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Jim Owens: Expectancy Theory

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Expectancy theory is a frequently misunderstood topic, so I thought that I would post this brief note for clarification. So often I hear people say that it means people will work harder if they expect the project manager to reward them. If this is what you think, then please read on.

Expectancy theory is centered on how people feel about their jobs, about their working environment, and about themselves – but interestingly it is also about the external source of the expectancy. It is a “double-edged” sword, if you like. because (as with McGregor’s theories X and Y), it can have either a positive or a negative affect on someone.

Roughly speaking, the theory is normally taken to mean that people will modify their behavior and/or perform certain tasks if they expect to be rewarded for their efforts (hence the term “Expectancy Theory”). But this is much too simplistic because it sounds as if the people are in control of what is happening and ignores the psychological aspects – i.e. that people can in fact be driven to behave better or worse depending upon perceived external expectations. These external expectations then become internalized and so what is expected becomes fact. The problem of course is that if people have an expectancy that some reward will materialize if they behave in a certain way and the reward doesn’t arrive, then they will be upset.

But it’s not just about rewards for doing tricks. The flip side of the theory is that you can create a negative expectancy in a person, and that negative expectancy may become fact. For example If a person is told that are no good at doing their job (although in reality they are good), the person will eventually become no good at doing the job.

But let’s go back to the early studies in Expectancy theory to find out what sparked the whole thing off. Experiments were carried out in junior schools in America., where researchers administered an intelligence test to a number of children, but did not look at the results. The researchers selected a number of students at random from each school and told the parents of these children and the teachers, that these children were highly intelligent and very capable of learning.

After a period of time the researchers returned to the schools and re-administered the intelligence tests and discovered that the students who had been randomly selected to be in the in the “gifted” group had improved their grades considerably. The only reason for this improvement was that an expectancy was created in the children by the treatment they received from their teachers, parents and fellow students – showing that an expectancy can become fact.

Obviously as project manager you can improve the performance of your team by building an expectancy of success in your team members and by not criticizing them

So I hope that you can see that the Expectancy Theory has a lot more to do with personal fulfillment and self-actualization, than it is to do with simple rewards. –

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