The Asymmetry of Headwinds and Tailwinds

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The Asymmetry of Headwinds and Tailwinds

When you are riding a bike and the wind is in your face, you think of little else other than, “when will I turn a corner and have the wind at my back?”  When the wind is at your back, you tend to fairly quickly forget the boost you are being given.  This is the metaphor used by Thomas Gilovich (Cornell University) and Lee Ross (Stanford University) in Psychology Today when they analyze how most of us asymmetrically asses the “benefits we receive and the obstacles we must overcome in many areas of life”. 

Not only do we tend to over-emphasize the obstacles, their research shows, but we also tend to think that the obstacles “I” face are more difficult than those faced by “others”.  We manufacture inaccurate ideas to support the notion that other groups have it easier than we do, that their headwinds are less or their tailwinds greater, even when there is no objective evidence that this is the case.

I am adding this simple activity to my quiver of arrows to help school teams evolve their organizational practice:

  • We will consider the “riding path” the school is on, the arc of transformation in which we are engaged.
  • We will brainstorm headwinds and tailwinds that are impacting our “ride”.
  • We will try to recognize, celebrate, give credit to, and be more thankful for, the tailwinds.
  • We will try to understand the true nature of the headwinds, de-mythologize inequities between individuals and groups, and look for ways to reduce both the real and apparent impact of headwinds.

We know that “removing obstacles” is a key step in creating the conditions for change in schools.  Based on this research, these obstacles may be both real and perceived, and re-establishing symmetry to our perceptions appears to be an important tool for our school transformation tool kit.

The first 2-3 minutes of this video by Gilovich might be a good prompt at a faculty or leadership team meeting:


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