Many years ago, a large nationwide hospital restructured all administrative jobs and redesigned workflow processes. Managers failed to communicate the new direction, were increasingly frustrated and absent. As an administrative assistant, my job responsibilities were unclear. The changing landscape affected my level of effort. I consciously minimized my effort and stopped volunteering for extra projects. I believed at the time that extra work would not be rewarded as it had been in the past.
In 1964 organizational psychologist, Victor Vroom described his theory of motivation which was based on several assumptions. Individuals are influenced by their past jobs, level of experience, what they are looking for, and a job that will meet their needs. His theory assumes that perceptions drive behavioral options and that individuals are all different, that everyone will not have the same idea of what rewards will make them happy. If an individual is not pleased, they will make alternate decisions that benefit them. Vroom’s expectancy theory explains that motivation is a mental process, and an individual’s perceptions of situations will motivate them to behave one way or another. The hospital restructuring halted my effort, I was not motivated to continue, and I began to assess what other options were available. Ultimately, Vroom describes that individuals are seeking the best way to satisfy needs, and their effort will depend on their perceptions which he describes as expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.
Expectancy is described as an individual’s perception of their effort in relation to the performance goal. Leaders and managers are responsible for communication and ensuring standards are being met. Managers at the hospital had changed their behaviors and were not being clear of the new expectations. Vroom explains that when motivation is increased, it is likely due to the individual believing that their effort and meeting goals will lead to greater success. This involves a level of internal assessment, discerning whether they have the background, education, confidence, and abilities to complete the work. The strength of expectancy is that it gives managers an important tool to understand that the reasons for the level of performance are based on what their staff perceives as the consequences of not completing the task. When managers do not monitor performance, as in the hospital example, employees were not completing tasks and were still being rewarded for their performance.
The element of instrumentality associates whether rewards are obtained. For example, I believed that increasing work at the hospital would not be rewarded so my motivation declined. I perceived no desired outcome for doing extra work. Instrumentality speaks to whether an individual will perceive their effort to meet the desired outcomes. Vroom suggests that this level of awareness is beneficial to the individual and to organizations. But it is limited if managers are not aware and do not understand what motivates employees.
Meeting performance standards, building skills, and knowledge and becoming an asset to the organization enhances an individual’s ability to perform their job. Vroom explains how receiving acknowledgment for meeting standards builds trust in the employee and manager relationship. As trust increases, the employee feels a greater sense of control and understands that their effort in meeting goals is related to rewards.
The third element of this theory is described as valence. Individuals have varying degrees of what they consider to be valuable. Their effort is associated with the expected reward. The level of contributions is related to what they believe they will receive. The value placed on rewards becomes a function for motivation as an individual secures other outcomes. But the theory does not distinguish between what outcomes are better than others, it’s part of what the individual sees as beneficial for them. Managerial decisions may benefit by employees being involved in the making decisions regarding job tasks and their efforts would be based on their judgment on how they value the outcome or reward. The manager who takes the time to understand what employees value could potentially predict effort which helps both the manager and the employee to predict success.
Thomas and Velthouse, (1990) conceptualized a cognitive model of empowerment. They describe three interpretive styles (evaluation, attribution, and envisioning) to the effects of mental processes. They explain that environmental events shape an individual process in assessing whether a task is worth doing. Depending on the individual’s assessment of the impact of the work, whether they are competent if the task is meaningful and whether they have the choice to determine goals are all being simultaneously weighed by the individual. The impact of the individual’s performance outcome is the degree of behavior that “makes a difference”. (Thomas & Velthouse, 13, p. 672) The behavioral effects of the individual’s assessment of their competence determine whether a person has the skills to complete the task. (13) To find meaningfulness involves the individual’s assessment and what they see as having meaning. (13) The last concept of the individual having choices and determining what is relevant. (13) Browning (2013) studied critical care nurses caring for adults at end of life and the relationship of their level of moral distress, perceived psychological empowerment, and demographics and found that nurses with higher levels of perceived empowerment experience moral distress less often.
Vroom’s theory is beneficial in describing how an individual’s link work effort to expectations and managers can use this as a starting point when determining goals and objectives for employees. Building individual performance goals into annual reviews demonstrates how the individual fulfills obligations and meets organizational standards. The challenge is for managers to understand what is important to the employee. For example, the hospital that I worked for was nationwide and management decisions were directed to them from senior leaders. It wasn’t clear if the extra projects would be something that I was interested in, nor was I sure if I completed the project would I be rewarded in doing the work, and since the communication was challenging it wasn’t clear if this was something that I could do.
I am motivated when I believe that a manager cares about me and the work that I produce. I thrive in an environment where the manager is a friend, a mentor, a coach, and someone that I can have open discussions with. I am motivated by working for a manager that understands that I have many short- and long-term goals and want their input and assistance in developing my skills. I will put more effort into a project if there is the meaning and it is something that I know will contribute to the success of the organization. I believe that my motivation is greater when I am engaged in activities that have variety, spark curiosity and it’s something that I want to learn about. Motivation is often about relevance and whether in my eyes it is worth doing. Similar to Thomas & Velthouse (1990) I make an assessment of the impact of the work, whether there is the meaning and if I have options to determine how to meet goals and whether I am capable of delivering a quality product.
- Browning, A. M. (2013). CNE Article: Moral Distress and Psychological Empowerment in Critical Care Nurses Caring for Adults at the end of Life. American Journal of Critical Care. 22(2) 143-151, DOI: 10.4037/ajcc2013437
- Thomas, K.W., Velthouse, B.A. (1990). Cognitive Elements of Empowerment: An “Interpretive” Model of Intrinsic Task Motivation. Academy of Management. 15(4) 666-681
- Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and Motivation. New York, NY: Wiley.