The Perils of Promotion: Avoiding Negative Repercussions for Staff

by Michael Shelton

It’s inevitable. At some point during the camp season, a staff member will leave. Maybe a family emergency occurs. Maybe the person doesn’t find camp life to his or her liking. Or, regrettably, the person is asked to leave for an infraction of camp policy or for weak performance. If the departing person holds a management or supervisory position, an abundance of eager applicants may be willing to fill the vacancy.

The downfall of a promotion, however, is that only one person can be successful. All of the other candidates — either also highly deserving of the position or woefully unprepared — lose out on the benefits of the promotion. These individuals may have resulting emotional reactions that damage their performance as well as that of the newly promoted individual. A promotion occurring without forethought and preemptory damage control can cause negative repercussions for the entire camp.

Learning from Evolutionary Psychology
In a world with finite resources, not every living organism will survive. For example, human beings, with their explosive population, have managed to eradicate or cause the extinction of innumerable other species. The science of evolution has long stated that competition among species has played a major role in determining the survival of species. This means that all currently surviving organisms stem from a long line of ancestors who were successful in one way or another in competing for limited resources.

The human brain has also evolved. However, it still shares many (if not most) of the same characteristics of our distant ancestors. The brain has one determined purpose: survival. Though the threats faced by our ancestors were vastly different than the challenges faced by modern man, a perceived threat will still activate instinctive survival measures (such as the well-known “fight-or-flight” response). Human brains are hardwired to react in certain ways when threatened.

Predictable Responses to Promotion
A promotion in the workplace is similar to a threat faced by our ancestors: competition for a scarce resource. A promotion necessitates that only one person succeeds while other viable candidates do not. The field of evolutionary psychology envisages that the candidates passed over for a promotion will have instinctive and predictable responses that affect their performance.

There are four probable responses, and one or some combination of the four may occur. The following are in order of increasing harm. The first, and least damaging, is the feeling of envy. Envy is defined as discontentment with one’s lot and a desire for the attributes or possessions of another person. Envy is not a pleasurable emotion nor one that human beings will attempt to modulate. Employees who are not promoted, for example, may work harder to prove that they truly did deserve the promotion that was granted to the competition. Envy, though, will more likely galvanize the additional feeling of anger toward the successful candidate and the individuals who were responsible for the promotion.

The second response may be avoidance. Those individuals not promoted will avoid the successful individual. Avoidance markedly decreases the chances of successful interactions between those not promoted and the newly promoted individual.

The third response is denigration: those not chosen for the promotion verbally berate the successful candidate. In private, this latter group will disparage both the personal and performance standards of the promoted individual while simultaneously attesting to their own worth and assets. As all seasoned camp professionals know, however, these secretive conversations among co-workers do not remain secret for too long. This may result in splitting of the camp community as people take sides for or against the promoted individual. This further reduces the chance for a successful working relationship.

The fourth and most damaging response is active interference. Those staff members denied the promotion purposefully attempt to interfere with the progress of the newly promoted individual. For example, they may disobey the instructions of this individual, inform camp administrators of every minor error the person commits, and/or form coalitions with campers against the person.

It is important to recall that these four responses are not the result of malicious intent but are predictable hardwired reactions capable of occurring in every human being. The more damaging forms are most likely to occur in children and adolescents since the portion of the brain responsible for managing difficult emotions and initiating self-control, the frontal lobe, does not completely develop until the early twenties. Many camp staff members, therefore, physically lack the necessary cognitive means to master such challenging intra-personal responses. But as psychological research has found, adults are just as capable of envy, avoidance, denigration, and interference in the face of a promotion.

Effects on the Promoted Individual
The promoted individuals experience a situation similar to that experienced by our ancestors: the protection of a resource desired by competitors. Our ancestors resolved threats to their precious resources through the formation of coalitions with others for safety and/or finding methods of appeasing those with fewer resources.

The newly promoted individuals, who now have to cope with the negative (but evolutionary appropriate) responses of peers, must find a method of protecting their new status. They may surround themselves with an elite group of supporters, which necessarily leaves out the vast majority of camp staff; however, this will inevitably result in complaints of preferential treatment.

The newly promoted person may also attempt to minimize the status difference through self-deprecation and a surfeit of leniency toward the new supervisees. They may exhibit reduced innovation and spontaneity so as not to call too much attention to themselves. This may have the unintended consequence of decreasing the quality of their job performance.

Research indicates that females, in comparison to males, may have a more difficult time adjusting to promotion due to the higher level of importance placed on maintaining harmonious relationships.

Maintaining Harmony in the Camp Community
No matter how seemingly placid the surface response, those who fail to obtain the position will experience some internal distress. The camp administration should intervene so that this distress is not brought into the camp community as a whole. Suggested interventions include:

  • Education: All of those involved in the promotion process — from the applicants to those who make the decision — should have knowledge of the effects of a failed bid for promotion. Education prior to the actual decision can reduce the distress as well as normalize the experience for all candidates.
  • Extra supervisory time: Successful candidates may need extra supervisory time to discuss any possible concerns that they may have about the promotion’s effects on their camp relationships.
  • Reduce competitiveness: Many camps make the promotion process very competitive. This may be a fine approach when all of the candidates are strangers to one another, but it can be disastrous when camp is in session and relationships have already formed among the candidates.
  • Job description: Have a written description of the requirements for the job. Write the requirements in measurable and verifiable terms (e.g., must have a graduate degree and two years of experience supervising individuals in a camp or school setting). Clear job requirements will not only immediately reduce the number of people applying for the position but also supply evidence of why a particular person was offered the promotion.

The field of evolutionary psychology has presented ample evidence that negative reactions to the promotion process are to be expected. Camp administration may benefit from this knowledge by taking preemptive steps to reduce interpersonal casualties inherent in promotion, thus minimizing negative repercussions on job performance and the camp community.

Michael Shelton, MS, CAC, is the owner of Research Protocol, a training institute that focuses on the application of psychological research on management and human resources for small businesses and nonprofit agencies. He can be reached via e-mail at


Originally published in the 2001 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.