Superseded Officers: Handle them with Compassion
It is the saddest sight in any social gathering to find all superseded officers huddled together in a corner. They appear more comfortable interacting with each other, stay in the background and avoid intermingling with others, especially the senior officers. Their deportment, appearance and bearing show a discernible lack of zest. They go through the paces of a social evening in a detached manner. Apparently, supersession hits very hard.
In a command oriented army, supersession impacts the psyche of the affected officers immensely and becomes a traumatic experience for them and their families…
Search for recognition is one of the pursuits which all human beings indulge in and continuously strive for. Promotions and advancement in career are important aspects of their aspirations. It is more so in the army where rank fixes one’s place in the army’s hierarchy and is a conspicuous demonstration of an officer’s success in profession. Therefore, supersession hurts immensely and transforms personality overnight – many outgoing officers lose their ‘spark’, withdraw into their shell and become introverts.
Despite creation of additional appointments at the top, the manpower structure of the Indian army continues to be like a steep pyramid. Against the authorised strength of 46,500 officers, vacancies for generals and brigadiers are only 379 and 1088 respectively. It implies that the percentage of appointments of brigadier and above is a mere 3.2 percent. Most of the officers do not advance beyond the rank of colonel.
All service officers come through highly competitive examinations. Applicant to Post Ratio (APR) is a standard index used to indicate the number of candidates aspiring for the available posts through respective examinations. APR for the National Defence Academy varies between 450 and 500. As only one out of 450-500 candidates secures entry into NDA, it means that every selected candidate is brilliant and possesses necessary potential.
All cadets go through identical training and achieve the laid down standards before getting commissioned into the army. It proves that all young officers possess the same caliber at the start of their careers. As the steep pyramid-like structure provides limited promotional avenues, many officers fail to make to higher ranks. Many brilliant officers suffer due to the shortage of vacancies and retire as colonels.
Many brilliant officers suffer due to the shortage of vacancies and retire as colonels.
The system is reasonably fair and most officers gain promotions due to their own competence. However, there are many who benefit from regimental, caste and school affiliations. Parochialism and protégé-syndrome also influence promotions. In some cases, highly capable officers become victim of unfortunate circumstances or hostile environment; and they have no control over quirks of destiny.
Supersession in itself is quite distressing. The severity of shock becomes extremely painful in case of the officers who are confident of getting approved for the next rank. Being unprepared for such a prospect, the blow has a devastating effect on their persona. Perversity of the current system of annual performance appraisal is responsible for giving false hopes to the officers.
The annual performance report consists of two parts. The first part contains assessment of personal qualities and demonstrated performance. It is shown to the officer reported upon. The second part contains comments on his potential for promotion and is not shown to the assessed officer.
It is a very painful experience for the affected officers when they realise that their dedication to the organisation is considered suspect. Such an insulting treatment increases the hurt manifold…
Lacking moral courage and with a view to keep their officers in good humour, many assessing officers grade their subordinates at 8 points and above (on a scale of 1 to 9 points) in the first part. Secure in the knowledge that the officers reported upon would never learn about the contents of the second part, unscrupulous assessing officers mark them as unfit for promotion.
As the shown part invariably borders on ‘outstanding’ grade, the officers reported upon become certain of getting promoted. The news of their non-approval comes as a bolt from the blue and they get shell-shocked. They fail to understand as to why they have been overlooked despite their outstanding reports. As is natural, they feel wronged and lose faith in the fairness of the system. With very few exit options, they do not know how to cope up with the heartbreak.
In a command oriented army, supersession impacts the psyche of the affected officers immensely and becomes a traumatic experience for them and their families. Many start suffering from acute persecution-complex and show signs of professional and social withdrawal.
Absurdity and Insensitivity of Organisational Response
Most unfairly, non-approval for promotion has come to carry an element of stigma of professional incompetence. It is forgotten that in a highly competitive environment, it is invariably a question of a few decimal points in the report that makes the difference in inter-se appraisal for the limited vacancies.
In a hierarchical organisation like the army, social events cannot be totally free from rank consideration. However, blatant social discrimination or what is euphemistically called ‘social apartheid’ is highly appalling and hurtful.
The organisation’s handling of the superseded officers is both irrational and insensitive. Instead of reassuring the officers that they are valued members of the organisation, it does just the opposite. Rather than assuaging their feelings, it intensifies their sense of hurt through thoughtless treatment.
It presupposes that all superseded officers would lack motivation to excel. Even highly qualified and competent officers are posted to lesser appointments, thereby wasting their potential. Worse, it sends a wrong signal to the affected officers, showing organisation’s lack of confidence in their commitment to deliver. They are treated as a liability which the organisation has to carry till their superannuation.
It is a very painful experience for the affected officers when they realise that their dedication to the organisation is considered suspect. Such an insulting treatment increases the hurt manifold – first a hopeful officer is denied promotion and then he is considered untrustworthy for important appointments.
In a hierarchical organisation like the army, social events cannot be totally free from rank consideration. However, blatant social discrimination or what is euphemistically called ‘social apartheid’ is highly appalling and hurtful. It makes superseded officers wary of mixing with those who have achieved higher ranks. Social inequities add to their discomfort.
“The waiter offered scotch whiskey to him in a crystal glass and pulled the tray away when I tried to pick a glass stating that another waiter was bringing my whiskey. It was a terribly humiliating experience.”
When queried, a superseded officer was candid enough to share his feelings – “In a party, I was talking to a Brigadier, an old friend and a course-mate. The waiter offered scotch whiskey to him in a crystal glass and pulled the tray away when I tried to pick a glass stating that another waiter was bringing my whiskey. It was a terribly humiliating experience.”
Another officer asked a very pointed question – “I know that I have been found unfit for the next rank, but why must it be rubbed-in at all times? Why make us feel like lesser officers? It hurts more when my wife is treated equally shabbily in social functions.”
The government has taken a number of measures to mitigate the adverse effect of supersession on the financial remunerations and the retirement age. However, it is the treatment meted out to such officers by the army that needs correction.
Instead of boosting the self-confidence of the superseded officers by reposing faith in their competence and reassuring them that they are valued members of the organisation, the army does just the opposite. Rather than ‘wasting them out’ on inconsequential appointments, their potential must be utilised.
…the army must understand the sensitivities of the superseded officers and their families. They should be handled with due care and empathy.
To start with, the current system of showing demonstrated performance and hiding potential promotes must be replaced either by an open or a closed appraisal system. False hopes should not be raised as disappointment can be heart breaking.
Secondly, most superseded officers possess vast experience. They welcome assignments of responsibility and excel in them. Conscious of their self-respect, they put in extra effort to ensure that no fingers are ever raised at their commitment and dedication.
Finally, the army must understand the sensitivities of the superseded officers and their families. They should be handled with due care and empathy. As is the norm, there should be no rank-based discrimination in the messes. Social inequities are an anathema to army culture and it breeds a sense of alienation among the superseded officers. Instead of considering them as ‘dead load’, their skills should be exploited. The army can ill-afford to let the potential of half of its officers’ strength remain untapped.