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Process theories of motivation


We can also have process theories, which are concerned with the thought processes that influence our behaviour. Two such theories can be identified:

  • Expectancy theory
  • Equity theory

Expectancy theory: Victor Vroom

Expectancy theory is a theory first developed by Victor Vroom in 1964 and later developed by Porter and Lawlor in 1968. This theory states that workers will only act when they have a reasonable expectation that their work will lead to the desired outcome. They need to believe that they possess the necessary ability and skill to achieve the given goal.

Expectancy theory predicts that employees in an organisation will be motivated when they believe that:

  • putting in more effort will yield better job performance
  • better job performance will lead to organisational rewards, such as an increase in salary or benefits
  • these predicted organisational rewards are valued by the employee in question

Vroom suggested that the relationship between people's behaviour at work and their goals was not as simple as was first imagined by other scientists. Vroom realised that an employee's performance is based on individual factors such as personality, skills, knowledge, experience and abilities.

In order to enhance performance managers should use reward systems that tie rewards very closely to performance.

Practical measures based on expectancy theory

  • Work out which outcomes are valued by employees
  • Decide what kind of performance is required from employees
  • Ensure that the desired level of performance is achievable
  • Tie in the desired outcomes with the desired performance
  • Check the situation for any conflicting expectancies
  • Ensure that the outcomes are seen as sufficient reward
  • Check that the system is fair and seen to be fair

These precepts can be translated into practical measures

  • Pay and reward systems should be designed, which reward performance efforts by employees
  • Jobs must be flexibly designed to take account of the needs of employees
  • Managers must be trained to set clear and achievable goals, which are clearly linked with the reward system, and to use positive reinforcement of desired responses
  • Motivation throughout the organisation must be regularly monitored
  • Flexibility should be built in to allow employees to choose their own rewards

Nadler and Lawlor, 1977

Equity theory: John Stacey Adams

John Stacey Adams, workplace and behavioural psychologist, put forward his Equity Theory on job motivation in 1963. There are similarities with previous theories of Maslow and Herzberg in that the theory acknowledges that subtle and variable factors affect each individual's assessment and perception of their relationship with their work, and their employer.

In this particular model, there is emphasis on 'what is fair and reasonable'. As individuals, we seek a fair balance between what we put into our job and what we get out of it. Adams calls these inputs and outputs. Individuals form perceptions of what constitutes a fair balance or trade of inputs and outputs by comparing their own situation with colleagues, friends and partners in establishing benchmarks and their own responses to them.

Adams used the term 'referent' others to describe the reference points or people with whom we compare our own situation, which is the pivotal part of the theory. Equity theory thus helps explain why pay and conditions alone do not determine motivation. Equity does not depend on our input-to-output ratio alone, but also on comparison between an individual's ratio and the ratio of others.

In practice, this helps to explain why people are so strongly affected by the situations (and views and gossip) of colleagues, friends, partners etc., in establishing their own personal sense of fairness or equity in their work situations.

Inputs Outputs
Inputs are typically: effort, loyalty, hard work, commitment, skill, ability, adaptability, flexibility, etc. People need to feel that there is a fair balance between inputs and outputs. Outputs are typically all financial rewards - pay, salary, expenses, bonus and commission - plus intangibles - recognition, reputation, praise, promotion, etc.

If employees feel are that inputs are fairly and adequately rewarded by outputs (the fairness benchmark being subjectively perceived from market norms and other comparables references) then they are happy in our work and motivated to continue inputting at the same level.

If they feel that our inputs out-weigh the outputs then they become demotivated in relation to their job and employer and may feel a strong sense of injustice. People respond to this feeling in different ways: generally the extent of demotivation is proportional to the perceived disparity between inputs and expected outputs. Some people reduce effort and application and become inwardly disgruntled, or outwardly difficult, recalcitrant or even disruptive. Other people seek to improve the outputs by making claims or demands for more reward, or seeking an alternative job.



An excellent series on management theories has been produced for the BBC. Charles Handy guides you through the lives and works of his choice of management gurus. Click on the links below to access these summaries:

BBC series - The Handy guide to the Gurus of Management

  • Charles HandyCharles Handy was, for many years, a professor at the London Business School. He is now an independent writer and broadcaster. He describes himself, these days, as a social philosopher.
  • Peter DruckerPeter Drucker is thought of around the world as the seminal thinker, writer, and lecturer on the contemporary organization.
  • Tom PetersTom Peters is not a philosopher or a social historian like Peter Drucker. He no longer has any all-embracing theories of the world of organisations nor any formulas for change but he gets under the skin of an organisation.
  • Warren BennisWarren Bennis has devoted most of his life to the study of leaders of every description.
  • Sumantra GhoshalFor his popularity and influence among the leaders of business, The Economist magazine named Ghoshal as one of the Eurogurus.
  • Kenichi OhmaeKenichi Ohmae made his mark twenty years ago with his book on corporate strategy. It is still a collection of good sense and clear advice, even though some of the examples may now seem a bit dated.
  • Gary HamelIn their book, "Competing for the Future", which came out in 1995. Hamel and Prahalad start off by pointing out that you can improve your results in two ways: by cutting your costs, or by increasing your outputs.
  • Rosabeth Moss KanterRosabeth goes into leading-edge corporations, learns from them and then serves up what she's learnt in nicely digestible messages for the rest of us.
  • Bill GatesBill Gates is an outstanding example of another sort of guru, the guru who preaches more by deeds than by words. He revels in change and draws inspiration from a crisis.
  • Ricardo SemlerRicardo Semler, author and business manager, is celebrated as a role model of a Chief Executive who breaks all the traditional rules and succeeds, massively.
  • Michael PorterPorter suggested that one of the strategies managers can choose from to gain competitive advantage is to offer something special or different which would allow you to command a premium price.
  • Fons Trompenaar and Charles Hampden TurnerFor twenty years these two academics, a cross-cultural Anglo-Dutch partnership, have been interviewing managers around the world, giving them questionnaires to answer, conducting seminars and advising their companies.