achievement with motivation but including that the effort-performance link depends on an individual’s ability, traits and perception of the role.

For instance, if a person does not have the ability to tackle a task or does not understand the problem, it will probably not result in good performance although he may put much effort into it. They also assume that intrinsic and extrinsic rewards affect job satisfaction. Expectancy theory makes it possible to measure the force of motivation, as well as the effort employees put in for a task. However, the systematic content of the theory is complex and difficult to verify.

Expectancy theory may clearly explain why some people do not do their best to perform well at work, for example if they think their performance will not lead to the desired outcome or if they do not expect that achievement is attainable even if they put in great effort. But it is doubtful that people always act after carefully examining the pros and cons, or that they always choose the most satisfying course of action. Hence, there is a limitation of the theory in that we must assume that people behave rationally.

In this regard, expectancy theory may not have a significant meaning for evaluating motivation related to daily working behaviour or small tasks, whereas the theory may have important implications for understanding behaviour which require careful judgements, such as deciding to quit a job. Making it clear what goals employees have to achieve in the performance of their duties is called goal-setting. Goal theory predicts that the process of goal-setting becomes an important factor for deciding employee’s behaviour and that the process itself has an effect on motivation.

There are four principles of the theory. First, goals should be challenging. An appropriate goal should be difficult to achieve, but still achievable, since employees may lose confidence if the goal is set beyond their capabilities. Second, goals should be specific. The more specific a goal, the more engagement increases, and you may expect a positive effect on motivation. Third, employees should be participating in goal-setting. This will increase the commitment to the goal, and the goal may be better understood and accepted by employees.

Fourth, employees should know the results. Feedback allows people to become confident in their capacities and motivates them to reduce the gap between the results and the goal (Robins, Judge 2005). To a certain degree, Goal-setting theory’s goal difficulty and specificity has been proved to be closely linked to individual performance (Huczynski and Buchanan 2010). However, the tests were mainly based on situations where there were quantifiable short-term targets. So it is not clear whether the effect can be maintained in the long-term.

Additionally, the theory is difficult to apply in jobs where goals are not measurable in quantifiable terms. Another flaw of this theory is that it does not provide a guideline what factors decide goal acceptance and commitment. To put it differently, there is little explanation about the goal’s adoption process. For instance, an ultimate goal may be set by considering its difficulty, specificity and participation. However, if the goal is not accepted, it is unlikely that they will achieve more than expected. Both expectancy theory and goal-setting theory view individual behaviour as a cognitive process.

The difference between the two is that while expectancy theory puts emphasis on the expectation for inner appraisal and various rewards, goal theory focuses on deliberate choices based on different values for pursuing a goal. You cannot say which one of these theories is right or wrong, but both give us a guideline on how we are motivated at work.


Buchanan, D, A. , Huczynski, A, A. (2010) Organizational behavior, Essex, Pearson Education Robins, S, P. , Judge, T, A. (2010) Organizational Behaviour, Essex, Prentice Hall Vroom, V. (1964) Work and motivation, New York, Wiley

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