2005 Volume 8 Issue 3

The Positive Psychology Approach to Goal Management

The Positive Psychology Approach to Goal Management

Applying Positive Psychology to goal management increases effectiveness.

Business leaders manage goals by setting and systematically striving to achieve them. While management and organizational researchers have laid the groundwork for goal management, the emerging field of Positive Psychology appears to offer many additional findings and insights that will help managerial leaders be more effective as they define and pursue goals. Factors such as character strengths, optimism, and resilience can play significant roles in how well goals are managed. In the end, a managerial leader’s ability to make wise choices and to implement pathways that lead to attaining desired goals is critical to success. Drawing from the field of Positive Psychology, this article provides guidance to help you more effectively manage goals by focusing on such factors as personal values, persistence, and confidence.

Personal Values Commitment

Photo: Barrett Phillips

Our values are at the heart of what is important in life and work. Effective managerial leaders serve themselves and others best when they are committed to a set of core values. This commitment takes three forms:

  • First, leaders need to be clear about what values they hold.
  • Second, they must effectively communicate their values clearly and meaningfully to key stakeholders.
  • Third, managerial leaders need to ensure that their actions are in alignment with their espoused values. This connection between what one says and what one does can be described as one’s “Behavioral Integrity Quotient” or BIQ. Leaders need to have a high BIQ act consistently with their espoused values in order for others to trust them. (To learn more about clarifying values, read “Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Workplace Culture,” by Dr. Kerns.)

Value-Centered Goal Setting

Having committed to a set of core values, a managerial leader has a meaningful context within which to make relevant decisions about the nature of the goals he or she sets. Values give purpose and meaning to one’s goals. Values serve as a strategic foundation for goal setting. Conversely, goals represent values applied to specific life and work circumstances.[1]

While there are many useful resources to assist leaders in setting goals, as well as empirical studies demonstrating the importance of goal setting in organizational settings, these efforts largely ignore how to make the connection between core values and the goal setting and attainment processes. For example, Doug Smith, in his book Make Success Measurable! A Mindbook-Workbook for Setting Goals and Taking Actions,[2] offers the SMART approach to specifying goals: goals should be Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Relevant and Time-bound. On the empirical side, we read about important relationships between goal attainment, expectancy and effort, with little explicit connection to the role of core values in this important process.[3]

To enhance goal commitment and to build confidence in the goal setting process, managerial leaders must personally commit to a set of core values.

The Effect of Core Values on Commitment and Confidence

An extensive body of literature relates levels of commitment and confidence to goal attainment.[4] This line of study shows that commitment to goal attainment is enhanced when goals are perceived as important and when the performer has a high level of confidence that the goal will be achieved. Commitment and confidence will wane when goals are perceived as unattainable. The conclusion to be drawn is that managerial leaders should not be setting or pursuing goals that are unimportant or unattainable.

When reviewing the impact of core values on the level of commitment to goals and confidence, we find a paucity of literature. It stands to reason that a leader’s personal commitment to an important goal will be greater if the goal is consistent with his or her core values. The alignment of core values to goals can serve as a barometer of executive commitment. The executive must also be confident that the goal is attainable. If an important goal is consistent with a leader’s core values, he or she is more likely to persist in pursuing that goal, even in the face of frustrating setbacks. This tendency to persevere increases the likelihood that a goal can be attained, thereby inspiring confidence in attainment. Thus, structuring important goals to be consistent with personal core values will increase the commitment and confidence concerning one’s goals.

During the goal setting process, managerial leaders should ask themselves these important questions:

  • How important is this goal?
  • How confident am I in the pathway/s chosen to attain the goal/s?
  • Is this goal consistent with my espoused core values?

This connection of value-centered goals with high managerial leadership commitment and confidence likely contributes to executives and their organizations feeling optimistic about where they are headed.

Balancing Persistence and Disengagement

Value-centered goals create a potent package for success when they are driven by discerning managerial leaders who have confidence in their chosen implementation pathways. In this scenario, value connected goals pursued with confidence help drive executive persistence, even in the face of obstacles and setbacks. Executive perseverance is a strength. However, if used without discernment, perseverance can lead to disastrous results.

It is also critical for executives to know when to quit. Giving up on value-centered goals is especially difficult and stressful when the goals are aligned with core values. In most cases, hard charging executives will find alternative pathways to achieving value-centered goals. Executives and others will make creative adjustments and implement alternative activities in seeking to implement highly important value-centered goals.

Photo: Lisa at Windward

Nevertheless, when there is convincing evidence that realistic pathways for attaining the goal do not exist, it is time to disengage. Doing so might be necessary, for example, when the resources needed to achieve the goal diminish to the point at which goal achievement is impossible or impractical. The wise executive faced with this situation will know to stop and thereby avoid escalating the commitment toward a lost cause.

To further refine the goal management process, Positive Psychology offers some empirically supported practices that can help give balance to executive decision making as it relates to setting and pursuing goals.

Seven Helpful Practices

The field of Positive Psychology was developed by Martin Seligman along with his research associates at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman’s own work[5] and work with others[6] is helping to build a scientific basis for the study of Positive Psychology. As Fred Luthans[7] notes, this work has increasing application for organizational behavior and managerial leadership. This area of thought provides us with a variety of frameworks and tools useful to help leaders effectively manage goals.

In setting and pursuing goals, managerial leaders can apply seven practices identified in the field of Positive Psychology:

  1. Commit to a set of core values to enhance meaning and purpose.
  2. Be sure that your goals are aligned with and are driven by your core values.
  3. Align actions or pathways to achieve your goals with your Character Strengths.
  4. Ask yourself regularly, “How confident am I that the actions and pathways we are pursuing to achieve our goals are appropriate?”
  5. Be persistent in pursuing your action plans and pathways for achieving your goals until you obtain convincing evidence to do otherwise.
  6. Display realistic optimism.
  7. If you are confident about achieving your confirmed value-centered goals, apply the proven skills of resilience when facing inevitable obstacles.

When the practical resources necessary to set and attain your goals are in place, the above seven practices will help you clarify your personal commitment, gain confidence, and persevere when engaged in the goals management process.

An Executive Snapshot

To walk through these practices, consider the example of George Wilson, CEO of ABC Enterprises. Wilson designed, developed, and implemented a “Value-Centered Approach to Goal Setting and Action Planning” for his organization using these seven practices. Let the following highlights from this work be your “take aways” for goal setting and management:

Take Away #1: Values Commitment

Wilson indexed his core values and focused his commitment by using the Value-Based Checklist (http://gbr/pepperdine.edu/index.php/2010/06/Strengthening-Values-Centered-Leadership/.) [8]Wilson’s five core values are:

  1. Integrity
  2. Responsibility
  3. Fairness
  4. Hope
  5. Achievement

Take Away #2: Aligning Goals to Core Values

Wilson set five strategic goals, including one to downsize an operating division, then rated each of his goals against each of his five core values. On a self-rated scale of 1 to10 (10 being highest), all of Wilson’s goals aligned with each of his core values with a rating of 8 or higher. “Fairness” was a particularly important element in his organization’s downsizing activities.

Take Away #3: Aligning Character Strengths with Action

Wilson outlined five to ten key actions or pathways for attaining each of his five strategic goals in light of his five character strengths. He had identified his character strengths by completing the Values In Action (VIA, see authentichappiness.org for the VIA strengths inventory). He considered how he could utilize his character strengths to help achieve the five strategic goals. For example, he brainstormed specific ways in which he would use his top strength, “wisdom,” to selectively counsel/advise his key reports on critical issues related to downsizing. Wilson also decided to have his key reports identify their five primary strengths by completing the VIA online.

Take Away #4: Regularly Check Your Confidence Level

After implementing his action plan, Wilson conducted quarterly self-audits over a twelve-month period. He determined that his selected pathways to goal achievement were effective.

Take Away #5: Be Persistent

Wilson regularly reviewed his action plans and determined that his pathways were consistently on target. These self observations reinforced his perseverance in pursuit of his course of action to attain his strategic goals.

Take Away #6: Be Realistically Optimistic

Based on his review of the books Learned Optimism[9], Authentic Happiness, and the “Stockdale Paradox” found in Collins’ book Good to Great, Wilson did three things to maintain an optimistic outlook as he pursued his five Strategic Goals:

  1. He learned to separate factual evidence concerning potential obstacles to achieving his strategic goals from subjective negative self talk.
  2. He practiced positive self talk.
  3. He made at least one encouraging positive statement weekly to each of his key reports as they implemented aspects of the various action plans for the five strategic value-centered goals.

Wilson identified the above three actions with the help of an executive coach and information that Wilson gleaned from taking the Seligman Optimism Test.

Take Away #7: Be Resilient When Faced With Obstacles

After determining his Resilience Quotient (RQ), Wilson was better able to cope with obstacles and setbacks proactively and more effectively as he pursued his strategic goals. His RQ was obtained by completing the 56-item “RQ Test” found in Reivich and Shatte’s book The Resilience Factor: 7 Essential Skills for Overcoming Life’s Inevitable Obstacles. He found the skills of calming and focusing especially useful when dealing with resistance from some of his key reports regarding setting specific performance targets.


The effective management of goals can spell the difference between executive success and derailment. You can put this process on track by understanding and applying some of the scientifically based practices from the field of Positive Psychology, such as aligning goals with personal values and character strengths as well as being confident, realistically optimistic, and persistent. These applications to goal management can help you more fully utilize your character strengths and optimism and be more resilient as you pursue your goals.

Beyond the practices offered here, executive coaches and managerial leaders are encouraged to explore other ways that the findings from Positive Psychology can be applied to enhance leadership and organizational effectiveness. One fruitful starting point would be to review the Handbook of Positive Psychology edited by C.R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez[10]to enhance your understanding of potentially relevant frameworks and tools that you may want to consider applying in your work. This article’s application to goal management of practical “take aways” from the field of Positive Psychology may well provide you with a useful springboard for achieving your goals.

Additional Resources:

  1. See Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook of Classification by Christopher Petersen and Martin E. P. Seligman for a detailed review of 24 empirically derived character strengths. Also, go to authentichappiness.org and click on the “Quick link to VIA Signature Strengths Survey” and complete the survey to determine your top five character strengths.
  2. To enhance your optimism, refer to Authentic Happiness by Martin E.P. Seligman and take the optimism test found in Chapter 6, or go to authentichappiness.org and take this test on-line; review “The Stockdale Paradox” found in From Good to Great by Jim Collins.
  3. Skills of resilience have been extensively researched and documented by Karen Reivich, PhD and Andrew Shatte, PhD in their recent book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Essential Skills for Overcoming Life’s Inevitable Obstacles. To assess your resilience abilities, you are encouraged to take the self-rated “RQ Test” offered in the Reivich and Shatté book found in chapter two. The seven core abilities of resilience include: 1) recognizing and managing emotions, 2) impulse control, 3) thinking favorably about the future, 4) causal analysis, 5) empathy, 6) self-efficacy and 7) reaching out.
  4. For a more detailed review of goal theory and related research, refer to: Locke’s “Motivation Through Conscious Goal Setting.” [11]

[1] Locke, E.A. “Setting Goals for Life and Happiness,” Snyder, C.R. and Lopez, S.J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. (New York, NY: Oxford Press, 2002). (For a more detailed review of goal theory and related research refer to: Locke’s “Motivation Through Conscious Goal Setting.”)

[2] Smith, D.K. Make Success Measurable: A Mindbook-Workbook for Setting Goals and Taking Action. (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.)

[3] Pintrich, P. & Maehr, M. (Eds.). Advances in Motivation and Achievement, Vol. 10. (Stamford, CT: JAI Press, 1997).

[4] Carver, C. & Scheier, M. “Three Human Strengths,” Aspinwall, L. G. and Staudinger , U. M. (Eds.), A Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental Questions and Future Directions for a Positive Psychology. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2003.)

[5] Seligman, M. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2002.)

[6] Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.)

[7] Luthans, F. “Positive Organizational Behavior: Developing and Managing Psychological Strengths,” Academy of Management Executive. 16 (1) 2002:57-75.

[8] Kerns, C.D. “Strengthening Values Centered Leadership: What, Why and How,” Graziadio Business Review, 7 (2) 2004. (http://gbr/pepperdine.edu/index.php/2010/06/Strengthening-Values-Centered-Leadership/).

[9] Seligman, M. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1998.)

[10] Snyder, C.R. and Lopez, Shane J. (Ed.) Handbook of Positive Psychology. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002.)

[11] Locke, E.A. “Motivation Through Conscious Goal Setting,” Applied and Preventive Psychology, 5, 1996:117-124.

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Author of the article
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.
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