Engaging in difficult conversations about change

by Rossana Espinoza 0

How ‘Comfortable’ is Your Organisation in Having Difficult Conversations?



In this blog, Dr Liz Austen and Stella Jones-Devitt of Sheffield Hallam University reflect on how comfortable organisations are in having difficult conversations and how they uncovered a possible theoretical model for positive cultural and behavioural change. This report is one of many small development projects funded by Advance HE.


Our project focussed specifically on ‘critical Whiteness’ within an organisational context. The work was designed following our previous research which concluded that a lack of discussion about Whiteness – and subsequent impact on possible curriculum change – might create barriers to addressing Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) attainment gap (Jones-Devitt et al. 2017).

An exploration of Whiteness – aka privilege – is an important and overlooked area of positive cultural and behavioural change within organisations. We collected and analysed data from one higher education institution and developed a digital practice guide to support development of further work.

This specifically tested use of digital storytelling (DST) as a conduit for debate in several ways: as an intervention for engaging in difficult conversations about positive cultural and behavioural change; as a method of data collection; as an innovative way of sharing evidence and expertise.

Difficult Conversations for Organisational Change

Perceived expertise and positioning

We identified notions of Whiteness as being problematic through direct experience when conducting earlier work. As white researchers, we recognised the privilege conferred when commencing this project. We acknowledged that prior experience did not make us ‘experts’, nor could we position ourselves as understanding the impact that White privilege might have on colleagues. We deliberately located ourselves as having requisite skills to bring to project design and facilitation, whilst positioning ourselves as non-experts concerning critical Whiteness, per se. We also had a strong desire to explore inequity and to promote social justice.


In the final report we discuss mitigation of potential risks for institutions and institutional researchers.  As this subject area could be deemed from sensitive to provocative, we gave full consideration to ethical principles.  From the outset we were transparent about the implications of holding difficult conversations and possible unintended consequences.

A model for cultural change?

We uncovered a possible theoretical model for positive cultural and behavioural change. This is based upon two global themes identified when we undertook a thematic network analysis of key findings (adapted from Attride-Stirling, 2001). Thematic network analysis involves identifying: global themes, of most importance as principal metaphors; organising themes which cluster more abstract but basic principles; and basic themes which are lowest order premises. Global themes in our work concerned comfort and neutralising, in which all identified organising themes (language, self, momentum) and their underpinning basic themes, interacted in a complex manner.
We applied the work of Stacey (1996) concerning organisational dynamics, in which complexity is recognised as a key factor influencing capacity for change (see Diagram 1 below). The global themes have been turned into axes in which comfort is represented on a continuum between comfort and discomfort, whilst neutralising is on a continuum with de-neutralising. We contend there appears to be potential for uncovering an optimum level of discomfort and de-neutralisation if seeking positive organisational change, although this needs to be tested by other studies. If you perceive a high degree of comfort alongside a high degree of neutralisation, we argue this can result in an inert organisation, incapable of making meaningful change.

Diagram 1: Conditions for organisational change through the lens of complexity

Conditions for organisational change through the lens of complexity


Findings, although speculative, indicate that such juxtapositioning may be useful in beginning to conceptualise primary conditions for positive cultural and behavioural change. Optimal levels of comfort/discomfort and neutralisation/deneutralisation appears crucial for achieving meaningful change.

Concluding remarks

Further work should reflect on aspects of cultural and behavioural change. Any change management initiative concerning how organisations conduct ‘difficult conversations’ should consider and plot (see Diagram 1) levels of perceived comfort and neutralisation of the intended audience, leaders of the change initiative, and wider organisation. It is worth noting that positive cultural and behavioural change may be outside the scope of individuals, therefore findings should be disseminated to those who make strategic organisational decisions.

It’s on your shoulders and mine to dismantle what we once accepted to be true. It’s our task. It needs to be done with whatever resources we have on hand. We need to change narratives. (Eddo-Lodge, 2017: 223)  

Questions to consider:
•    Are these conversations taking place in your organisation?
•    If so, where and how?
•    Does your experience resonate with the elements on the diagram?
•    We used DST to facilitate discussion; what do you use to make an impact?
•    How do you evaluate the pace of change when dealing with ‘difficult conversations’?

Download the full report: Observing the Observer.

Observing the observer report

Originally published here