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Goal Setting Theory

SUMMER 2014 - Team 1



Amidst organizational crisis, it is the duty of organizational boards to quickly assess conditions and respond to issues in a timely manner. While setting these goals, great understanding of the organization's culture and vision must be in tow for goals to meet the institution's long and short-term needs. The case below describes how Penn State University quickly implemented a number of steps to push past the conviction of its Assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, as a serial child molester in 2010. The University board used elements of Goal Theory to rebuild the school's reputation and regain the trust of the general public.


Case Information

The headlines were rampant: Scandal at Pennsylvania State University, assistant coach involved in sexual misconduct.  Emotions were running wild in Happy Valley and throughout the Penn State community everywhere.  Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach, was suspected of sexually assaulting young boys on campus (Viera, 2011).  When the news broke, the investigation and its repercussions were quick, swift and far reaching.


There was no greater impact than to Penn State’s football program.  The NCAA levied a fine, banned Penn State from post-season play, reduced scholarships allowed to be granted, put the program on probation, and allowed incoming and current players to be able to transfer without penalty (Yanda, 2012).  Joe Paterno, the “winningest” coach of all time, was stripped of his title and was forced to retire.

Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 48 counts of sexual assault of children (Johnson, 2011).  With the charges came a black cloud over the Penn State football community.  Football players that had always dreamed of playing for Penn State were transferring schools or changing plans (Vint, 2013).  A prestigious football program’s legacy went to shambles.

The Penn State football team has a problem.  How can they rebuild their image in the eyes of the public?  They still have a strong base of devoted fans, but the public perception of the program has been undermined.  Many people now think of Penn State football for its scandal rather than its wins and accomplishments, which is a major change.  The Penn State football program has to shape public opinion back into a positive. They have to find a way to be known for their values instead of their scandal.




One way the University can accomplish this is by utilizing Edwin Locke’s goal-setting theory.  This theory is purely based on an individual’s or group’s cognitive desire to achieve something (PSU WC, 2014, L.6).  Since Penn State has faced no greater challenge in all its years, the desire to rebuild post-scandal is immense.  Goal-setting theory will affect how Penn State tackles this daunting task via four mechanisms: directing attention towards the behaviors needed to succeed, energizing those individuals needed to achieve the goals, maintaining persistence, and driving individuals to find the most effective strategies to reach the goals (PSU WC, 2014, L.6).

A table describing each of these mechanisms in greater detail can be found on the Goal-Setting Theory PSYCH 484 wiki.  In addition, the following conditions must exist for the goals to be met: they must be specific, there must be commitment to the goals by those responsible for their execution, they need to be difficult, and there must be a process in place for individuals to receive feedback on their progress in achieving the goals (PSU WC, 2014, L.6).

An example of the theory’s concepts can be found in the actions of Penn State’s President Rodney Erickson’s vision to reform the Penn State brand.  He aims to convince the public that the university has taken or will take all the appropriate steps to prevent such a scandal from ever happening again and to rebuild the “We Are Penn State” pride (Bentley, 2012).  One of Erickson’s specific goals to achieve this vision is separating the University’s legacy from that of famed football coach Joe Paterno (Bentley, 2012).  Commitment to this goal was demonstrated when the statue of the late coach was removed from outside the football stadium.  Considering Joe Paterno’s lengthy history at the school, which has a cult following of sorts, this goal and the removal of the statue were no doubt difficult to execute.  Although not in the form of a traditional process, the university is most certainly receiving feedback from students, parents, alumni, the NCAA, and the press as they move forward.            



So, how can President Erickson and the Penn State community use this theory to tackle the large scale goal of reestablishing their public creditbility?  It is crucial that Penn State starts from the bottom once again after shedding the guidance of the old guard.  Penn State needs to figure out what their goal is exactly. The first step for them would be to create a goal in order to improve their standing with the PSU community. They also need to commit to this goal. If they create a goal without actually committing to it then there is a good chance the goal will not be reached.  According to Locke and Latham this is crucial. They stated, “The individual must find the goal important and must believe they can achieve it” (Locke & Latham, 2006, p. 265).

The goal of regaining public trust and Penn State’s image is certainly a goal that can be reached.  However it is one that will not take place overnight.  Penn State must remain committed to this goal.  The importance of rehashing public trust and public image is something that is very important to bring in students from all over the world with the most brilliant of minds.  If students do not trust that their safety is a number one priority then they will choose to go elsewhere.  During the process of reaching this goal Penn State needs to have an independent investigator, or a public relations reattainment specialist to provide feedback on how Penn State devises its policies to make sure scandals like that of Sandusky never happen again.  

Penn State must be provided with constructive criticism by the investigator on what and how to improve their ideas.  Feedback is also important from parents and students as well.  Student feedback is even more important because they are the ones who see the policies put into place.  It is also crucial for students to be able to report instances they witness that may be detrimental to an environment they should be provided.  After suggestions are put into place the specialists or investigators, students, and parents should also provide follow up information to see how their suggestions are being put into place.  It is important to make sure that their suggestions are not being ignored.  Penn State has already begun to implement new policies that will help to create a safer atmosphere for students.


Penn State has initiated a number of modifications to the University in order to address the  criticisms put forth by media and the public at large.  According to Sonnenfeld's article on USA Today, many changes have been implemented since 2010 (2014).  First, after Graham Spanier's departure, Rodney Erickson, "a Jimmy Stewart-like pillar of integrity and responsibility,"  faced the national outrage of alumni,  state politicians, and the larger public.

Second, the board appointed Louis Freeh, a former FBI chief, to fully investigate PSU's  "administrative system and governance culture,” (Sonnenfeld, 2014).  He found the university at fault for not taking the correct steps to protect Sandusky's young victims, as well as failed to "oversee the president and senior university officials."  Third, the board also made the decision to internally hire Merck Chief Executive Officer, Kenneth Frazier, who sits on the university's board, to oversee Penn State’s special investigation committee.  Frazier's experience in reputation repair proved valuable to the university during the implementation of these early stages.

Lastly, the board decided that it would be most valuable for long-term change to apply "constructive actions rather than defensive retreats" in their approach to regain the trust of the public and rebuild the University's reputation (Sonnenfeld, 2014).  With President Erickson, this strategy created various measures that focused on crisis response and child protection, and resulted in the immediate hiring of a compliance officer to oversee the crime reporting and compliance training for incidents of child abuse.

Many of these decisions to push the university forward were made during a crucial time of crisis, and involved determining the most responsible choices to combat public outrage towards Sandusky.  The mass publicity of the Sandusky scandal required centralized decisions by the university board to avoid further errors in approach while under public scrutiny, and demanded measures to be implemented with urgency.

While the implementation of organizational goals may be difficult to translate into individual employee goals (PSU WC, 2014, L.6), the university’s goals were very clear (in regaining public trust and grounding the University’s reputation) and their program translated to immediate, specific changes.  By seeking the feedback of stakeholders and the public, the implemented programs, policies, and appointments by the board were strategic and transparent.  This made it easy for all staff to commit to the Board’s direction amidst the difficulty in rebuilding the University after the Sandusky scandal.



Bentley, K. (2012, July 24). How can penn state university rebuild its brand after sandusky? Retrieved June 13, 2014, from

Johnson, K. (2012, June 23). Sandusky faces life in prison after conviction on 45 charges. USATODAY.COM. Retrieved June 13, 2014, from

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2014). PSYCH 484, lesson 6: Goal-setting theory: what am I trying to achieve in my work? Retrieved from

Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey. (2014, February 19). Penn state deserves great praise: Column. USA Today. Retrieved June 12, 2014, from

Viera, M. (2011, November 5). Former coach at penn state is charged with abuse. The New York Times. Retrieved June 12, 2014, from

Vint, P. (2013, June 22). The 2012 Penn state football exodus: Where are they now? Retrieved June 13, 2014, from

Yanda, S. (2012, July 23). Penn state football punished by NCAA over sandusky scandal. Washington Post. Retrieved June 12, 2014, from

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