Expectancy Theory and the Impact on Leadership

Expectancy Theory and the Impact on Leadership

Understanding leadership requires focus on a leader’s role, development of expertise, and progression of leadership capacity. Leaders have the capability of achieving each of these areas through expectancy theory. The theory proposes that the actions of an individual are based on his or her motivational drive to select a specific behavior that maximizes his or her desirable outcome (Isaac, Zerbe, & Pitt, 2001). Expectancy theory is a recognized staple among leadership styles because a leader’s style can subsequently influence employee motivation and job satisfaction, managerial effectiveness and communication, and organizational commitment (Ekaterini, 2010).

Acquiring a leadership style takes effort and an immense understanding of what one hopes to achieve. Therefore, the best style of leadership is contingent to the situation.
This is where the expectancy theory plays a role. Applying the expectancy model within an organization benefits not only leaders, who will recognize their own behavior, but also employees who will make choices based on their goals, needs, and experiences (Battacharya, 2016). According to Belias and Koustelios (2014), leaders share some common features that makes them effective. These features are characterized by responsibility, trust, efficacy, and confidence, which can affect the behavior, relations, and well-being of employees (Belias & Koustelios, 2014).

Leaders, and the leadership style they choose, influence employees on all levels, including individual, group, and organizational within an organization (Naile & Selesho, 2014). Thus, leaders should look for ways to motivate their employees to optimize employee performance, effort, and satisfaction. Some approaches include appreciation, recognition, inspiration, compensation, and more importantly, a healthy manager-employee relationship. Each approach has the opportunity for optimizing employee work behavior. As Markos and Sridevi (2010) indicated, feeling valued and the quality of the manager-employee relationship are essential elements of employee motivation. Hence, leaders should be willing to listen to their employees and recognize that their goals and aspirations will differ from their employees.

As a leader, what leadership style works best to achieve a healthy manager-employee relationship?


Belias, D., & Koustelios, A. (2014). Leadership and job satisfaction – a review. European Scientific Journal, 10(8), 25-46. Retrieved from http://eujournal.org/index.php/esj/article/viewFile/3005/2831

Bhattacharya, A. (2016). Expectancy theory of performance management system. Retrieved from https://www.projectguru.in/publications/expectancy-theory-performance-ma...

Ekaterini, G. (2010). The impact of leadership styles on four variables of executives’ workforce. International Journal of Business and Management, 5(6). Retrieved from

Isaac, R. G., Zerbe, W. J., & Pitt, D. C. (2001). Leadership and motivation: The effective application of expectancy theory. Journal of Managerial Issues, 13(2), 212-226. Retrieved from http://www.cs.unca.edu/~manns/MotivationExpectancyTheory.pdf

Markos, S., & Sridevi, M. S. (2010). Employee engagement: The key to improving performance. International Journal of Business and Management, 5(12), 89-96. Retrieved from www.ccsenet.org/ijbm

Naile, I., & Selesho, J. M. (2014). The role of leadership in employee motivation. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(3), 175-182. doi:10.5901/mjss.2014.v5n3p175.


Dorothy Williams's picture Dorothy Williams | April 18, 2017 10:37 pm MST

While working in Corproate Training for over 13 years, (trained approx. 1000 employees) as a Training Instructor where the employees were our students, I learned about strong leadershp styles. Our leadership style encouraged, "People First." We trained front-line employees, supervisors, middle managers, and upper management on becoming a good (healthy) leader. Those approaches used in your article on the Expectancy Theory (goals, needs, and experiences), included in our training programs work: "appreciation, recognition, inspiration, compensation, a healthy manager-employee relationship." Our motto, "Walk in Their Shoes," ensured us that the trainers maintained a (healthy) employee training style.

Christopher Hicks's picture Christopher Hicks | April 24, 2017 7:37 pm MST

I feel that the coaching leadership style works best to achieve a healthy manager-employee relationship, Valerie. I think that expectancy theory plays an important role in how a manager facilitates a productive relationship with their employees. When the manager is in tune with their own drives, they can appreciate their employees desire to work in an environment that values their personal development as well as their role in the organization. In fact, it is important to note that the role of coach, places the manager in a position to empower their employees. I think the most important skill that a manager-as-coach should poseess is the ability to listen with the intent to learn and to ask questions that promote meaningful exploration. I think that the motto "Walk in Their Shoes" that Dorothy mentioned above, is a good starting point for organizational leaders to begin to discuss how to adapt to the expectations of the modern employee. 

Michael Thompson's picture Michael Thompson | May 7, 2017 11:54 am MST

Another motivational theory, which appears in the literature at about the same time as Vroom's (1964) Expectancy Theory, is Adams' (1963) Equity Theory. As motivational theories appear chronologically in the literature, one typically takes the place of its predecessor, e.g. Expectancy Theory fills in the gaps left in Equity Theory and replaces it; however, I feel these two theories are inseparable. Adams positied that people would be more motivated to act when the outcome seemed comensurate with the effort required to achieve it. Vroom expanded on that theory to say such effortful behavior would only reliably occur when the expected outcome seemed relatively sure. In other words, being told a fair reward comes after some prescribed effort is one thing, and believing that reward is actually coming is another thing. Hence the tie to efficacy - Belief that what you attempt will come to a successful end.

What I take from these combined concepts as a leader, is that reward or recognition of any type needs to meet two criteria: The reward must be commensurate with the effort, and it must be reliably conferred in order to impact motivation. To simplify, every time employees are told something is coming as a result of some effort, and it does not happen, expectations are degraded, and so is motivation. By the same token, as leaders are developed, if their own skills, and thereby self-efficacy, are not developed, it could be difficult to maintain self-motivation for difficult tasks (Vroom, 1964).

To use these combined theories effectively for leader and subordinate development, I believe attention must be paid to what is asked of the individual and what the reward is. Rewarding tasks that are well within skill limits provides no motivation to improve - more likely, quite the opposite. However, providing rewards only for what is out of reach would also likely degrade motivation. 

Rewards should be aligned with the very leading edge of what is within an individual's capacity to accomplish in order to be an effective developmental tool. Then, leaders must pay attention to make sure those deserved rewards are conferred upon the deserving.

Equity + Expectancy = Motivation



Adams, J. S. (1963). Towards an understanding of inequity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology67(5), 422-436. doi: 10.1037/h0040968

 Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons

Valerie Barney's picture Valerie Barney | May 14, 2017 7:18 am MST

I believe that combining both the Expectancy theory and Equity theory to ensure effective leadership sets the course for leader development and creates a path for subordinate motivation. Rewarding tasks, which are already part of one’s job description or responsibility will most assuredly diminish the reward program. Unfortunately, I often see the reward program used this way in the employer arena. I believe this action sets a negative tone for the rest of staff who complete their job responsibilities without the expectation of a reward to follow. The ownership falls on employers who need to provide their employees with innovation capabilities, which will allow them to develop and acquire new skills. This, in turn, will foster motivation and put a reward program to good use.


Simona Parker's picture Simona Parker | June 11, 2017 12:39 am MST

I wholeheartedly believe it is the relationship between leaders and subordinate employees the influence productivity, job satisfaction, and employee engagement.  Of course, as a subordinate employee, I do not rely solely on a close relationship with my leader.  However, I do expect fair treatment or I might find myself unenthusiastic and displeased with my position, my leader, and the organization.  A negative relationship between leaders and subordinate employees can produce a hostile work environment, also leading to poor job performance, absenteeism to avoid the leader, and eventually a high turnover rate.  As I reflect on my experiences with different leadership styles, I would choose the idealist because I need opportunity to avoid becoming disengaged and unproductive.  I welcome change and the opportunity to express myself not with criticism, but with creative feedback and feedforward.  An idealist may offer the opportunity for learning together instead of self-learning or individual work.  I believe an idealist would help me learn to believe in myself and my potential in the organization.  

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