Andy Murray has won the men’s singles final at Wimbledon, the first British man (yes, he’s British again) to do so for 77 years.

I can’t help but ponder the long wait for a tennis win. We’ve had talented tennis players before haven’t we? And hasn’t Andy won outside of the UK? Is it something about “us” , about the national psyche and its huge sense of expectation that sets us up for failure? 

At times, high expectation can correlate to over achievement, but often it can be counter productive and have the opposite effect by loading pressure and  potential for self doubt – whether in the board room or the sports pitch. Anecdotally, I often hear stories about “stars” recruited from outside by businesses, who perform much worse for the new organisation than the previous. Take Bob Kiley, attributed with the successful turnaround of the New York subway. He was bought to the London Underground to do the same, but his role was quietly terminated after over 5 controversial years as the country’s highest paid public servant.  In April, US retailer JC Penney fired its CEO, newly hired from Apple and replaced him with his predecessor.

In organisations where talent programmes select the brightest and most ambitious for accelerated career paths and focused development, it’s important we understand the psychology of expectation and how we need to manage it. Otherwise, if unsupported, high expectation can sabotage talent development.

An observation from the sports field may have real parallels here. Dr Patrick Cohn says that “Too often, athletes try to be “perfect” when they perform… athletes set high expectations then become upset when they fail to match their own standards….(as a result they) undermine their performance in so many ways. They focus too much on results, this gets them stuck in a vicious cycle of working hard, setting higher expectations and then thinking they are failing to reach their

So what can we do to provide the support which puts high performers in the best position to succeed?

  • Set the right goals : People need a high bar to stretch towards, many of us, given the opportunity, will take it too far. Ensure high performing individuals (who are likely self starters) have “validators” to provide perspective which ensures goals are realistic, where necessary lowering them so that they are manageable
  • Build self confidence and self awareness into talent programmes as a key competency alongside technical  and leadership skills. Give people the emotional resilience and maturity to recover from personal disappointment.
  • Give high potentials belief in their abilities  Don’t perceive arrogance as a sign of confidence; it rarely is, more likely a mask for uncertainty. Build the strength to stand firm under the pressure of expectation
  • Minimise the “noise”– the worst of human behaviour, and perhaps British culture,  is that we slip easily into criticism of ourselves and others.
  • Avoid “hero to zero” by measuring and rewarding the right things, for example balanced performance and consistent contribution to the business
  • (really) Rebrand failure as a learning opportunity – help people bounce back from making mistakes
  • Strike the right balance –give top talent a high billing and tell them that you believe in them

Many think Ivan Lendl has provided much needed perspective in Andy Murray’s career. With a supportive girlfriend and mother, some emotional maturity and a British media & public more attuned to the burden of expectation that they put on individuals, perhaps the playing field is now more level for Andy Murray.He said, after the match” “the support has been unbelievable. It makes a difference”. So roll on 2014, and another Murray winning performance in the Men’s Final.