How To Deal With Being Passed Over For Promotion

Photo by Mark Bonica

The choice to become a career Army officer is more than just choosing a job. It’s a transition into a life unique and separate from the civilian world. The Army becomes our community, our culture, and our family. The word “officer” stops being a thing that you do, and becomes a thing that you are. You literally dedicate your life to the Army.

Now, imagine that despite the dedication, when the time comes, you are not selected for promotion. If you are a captain or major, this means that you are on a track out of the military. For most people, this also means that you won’t be able to complete the 20 years of service necessary to qualify for a standard retirement. You soon realize that by falling short on the promotion board, you lose more than just your military career: Your long-term plans for yourselves and your family unravel, and even your way of life will be taken from you.

This is the situation that I saw friends stumble through over the last two years, and it’s the situation that I was shocked to find myself in when this year’s results were released. When my board results were released, I was surprised.

The Kübler-Ross model of dealing with loss says that people go through five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Framing the experience this way can help you understand — as it helped me — the experience of getting passed over for promotion, and provide a way to switch onto a more useful track for yourself and your family.

Related: The Army’s Officer Evaluation System Needs A Complete Overhaul »

Stage 1: Denial.

You get called in to the office of the first O-6 in your chain of command the day before the board results are scheduled to be released, and tell yourself, “She wants to ask me a question about the last project that I led, or maybe needs to assign me as an investigating officer on a 15-6.” When she informs you that your name is not on the promotion list you ask, “Maybe my name is listed in a different category?” or “Maybe there was a mistake.” Even after you admit that you were not selected by the board, you will find a way to deny that your future has changed significantly. “I will get picked up for promotion on the above zone list and carry on with my career,” you think.

The truth is that the future path for you and your family has changed. Denial is a natural reaction, but it is important to realize that if you convince yourself nothing has changed, then the transition will be all the more jarring when your time in the military comes to an end.

Stage 2: Anger.

Do you remember that brigade commander who gave you a pair of mediocre evaluations because he “didn’t have room in the profile” after rating all the guys who graduated from his alma mater? You may fantasize about running into him in a dark alley somewhere. The Kübler-Ross model will tell you that this is normal, and as long as you don’t act out on those destructive (yet oh-so satisfying) emotions, this is relatively healthy.

Although the emotions themselves are normal, be aware that expressing this anger to those around you — such as your peers, subordinates, or superiors — will not help you in any way. People may empathize with your situation and allow you to vent, but it will not make you any friends. Personal connections are especially important as you transition out of the military into the civilian sector. You don’t want to carry forward a reputation of being the angry veteran.

US Army photo by C. Todd Lopez

Stage 3: Bargaining.

You think to yourself, “If I get a really good rating this year, and then accept that AF-PAK Hands assignment, I could get picked up above zone.” The really attractive part about bargaining is that it could be true. The above zone board could look at your file and find something that your primary zone board did not. The board guidance could be changed this year to weight your assignment as the deputy brigade sports coordinator as the most important single factor for promotion. You could get picked up.

Of course, it’s our natural inclination to give credence to these possibilities since if they were true the source of our grief would go away. Unfortunately, the more you believe that you will be able to bargain your way out of it, the less you are preparing yourself (emotionally, physically, financially) for the transition when it likely occurs.

Stage 4: Depression.

You will likely feel very depressed when the weight of the situation really settles on your shoulders. It’s not just that you weren’t selected for promotion, but rather that after years of blood, sweat, and tears, it will feel like you have nothing to show for it. If you are a major, the positions that you held were some of the most ego-destroying jobs in the military. After having survived that gauntlet, you are told that you weren’t good enough to continue on. The third of your Army career that you spent in these thankless roles could have been avoided by transitioning out of the military at the end of your time as a company commander.

It’s important to remind yourself at this point that you are serving the nation, not your own career. Going into “retired on active duty” status for the last 18 months of your Army career is not what the taxpayers are paying you to do. At the end of the day, it will be easier to look at yourself in the mirror and know that you’ve made a difference with every day of your service.  

Stage 5: Acceptance.

The final stage of the Kübler-Ross model is acceptance, and this is really the stage that we should all try to reach. Accepting that your Army career is coming to a close allows you to adjust your plans for the future and prepare for our upcoming transition. No one stays in the Army forever, and it’s your turn to move to the civilian sector. This is the useful stage; the point where you stop avoiding reality and start using those skills that you learned over years of military leadership to plot a path for success in the rest of your life.

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