What is your WHY? And, Mariner shows us how to deal with toxic culture!
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Lower Decks, Second Contact (Season 1, Episode 1). He will examine the leadership approaches of Ensigns Mariner and Boimler.
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We often get so wrapped up in the mundane; in the day-to-day activity of checking the boxes. When you can remain connected to your WHY - why you are doing the thing you're doing - that changes dramatically.
And, did you know, the main reason we let this happen is because of a dominant, toxic culture that makes us do, well, toxic things? In addition to the content in the podcast, here's a link to Dr. Tema Okun's Article that I reference.
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And if you visit the episode page at https://www.jeffakin.com, you'll find a transcript of this episode.
Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. In a 30-minute episode of Star Trek, the first of this length since 1974, we laugh and learn with a team of Ensigns. But this crew shows us the importance of knowing why you do the work you do, and they uncover the dominant, toxic culture that almost all of experience every day. We get this in our first series premiere podcast episode since July of 2020, Lower Decks, Second Contact.
“Captain’s log.” We get right into it with a Captain’s log giving is the show’s premise. This isn’t the Enterprise, out on the fringes of exploration. It’s not Deep Space 9, the hub of intergalactic politics. Nope, this is the USS Cerritos. This is the crew that comes in after first contact to do all the administrative stuff. Set up communications, learn the customs, help them become a part of Federation life.
And, immediately after this, we see what tone this show will have. “Are you pretending to do a Captain’s log?” We meet Ensigns Boimler and Mariner. Boimler is our straight arrow “Romulan whiskey is against regulation,” and Mariner is…not “Yeah, cuz it’s awesome!” She has all kinds of contraband and is making him super uncomfortable.
Quick note. This show is super fast-paced; not a lot of room to breathe in it. They pack a lot in the 25-ish minutes of each episode. The voice acting is quick, but efficient. Just know that it’s going to sound different than any other Trek we’re watching.
Ok, a shuttle arrives with new personnel. We meet Ensign Tendi who is wildly excited to be on a starship, but everyone doesn’t share her enthusiasm. “Can I just say that I’m really honored…keep it moving, lower decks.” She’s on her way to meet up with Boimler who will be handling her orientation. He and Mariner are repairing a replicator. Boimler is really playing up the prestige of his position and the possibilities for advancement, while Mariner is reveling in her position. Lower decks, the scrappy underdogs, she calls them. We learn a thing about her here that becomes kind of a story arc through the series, “You don’t care about moving up in rank? Been there, over it.” They head out on a tour of the ship.
On the tour they meet Ensign Rutherford, he’s in Engineering. And here, we have our main players. Boimler, as the eager to promote, company-guy, Mariner as the rebel that just doesn’t seem to care about much, Tendi, an Orion, is the nurse that is bright-eyed and wowed by the world, and our Engineer, Rutherford, who has a Vulcan, cybernetic implant and absolutely loves being an engineer.
They talk about his upcoming date with Ensign Barnes. He’s super nervous about it and heads off to panic. They continue on the tour, “no one knows what that room is…”
Boimler demonstrated some stuff here that I really related to. I’ve talked before about how serving on a starship has got to be very similar to serving on a submarine. When you serve on a sub, you are required to literally know every little detail about every part of the ship. The culture is built on the fact that anything can happen and anyone needs to be ready and able to fill in for someone else. We see some of this here. Boimler knows what every single room is, what it does, and why it’s there. I’ve gotta believe Mariner does too. The difference is, Boimler is all-in on the hype and Mariner appears like she couldn’t possibly care less.
A super cool moment that we’ll dive into in the Command Codes. Boimler is done with the tour and Mariner wants to take Tendi to the holodeck. He says there’s no time for that and Mariner calls him out on it. This scene is amazing and I have a lot to say about later on.
Boimler gets called to the bridge and feels very self-important about it, so Tendi and Mariner spend some more time in the holodeck.
We find the XO, Commander Jack Ransom, wrapping up the second contact work on the planet. There are a lot of bugs buzzing around and he gets stung by one. Not worried about, he invites Lt Commander Stevens to get a drink. “You know it, nothing like a cold beer after a smooth second contact.” Oh, ok. So Ransom is a total bro. Good to know. We saw this with Captain Archer back in Enterprise Strange New World. Will be interesting to see how it plays out here in Lower Decks.
Boimler gets to the bridge and Captain Freeman asks to meet with him. “Ensign, you’re with me.” She recites a few entries from his service record and says she sees a lot of potential in him. She gives him a special assignment. Spy on Mariner. “I want my crew working on lockstep. There is no wiggle room on the Cerritos.” Yikes. As he leaves, she reiterates that this is to be kept between the two of them.
Rutherford’s on his date, and it seems to be going well. They’re in the ship’s lounge, kind of like their ten-forward and there’s a lot of activity going on around them. One of the cool aspects to an animated show, they can add a lot of life and activity without having to bring in actors or extras. Gives the ship a feeling of a lived in place. Pretty cool.
An away team is headed down to the planet’s surface to set up a subspace array and finish up their mission. Boimler and Marnier are on the team and he has zero patience for her. They get their assignments and head off to work.
Back in the lounge, Ransom and Stevens are getting their drink. Suddenly, Ransom’s insect bite gets infected and he becomes a flesh-eating zombie! He’s biting crew members and they’re turning into zombies too! The lounge has turned into a battle zone, but that doesn’t stop Rutherford and Barnes from continuing their date. They’ve taken cover behind an overturned table and are chatting, “So, where are you quartered?”
Back on the planet, the away team is hard at work when Boimler sees Mariner loading some gear into a car and driving off; he’s on the chase!
The carnage continues on the Cerritos. Tendi is working with Dr T’Ana to deal with the zombies. They’re just strapping them to beds at this point. She ends up meeting her supervisor, who is a zombie, “it’s such an honor to meet you, sir.”
Boimler catches up with Mariner and sees what looks like her selling weapons to some of the inhabitants. He confronts her and she tries to de-escalate. He is ramped up, though! It gets intense and he whips out a phaser! She slowly opens the crate, trying to explain that she has farm equipment, not weapons, “shovel and hoe?” The inhabitants are freaked out, though and run off. They end up releasing one of their farm animals, a giant spider-looking thing. They’re trying to hide from it and Boimler gets some pretty fascinating info from Mariner. “I was here for first contact before I got demoted.” She’s been assigned to 5 ships. She has a ton of experience. He tries to stand up to her and plant his own flag saying he’s been on 5 planets, if you count Vulcan, “you might as well count Earth! I was counting Earth.” He tries to contact the ship for a beam out, but she grabs his combadge and throws it away. She’s going to help these people, one way or another and they need their farm animal spider thing back! They come up with a plan, using their uniforms as decoys, but Boimler hesitates and ends up in the spider’s mouth!! The farmers say it’s cool, though, “she’s an herbivore,” so they just wait it out.
Rutherford and Barnes continue their date, going for a walk on the outer hull of the ship, “I really like this classical band called The Monkees.” They get into a turbolift and Barnes kisses him! He responds in a way that really tells you everything you need to know about him. “I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting the hatches to recognize our combadges.” He is all business. He is passionately fascinated by technology and science.
The spider farm animal lets Boimler go. He’s naked and covered in goo. On their way back to the beam out, he tells her that he’s been asked to spy on her. She’s not mad but says she doesn’t understand why he cares what the senior officers think of him. He sees them as heroes, and she sees them as people that are stuck in their ways and only care about personal recognition.
They beam up and it’s pandemonium! Zombies everywhere, the ship is in shambles and people are phasering each other. T’Ana scans the goo on Boimler and thinks it can save the day. They get him to sickbay and she synthesizes a cure from it. They vent it through the ship and the day is saved! Then, almost like it’s here just to prove Mariner right, “Looks like you’ll get to publish another award winning paper. Great, more paperwork. Haha.” As they walk away, an enraged Mariner says, “Brad Boimler, he saved the day. Put that in your paperwork!”
In her Captain’s log, Freeman gives even more validation, “Solely due to the efforts of Dr. T’Ana…” She asks Boimler to report on Mariner’s behavior and he totally comes through for her. Says they spent the whole time adjusting the subspace array.
An admiral reaches out to Freeman and she lays into him. Says she’s done with Mariner and wants her off the ship. The Admiral calls her sweetheart and then she says, “She’s your daughter too.” <<Dun Dun Duuuuuun>>
In the lounge, Rutherford and Tendi are talking about his date. It was pretty cool, he talked about how they weren’t a good match, but still talked about all the great things about her. No trash talking, no ego boosting. Just, she’s awesome, but we like different things. How cool would it be if we could all approach relationships like this!
Mariner and Boimler talk through what happened and their newly developing respect for each other. Mariner gets really excited and says she's gonna do everything she can to get him into the captain’s chair. She’s gonna be his mentor whether he wants her or not! “You’re my cha’Dich now!”
I loved this episode about 10 minutes into my first viewing. It rubbed me a little weird at first, I mean, it just felt so different from all the Star Trek up to this point. And the voice acting…. I mean, it’s fantastic, I love the VA on this, but it is so fast!! It can be hard to follow the dialogue sometimes. But, there are times they fit a full-length episode into this half-hour format. Right now, while I’m recording this, there are four, active series of Star Trek. Discovery, Lower Decks, Picard and Prodigy. I have to say, that two seasons into it, Lower Decks is my favorite new Trek. Love me our hate me for it, but I’m team Lower Decks and am so excited to include it on the Starfleet Leadership Academy.
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One of the first things, right off the bat, is that the characters are all pretty silly, but they’re also very competent. When Tendi reports to sickbay, she gets right to work and is successfully triaging zombies. Rutherford and Barnes are living through a nightmare but are able to fight their way through the zombies and even run scans on the defective turbolift sensor.
And I love their whole thing too! They’re in the middle of Dawn of the Dead but don’t stop their date. I love how this just normalizes the wild and unexpected stuff that goes on in Star Trek. Like, of course the lounge is full of zombies, it’s Tuesday. Lower Decks, as a whole, handles this really well. In future episodes we’ll see them off-handedly deal with a Q, a being of pure energy and a rogue AI, all in the course of a normal day.
In a lot of ways, Lower Decks is Star Trek through the lens of Star Trek. It knows all the jokes we know; loves all the characters and stories we love. The episode actually ends with Mariner just rattling off Star Trek names and trivia. “Do you know Spock? Dude died and came back!!” But they are so smooth with it all that if you’re not a fan of Star Trek, you still enjoy the show and get the story. We Trekkies just get all the inside jokes.
But what makes this show magic, especially through my eyes; you know, a Star Trek/Leadership nerd; is that this is really an analogue for corporate culture. This is Office Space for Trekkers. Mariner is Peter, Boimler is a little Samir, a little Michael Bolton. Rutherford’s the Drew, except he’s super good at his job, and Tendi’s the bright-faced new employee that has bought into all the hype.
Then you have the leadership: Freeman, Ransom, Dr T’Ana. They’re all a little too full of themselves and their positions. And everyone in between, well, they’re just varying levels of jaded, cynical and disengaged. Sound like anywhere you’ve ever worked?
It’s going to be really fun to watch this through the corporate lens.
I’m recording this episode at the very end of 2021. We have a lot of new Star Trek and it’s awesome. Picard, Discovery and they’re just about to release Strange New Worlds. For me, right now, Lower Decks is the best new Star Trek there is and, maybe, just maybe, the culmination of the last half-century of Trek.
This episode was less than 30 minutes long and we have a treasure trove to dive into here! I feel like Scrooge McDuck swimming through gold! Except it’s leadership lessons…and I’m wearing pants…
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“Senior officers are overrated.” Aren’t they, though? I mean, at the end of this episode, the senior officers are totally ignoring the contributions of the lower ranked crew and congratulating each other for the work the crew did!
In the episode on TNG’s Up the Long Ladder I asked if team members like the science officers and communications experts should have their names in the opening credits since they’re the ones doing all the work. Well, this show finally does that! But, well, I’d like to play a quick game with you. A word association game. I’m going to name a company, you tell me who comes to mind: Apple. Tesla. Facebook. Your local grocery store.
I’m going to guess that a few things happened here. You thought: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerburg, and then you thought of the checker or stocker you enjoy interacting with. What if I had said Safeway, or Whole Foods instead of local grocery store? You might have probably thought of someone else. Likely someone that has never bagged their own groceries in their life.
A few months ago I had to have the keyboard replaced on my macbook. I took into the Apple Store and the guy working the counter that day, do they still call that a genius bar?? Well, that guy, Brian was his name, is who I think of when you say Apple. Why? You ask? Well, because he was amazing. He made me feel like I was getting a deal and that I was a priority to him that day. Now, I never got to interact with Steve Jobs, I’ve never interacted with Tim Cook. But Brian, Brian helped cement me as an Apple-guy, through and through.
And maybe that’s because the senior officers, or the senior managers of a company, are overrated. Here’s what I mean. As the senior manager there, as the Captain Freeman, I know a dark and dirty secret. A secret not a lot of managers will ever let you in on. Do you want to know what that secret is? I mean, I could be assassinated by the uber secret league of managers if I share this. You sure? Ah, well, ok! I mean, seriously, you are worth risking assassination over!
Here’s the secret. If I never showed up to work again; if senior managers – and maybe just about all managers – never showed up to work again, the work would still get done.
There. I said it. No putting the toothpaste back in the tube! Pandora’s box is open! But, seriously, if I never showed up again, the core work we are expected to deliver would still happen. This applies across all sectors. You work in sales? Guess what. You can still make that sale without a manager signing off on your quote. Work in food services? Those burgers will still get wrapped or plated without a manager.
Now, this isn’t saying that these positions don’t add value. Effective managers and leaders help people realize their potential. They ask questions that unlock possibilities and bring new efficiencies. They help build and foster culture. They do amazing things. But, if there was a crisis and someone had to go…maybe instead of firing 900 people, you make the choice to step down.
Again, I’m not devaluing managers here. I’m just reiterating that real stars of the work we do are the people actually doing the work. Lower Decks explores this idea in some really cool ways as the series continues, but this one-off line really says so very much!
One of the arguments I hear to this concept is that, say in the case of a fast-food operation, without a manager, no one would come to work or do the job. Well, frankly, that’s a much bigger problem. If a manager being there is the only reason you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, well, sounds like it’s time for you to find a new job.
Ah, a new job. There’s nothing quite like that, is there? The first month, I think, is always kind of magical. New people to meet, a new culture to figure out, trying to figure out why they decided to put the time clock here instead of over there. I don’t know, I just think it’s kind of cool.
Could you imagine if you could bottle up that first month or even first week energy?? How cool would that be? I think one of the problems with workplace culture is that we forget that we often do amazing things. Even in the mundane, most jobs are part of something pretty cool.
Imagine serving in Starfleet. I mean, your job might be cleaning the holodeck filters, or you’re the person vacuuming the carpet on the bridge between shifts. But you’re in the middle of space. Tendi reminds us of this in this episode. “It’s perfect” She gets to look out the back window and see the vastness of space.
This is a thing that you, as a leader, must do for the people you work with. You have to remind them why they’re here. Let’s take McDonald’s as a for instance. If you’re a manager there it would be so easy to just focus on your metrics, right. Get cars through the drive through within x amount of time, get y number of combos sold per shift, pull in z dollars for the Ronald McDonald House. And that’s kind of what we all think when we think about working at McDonald’s isn’t it? I envision some poor crew manager getting upset with me and yelling at me as I head to break because my average order taking time is 21 seconds, “get that down to 17 or you’ll be on the street!”
But, if I’m working for an effective manager, one that understands they have the responsibility of connecting me to the why I’m doing the work – and I have to believe that this a lot of, if not most of the managers for McDonald’s. I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never worked there before, but I have to believe it. I mean, right now, as I’m recording this, they’re recruiting for a Global Wellbeing Manager on Indeed! So, I’m going to guess that a lot of the managers are really good.
But if I’m working for one of the many, very effective leaders, they’re going to constantly talk about and keep me connected to the mission. They why for the company. Do you know McDonald’s mission statement? Yesterday, I didn’t know, but now I do and I am kind of blown away. Here it is: To be our customer’s favorite place and way to eat and drink. How cool is that??
Now, if that crew manager is coming at me because of my bad order times in drive thru, but they’re coming at me with stuff like, “Akin! Would your favorite place to eat take that long to get your order?” I’m going to a lot more apt to listen.
I think we just get so wrapped up in our day-to-day and the tasks in front of us that we forget why we are doing things. When we lose touch with that, we just turn into someone that’s checking the boxes. Read emails. Check. Update tracking sheet. Check. Reach out to HR on that thing. Check. Eat lunch. Check. And so on.
In fact, while Tendi reminds us to stay connected to the why, and to even be amazed by it, Boimler shows us what that check-the-box thinking looks like. As he’s walking Tendi through her tour, he shuts down the visit to the holodeck. Having worked with more than my share of Boimlers over the years, I’m pretty sure he did that because the holodeck wasn’t on some imaginary itinerary. And Mariner straight up calls him out on this. “What time is it. Don’t check; if she doesn’t know, you know what time it is.”
His why is to help someone new to the ship start to feel welcome and included, but he’s only focused on the tasks in front of him. In western society, and especially in the professional, working world, we suffer from what I call the dominant, toxic culture. These are aspects of the foundations of our culture that drive us to always try to be, or at least look like we’re perfect. It says that we have to always have a sense of urgency, even when nothing truly urgent is happening – remember the exercise I asked you to do in the episode on TNG’s Elementary, Dear Data? I asked you to categorize the things you do as critical, urgent or routine. My experience has been, and feedback from many of you, is that almost nothing is truly critical and almost everything is routine. You can go back and check that episode out for the specifics on that exercise. I highly recommend it. It literally transformed the entire culture of an organization I worked at.
This dominant, toxic culture also encourages people to be defensive, leaders and managers to be paternal or maternal. It encourages the belief that progress means bigger, faster, cheaper and it holds the written word above all else leading to just one correct way to do things.
This culture tells us to just check the boxes; that’s all that matters. The person that checks the most boxes the fastest wins. But that’s just not true. When we live in this culture, we lose the Tendi in us all. We lose the awe of the amazing things we do, and we end up as a Boimler. Just moving from task to task with an inflated sense of urgency and an inflated sense of importance.
This even goes so far as to squash innovative thinking! I’m going to guess that somewhere in the neighborhood of 98% of all employers are driven by this dominant, toxic culture – and most of them don’t even know it! It’s just part of the base DNA of society! But those same companies also tell you that they value innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. Well, help me understand something here. If everything is an urgent emergency, and I am mandated to follow a specific, paint by numbers set of processes that are well documented and treated with near religious fervor…how am I ever supposed to innovate?
I want you to really challenge your thinking here. If you have a 16-page SOP, or standard operating procedure, on how to bend spoons, for example, but following that SOP causes you to miss every deadline, is the SOP working? Probably not.
So you, as a spoon bender, dive into the other massive process that your company has to try and change the process, because you have an idea around moving some steps around or eliminating a few pieces that you can demonstrate are non-value added – because your company also claims to be a lean organization, or to follow Agile methodologies. 16 weeks later, your change is approved and is rolled out and you’ve improved spoon bending times by 8.9%...still not meeting targets.
Like, I feel like I might not be being as clear here as I want to be. Basically, many companies claim to be a thing, but actively put processes, policies and barriers in place that objectively prove they are not that thing. Does this make sense? Do you follow?
I mean, all of this is what innovation looks like in the dominant, toxic culture.
So what does innovation look like? “There is no spoon.” Exactly!! Forget your SOP, forget your written word and the idea that there only one right way. Forget it all and just remember that you’re here to bend spoons. And spoon bending is an incredible, exciting and awe inspiring thing to do when you know why you are doing it!
In terms of this episode of Lower Decks, Mariner gets it! There’s all the to-do around setting up a sub-space relay so they can help the people on the planet get the things they need, Instead of spending time with a way too big team to do that, Mariner just goes and helps the people. “I made sure some farmer got help despite bureaucracy.” And yes, of course the sub-space relay is important and it will enable the Federation to help the people at scale, but Mariner was able to achieve the mission by truly thinking outside the box. Where Boimler couldn’t even fathom not just going through the steps and checking all the boxes. “You don’t know anything except what’s in your manuals.”
Wow. It kinda sounds like I’m encouraging a whole bunch of insubordination here. I’m not, but, honestly, I kinda am. But not insubordination towards your supervisor or even the company. I’m encouraging being insubordinate and disruptive to this dominant, toxic culture that is just, well, it’s just terrible.
I like to offer other resources for you to dive in and learn more about topics I bring up here. Dr Tema Okun wrote a piece on this for the Race, Research and Policy Portal of the IARA Project with the Harvard Kennedy School on this. I’ll link it in the show notes. To this point, I’ve been intentional in calling this the dominant, toxic culture because I wanted you to listen all the way through without any of the biases its actual name is. And that is White Supremacy Culture. Dr Okun’s piece masterfully explains that this isn’t about the gang of white supremacists we all, sadly, see on the news. This isn’t about you or me being a white supremacist. This is about a culture, that without choice or intention negatively impacts everyone. People of color and people that are white. This piece lists the 15 characteristics of white supremacy culture and what to do to counter them.
In many ways, this episode, and the series, will highlight what an organization can look like when it breaks the bonds of this toxic culture. We see it in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek way with Mariner in this episode, but we’ll have the opportunity to dive into more of this in future episodes of this fantastic series.
I really want to know if you, or the leaders you work with, understand the impact of believing in the why of your organization. If they do, what does that look like. Join me, and many other listeners of the Starfleet Leadership Academy in our facebook group and tell us about it. Do you feel connected to the work your company does, and why do you feel that way? I can’t wait to hear from you. The link to the group is in the show notes.
You can also connect directly with me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and on just about all the other social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Tendi, a k i n.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
Episode 5 of the second season of Enterprise, A Night in Sickbay. We get to know Captain Archer a lot more in this one. And, if I remember right, this one was nominated for a Hugo Award, which may lead to some Mass Effect 2 drops courtesy of Jacob’s loyalty mission – and you get serious bonus points if you have any idea what I’m talking about in that reference!
Should be an interesting episode to get into and I’m looking forward to it.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!
Link to article: https://rrapp.hks.harvard.edu/the-culture-of-white-supremacy-in-organizations/ Dr Tema Okun Twitter: @TemaOkun