Traumatic Change and Organizational Needs


These past two years have dramatically impacted everyone. More than six million people around the world have lost their lives to this pandemic. Some estimates put that number up to three times higher. The number of cases is decreasing in some countries while increasing in others. This unforeseen change has shaken the foundation of all our lives in a myriad of ways.

Early in the pandemic I found myself thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In 1943, Abraham Maslow developed his classic depiction of human motivation to fulfill five categories of needs: Physiological, Safety, Social, Esteem and Self Actualization. He suggested the two lower-level needs (Physiological & Safety) must be met before the higher-level needs can be fulfilled.

During those early days I spent significant time and energy focusing on the lower-level needs of health, work and financial security for myself and my family. The world was radically changing to adapt to the new reality of the global pandemic. I wanted to ensure we could weather this storm, regardless of how long it would last. I talked about this with family and friends and quickly realized I was not alone.

Organizational Needs

As the weeks and months passed after the pandemic was officially declared it became clear organizations were being forced to adapt to this unforeseen tragedy by going into survival mode. Not all of them were successful as many thousands of companies, businesses and non-profit organizations had to close their doors.

Organizations are still around as we head into the third year of this tragedy have to ensure their lower-level needs are adequately fulfilled. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs don’t fit well in an organizational context. After researching what few models of organizational needs exist, I developed a model to describe the Organizational Hierarchy of Needs. There are five levels:

  • Foundation
  • Stabilization
  • Growth
  • Differentiation 
  • Optimization

Depicting this model as a two-dimensional pyramid is an inadequate graphic representation of a complicated multi-dimensional reality. Organizational needs are not fulfilled step-by-step nor in a straight line. They blend together and an organization can be working on more than one level at a time. As an organization begins to fulfill the highest levels, there is no guarantee they won’t find themselves scrambling to strengthen the lower-level needs when impacted by an unexpected, dramatic change. This is what has been happening over the past couple of years.

Foundation needs must be fulfilled as an organization becomes established. The organization must have an initial product or service to offer. Clients or customers who want or need their product or service are required. It must also have people to deliver the product or service to those customers on behalf of the organization.

Other essential Foundation needs are basic systems, equipment, physical space (if necessary) to do the work, and sufficient cash to pay costs with little or no predictable income. Only the bare essentials necessary to develop, produce, and deliver the product or service to the customer during these early days of the organization are required here.

The Mission or Purpose of the organization needs to be clarified. This must answer questions like who we are, what do we do, and how do we add value for our customers.

Survival is the greatest need here. The organization must do whatever it takes to survive if it is capable of moving on to fulfilling higher level needs.

Stabilization needs become apparent once Foundation needs have been fulfilled and there is sufficient desire to grow and thrive. Various systems need to be either strengthened or established to ensure consistent levels of quality and efficiency in the delivery of the products or services. IT, Finance, Human Resource processes and systems need to be standardized across the organization.

Internal and external communication systems that help knit the organization together are required. One-on-one connections, virtual and physical, between managers and their staff, as well as among employee groups are vital Key metrics for the essential data must be established, monitored, and shared.

Competencies such as performance management, leading change, project management and systems thinking need to become standardized. Structures, roles, and responsibilities need to be developed with the appropriate balance of stability and responsiveness built in.

The focus here must be on keeping current customers happy and the employees engaged. Sufficient reserves must be built up to weather unforeseen storms. Reserves such as cash, customer and employee loyalty, and solid relationships with other key stakeholders. Values that spell out expected behaviors throughout the organization also need to be articulated. These values provide the rules of engagement that everyone must follow in order for the organization to succeed.

Growth needs take precedence once Stabilization needs are fulfilled. Defining how Growth is going to be defined is an essential need for the organization here. Perhaps expanded, or new goods or services are required. Maybe new markets and customers need to be established by implementing new marketing processes. Relationships with existing customers must be strengthened. Customer intimacy becomes imperative. A higher level of employee engagement and satisfaction is essential here.

High performing teams are vital. Inter-dependent projects across multiple departments, divisions or regions must be successful. A focus on learning and innovation is required. Ongoing process improvement throughout the organization is key.

A compelling vision with a small number of priorities need to be established and engaged throughout the organization. This must provide as clear a picture as possible describing where the organization is going and the 2 – 4 areas of concern the organization has decided to focus on to ensure the vision is achieved.

Differentiation needs become apparent when Growth needs are fulfilled if there is still sufficient desire in the organization to grow and thrive. Here, the organization needs to be recognized for its level of mastery and be seen as an authority in its field. It needs to see itself and be seen by outsiders as a thought leader in its industry and marketplace. The expanded marketplace that was established during the Growth level must be locked in by whatever means necessary, without taking it for granted.

This level requires employees to maintain a very high level of motivation, engagement, and commitment. This happens through constant support, learning, perks, appropriate salary, meaningful work, recognition, and advancement. The organization needs to find ways to engage customers to become ambassadors, advocates, and fans as a part of their PR and marketing efforts.

Continual attention needs to be paid to internal and external stakeholder relationships. This focus must yield the vital information critical to ensuring the organization continually adapts to changes throughout the system that keep it relevant and playing at the top of its game. It must maintain a high level of innovation and capacity to pioneer into new levels of its chosen field.

Optimization is the fifth and final level of organizational needs. Few organizations make it this far. Many organizations don’t achieve all of the Differentiation needs. This level represents rarified air for an organization. Striving to fulfill this level of needs represents an invitation or opportunity for the organization to help the system advance as a society.

It is crucial for everyone in the organization to see it in the context of the larger system in which it exits. The organization must recognize and act upon its connection and shared responsibility to the larger whole surrounding it.

Organizations, especially large global organizations, have become the most powerful force on the planet during the final half of the last century and the first two decades of this one. They have the capacity to significantly influence governments, queens, kings, presidents, and leaders everywhere. Even small, local organizations have the potential capacity to far exceed the influence of any single individual.

Once the organization recognizes its connection and responsibility to the larger whole, it needs to be of service to that larger system in some way that benefits both the organization and the system. That can happen at very local levels like the employees and their families, it can happen at neighbourhood or community levels, or this service can reach regional, national, or global levels.

One small organization started a program to pay the first-year tuition for employees wanting to upgrade their education, and for their children to attend the first year of college, tech school or university. Another organization underwrote the capital costs to expand and operate housing for homeless women. Yet another much larger organization is funding a project to begin removing plastic from the world’s oceans.

Making this happen requires the organization to provide ongoing education, programs and initiatives that support social responsibility. It needs to fulfill its social and moral obligation to the world around it.

The organization must get beyond simply generating more and more money. It must fulfill its financial potential to making the world around it a better place for everyone. This whole notion is of course, very subjective. The outlook at this level is very big picture. The time frame is measured in decades and centuries, not months, quarters, or even years.

There is no limit on what can be achieved here if the organization has fully realized the first four levels completely. Once the organization gets to this level, it will be an ongoing challenge to stay here and continue to make a difference for everyone involved.

Fulfilling Organizational Needs

It is difficult for any organization to fulfill all five levels of organizational needs, even during times of relative stability. Fast moving start ups can fulfill the Foundation needs in very short order, sometimes in less than a year. They can focus on Stabilization needs for the next few years. They may even begin to focus on Growth needs without fully realizing all the Stabilization needs.

Established organizations that spend years on fulfilling the first two levels, may spend years, if not decades trying to meet Differentiation and Optimization level needs, sometimes without completely fulfilling Growth needs.

Significant changes are planned and implemented to ensure lower-level needs are fully established. This can happen when an organization is working on higher level needs and comes to realize lower-level needs are not providing the firm footing required for continued growth and prosperity. This is especially true when focusing on Growth and Differentiation needs without fulfilling all the Stability needs.

An organizations behaviour is predictable based on its current state of need. An organization should not be pushed into making decisions and investments that are out of step with its current dominant need.

When an organization experiences unforeseen significant change, especially traumatic change such as this pandemic, it is forced to focus on ensuring lower-level needs are fully addressed. Some organizations had to revisit their Foundation needs as they redefined their mission or purpose. Every organization had to rapidly adapt to remote work processes wherever possible to keep its employees and families safe. This required them to adapt their responses to Stability needs quicky to meet the reality of the rapidly changing world around them.

Many organizations were simply not up to the task. They lacked the financial or customer loyalty reserves necessary to weather the storm. Some laid off hundreds of employees in an attempt to save the organization. Those decisions were not sufficient in many cases and thousands of organizations simply disappeared.

It is important to realize fulfilling organizational needs is not a static, straight-line journey. It is a dynamic process, even in somewhat stable times. An organization can try to meet higher level needs without completely fulfilling lower-level needs. When the gaps are realized, the organization will have to circle back and repair or install the necessary requirements to ensure the strong platform necessary for continued growth and prosperity.

The more attention an organization pays to completely fulfilling the lower-level Foundation and Stabilization needs, they will find themselves much more capable of weather unforeseen traumatic change, especially ones like this pandemic that unfold over a period of years. “Going back to the basics” has become a mantra for many organizations still around that have realized their base level needs were not properly fulfilled.

In other cases, the basics themselves had to be revised. A local restauranteur started with one small 20 seat café. Over ten years it expanded to four locations, all of them very successful with a loyal customer base. They consistently supported food for the homeless projects, enduring them to the entire community. The pandemic forced them to close locations, let staff go and reinvent themselves as a take-out, cook yourself using our ingredients and guidance from our chef, online operation.

Another small organization started with two people during the early days of this pandemic. Currently they have a staff of twenty-two, are already reinventing/expanding their Foundation needs, continually fulfilling their Stability needs while they are defining what Growth means to them, all the while being drawn into honing their Differentiation needs. They are, quite literally, all over the place when it comes to fulfilling their rapidly evolving needs while they help their clients respond to this pandemic.

Going forward, large-scale, unforeseen, traumatic changes are likely to increase. Forces like climate change and political instability will yield substantive shifts in our world no one can clearly predict with any degree of certainty. Organizations that are successfully navigating this current catastrophe by strengthening their lower-level needs will be well positioned to deal with future tragedies. Those that don’t and think they have dodged this disaster will find themselves in an even worse situation when the next one arrives.



Chris Edgelow is the founder and president of Sundance Consulting Inc., a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations change. Educated in both Canada and the United States, Chris is based in Alberta and has worked extensively throughout North America as well as in many countries in Europe, Asia and Central America and the Middle East. Chris will be leading an online certificate course titled, Change Leadership Masterclass for HR Professionals, June 7-16, 2022. 

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