Are You in a Toxic Work Environment
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Deep Space 9, Crossover (Season 2, Episode 23). He will examine the leadership approaches of Intendant Kira.
We are in the Mirror Universe for only the second time in franchise history! While we're there, we're going to see what a toxic work environment looks like and what you can do if you're in one. We also get to talk about a powerful line that exposes the impacts our history has on our future.
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, tell me the secrets your universe holds in its thrall. Yes, we’re going to the mirror universe! And while we’re there, I am going to help you identify toxicity in your work environment and offer tools to help strengthen your relationships to combat that toxicity. So, let’s do it. It’s the 23rd episode of the 2nd season of Deep Space 9, Crossover.
Dr Bashir and Major Kira are returning from the first Bajoran colony in the gamma quadrant. He is trying waaay too hard to connect with her on the flight. “Breathing. Bellow’s Breath.” 0:58 It is not going well. As they approach the wormhole, though, they are saved by the bell! “What’s wrong?” 2:57 Or, more accurately, a plasma injector leak. They head into the wormhole, there’s a flash of light and when they emerge, “Where’s the station?” 3:46 It’s all the way back at Bajor! In the first episode of DS9, The Emissary, they discovered the stable wormhole that connects them to the gamma quadrant and moved the station to be closer to it. Weird that it would be back at the planet.
And as if that weren’t weird enough, they are intercepted by Klingons and boarded. They immediately cower from Kira and beg to be allowed to return to their ship. They escort Kira and Bashir to the station where they are met by Garak, who we know as a tailor who is actually a former spy but here seems to be in a command role. And then, the coup de grace. A more sultry Kira steps up to them, looks the Kira we know straight in the eye, and with a smile on her face asks who they are.
They explain that “this is the Terok Nor station, the center of authority for the Alliance, of course.” 7:10 Terok Nor is what the Cardassians called the station we know as Deep Space 9 before the Bajorans won their independence. New Kira has suspicions about them. She sends Bashir down to the mines to process ore and invites our Kira to her quarters. In her quarters Kira catches everyone up to speed. If you have seen the Original Series episode, Mirror, Mirror, all the pieces fall into place. If you haven’t, she covers it for you. “On my side, Kirk is one of the most famous people.” 12:01 Back When Kirk ended up here, about 100 years ago, in what we call the Mirror Universe, he connected with Spock and convinced him that the violent, imperious ways of the Terran Empire sucked. Spock became the Commander in Chief of the Empire and changed everything. “Unfortunately for them, when Spock was done, they could no longer defend themselves.” 12:49 Now, The Alliance are the big powerhouse and Kira is the Intendent of this region.
Ok, are we up to speed here? Mirror Universe where good people are bad and maybe bad are good. It’s parallel but different from our universe. So we have Kira and Garak in charge of Terok Nor, Odo as the taskmaster in the mines, O’Brien as a scrappy mechanic that is just a Terran slave, expected to fix things, and we’ll meet a few more people shortly.
Oh, and one more thing. The Alliance put a protocol in place to be sure another Kirk and Spock incident didn’t happen. If anyone were to crossover to the mirror universe, “we would promptly dispose of them.” 14:08 But, Kira loves herself and doesn’t want to kill her. They cook up a plan. They’ll try to find a way to get our Kira to return, while the Intendent mentors her to be a strong leader. One catch, though, “I will have to kill your friend.” 15:09 Kira advocates for him and appeals to the Intendent’s ego to do it. It’s pretty fun. Like playing poker against yourself.
Bashir is really struggling with the ore processing. He tries to befriend this version of O’Brien, but he’s cagey and not eager to trust. Bashir talks about how Terrans and everyone else has a chance to do great things over on his side, like be a doctor of chief of operations. O’Brien is interested but very skeptical.
Kira, our Kira, tries drumming up any support she can. She’s not afraid to play around with the truth to get what she needs, either. “So, uh, are we close friends?” 18:15 Quark is about to agree to hook her up with a transporter, but Garak comes in and arrests him for helping Terrans escape. That does not end well for him. “Make it a quick death.” 27:45 Yikes.
In his absence, people are having a good time at the bar. One man in particular. “The Intendent honors me with a ship and a crew,” 23:19 It’s Sisko! Here, he’s basically a free-wheeling pirate. He calls for O’Brien to come up to the bar so he can fix up his ship, and we see the flip side of his leadership style, “I don’t like Miles, that’s why I call you Smiley.” 23:56
As they look for a way to return, Kira gets pulled into the politics. Garak wants to kill the Intendent to take her place and wants to include our Kira in the conspiracy. It’s all very uncomfortable.
The stakes are getting higher so Kira gives up on the transporter plan. She wants to steal their runabout back and take it through the wormhole, hoping to replicate what brought them here. She even gets some help from Sisko.
The Intendent holds a party and the plan takes off. Using a thorium leak in ore processing to distract everyone, Bashir makes his escape, but not before an absolutely epic scene of him blowing Odo into oblivion! I mean, slime everywhere! He runs into O’Brien and gets him to help out. “That’s not the right way.” 37:46 Bashir offers to try and take him back with them, and they’re off. But, they run into a patrol and are arrested.
They get brought into the party and it all comes to a head. Sisko and his crew turn on the Intendent. “Have you lost your mind? No, I just changed it.” 42:14 they bust our Kira and Bashir out and make for the runabout. Sisko vows to stir up stuff in their absence and O’Brien joins up with him. The runabout is off and under heavy fire. They make a beeline to the wormhole. “I’m still reading a plasma injector leak. I’m counting on it.” 43:24 They make it through just in time aaaand… they made it back home! I suppose the file a report or something after all that but the episode ends with them approaching Deep Space 9.
What a fun episode! We see an entirely different side of some of our favorites and really get to see Kira let loose. As I record this in 2023, we have gotten A LOT of the mirror universe. It has honestly become kind of a cliché. But at the time this episode came out, in ’94, it was a super cool callback. And I loved the direct tie to the original series episode and how there were real consequences for Kirk’s visit there.
Quarks – Ads
For the most part, the first two season of Deep Space 9 are not that great. Like most early to mid-90’s sci-fi in needed some time find its feet. This is definitely a high point in these two seasons and one they pick up on again. DS9 goes to the mirror universe 4 more times over its run! They have a full story arc that runs all the way to its final season and all the seeds for that arc are planted in this one.
The very beginning of this episode did two things, at least for me. First, with Bashir both being super annoying and trying to ingratiate himself to Kira it kind of acknowledges how poorly he’s been written so far. But…it also kinda doubles down on him being a creep. “I’ve always felt you are an interesting woman.” 2:11 Yeah…not good. Took them awhile to get off this kick with him.
I don’t know if they intended this as a one-off episode at the time or not, I have to kind of assume they did. When you have to fill 26 weeks’ worth of episodes, you get stuff like that. But, this was a fun episode and probably an expensive one. Redressing sets, uniform and costume changes, lots of makeup…they went all-in on making this look different yet uncomfortably familiar.
They also had to a lot of split screen scenes between our Kira and Intendant Kira. These were super well done! There’s even one where one Kira touched the other Kira and it was seamless.
And I have to believe Nana Visitor had a great time with this one. She was Kira in both roles, but a looser, more sexualized version as the Intendant. It was great, not over the top, and, pure villain. A super fun episode, especially as DS9 was just kind of figuring out who it was.
Have you ever worked in absolute, toxic, tyrannical environment before? I have, and so do the Terrans on Mirror Terok Nor. A lot of people are working in a toxic environment, though, and don’t even know it. I’m going to identify some of the observable traits in both management and staff when this is the environment they are working in.
I’m also going to wax philosophic about a question O’Brien poses in this one about how history often impacts our trajectory. But, first, let’s talk about an incredible tool the Intendant uses that you can use to strengthen your connections with others and create more meaningful relationships.
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It can be hard to move beyond a passing, casual relationship with people, in general, but especially at work when you are in a leadership role. A “how are you doing” could open a can of worms you aren’t prepared to work with.
In the last Deep Space 9 episode we did, Waltz, I shared some of the negotiating techniques Chris Voss shares in his book, Never Split the Difference. One of those, mirroring, works really well in moving towards more meaningful conversation with people. Like, I’ll be honest, I have had people share things with me, personal problems, challenges, even successes, that I simply don’t understand or have a frame of reference for. Often in these situations, we tend to nod and maybe say something like, “oh, that must have been challenging for you,” to try and at least acknowledge what they are sharing.
Instead, you can use mirroring to restate what they said, and sometimes even become an advocate of sorts for them in their story. In this example, that I am sharing from Charisma on Command’s YouTube, Howard Stern is helping Charlize Theron after she shared something deep and personal.
The Intendant actually does this in this episode too! When she is talking to Quark, and she wants to be sure that he is guilty of helping Terrans, she says, “You did it because you feel sorry about them.” 27:28
Yes, she is being an absolute villain here, but the technique still works. When you are talking to the people you work with and want to move past the surface stuff and actually form a connection, this is a fairly easy and wildly effective tool to use. Mirror back to them what they have said. State it in a way that provides advocacy for them and shows you are listening. You can gauge the effectiveness of this with their head nodding or their agreement. Sometimes they’ll start talking faster and more excitedly because they know you are hearing them. It’s pretty amazing.
But, and this is a big but, do NOT use this to tell them what they should have done or what you would have done. This is not an opportunity for you to fix their problem or challenge what they did. This is a method for LISTENING. For letting the person know they are being heard. This builds the trust necessary for you to, possibly, eventually, help them fix or solve problems. But when employing this, you should be using the word YOU and not the word I. ‘You didn’t know who to call or what to do. You did the first thing you could think of,’ not, ‘I would have called this person instead, or I totally would have opened the door first,’ or whatever.
I want you to practice this with someone you trust, a partner or spouse, maybe a colleague. Have them share something with you and you listen by mirroring and reflecting, through advocacy, what they are saying. Let me know how you do! Reach out on twitter, @SFLApodcast.
Near the end of this episode, when the Intendant is going to execute our Bashir and mirror O’Brien, she asks O’Brien why he is rebelling. This is a great scene. First he asks if she really wants to know, which I loved. I’ve used this before when people ask me a tough or potentially controversial question. Do you want the real answer or do you want me to say what you want to hear?
In fact, this is a really great tool to kind of soften the blow of tough news. Someone asks you a tough question and you answer like this and they immediately know they are about to hear so not good news. And, interestingly, I don’t think anyone has ever responded that they want to hear what they want to hear. Another cool tool for you to hold on to.
Well, when the Intendant, like everyone else, says she really wants to know, he tells her. He says that life as a Terran sucks and even if everything Bashir has been telling him is a lie, it makes him believe there has to be something better out there than this. And, more on what ‘this’ is here shortly.
But he drops a line here, “It got me thinking how we might have ended up if history was a little different.” 41:22 Wow. Think about that for a second. Or a minute. Or, honestly, for weeks on end. What are we other than the culmination of our history? For every brilliant scientist, artist, musician, or even leadership podcaster out there, how many others are out there that outshine their brilliance, but we will never know because they are born in the wrong zip code, or country, or whatever. Maybe the most brilliant quantum physicist to ever exist is alive right now, at this moment, enslaved in a diamond mine just trying to imagine what a moment of peace might look like.
To me, this should be one of the highest aims of any DEI initiative. To allow each individual person to contribute their true gifts and talents. In this episode we see O’Brien squandered as a tinkerer, when, in the prime universe, our O’Brien is an outright miracle worker. Wouldn’t The Alliance and the entire mirror universe benefit from him being able to bring all of his talents and potential forward? It’s like the Intendant is holding on to a billion dollars but won’t even see it because she doesn’t like where it came from.
When I grew up, I was in the capitol city of Oregon, Salem…or So Lame as I christened it. Salem, like a lot of government centers, is, at its core, a mill town. Like, the big industry in town is the mill and that’s where everyone ends up working. Well, in Salem, the mill is a group of white, marble buildings downtown with old, 70’s style signs on them that say Department of this and Department of that. All very official, and a lot cleaner than most actual mills! But the same concept applies. Because of your history, you often end up in the same space. Like, for me, my grandma and grandpa worked for the government, my Mom did, my Dad did, my Aunt did, and, yep, eventually I did too. Now, if I grew up one hour north, in Portland, the economic center of Oregon and one of the biggest cities on the west coast, would I have worked for the government? Maybe. Maybe not. But the point is, it was my history that led me there. I mean, I resisted it for a long time, but it was the place to work and the thing to do when you came from the capitol.
So think about you, and think about the people you work with. Where would you be if your history was just a little bit different? And then use that to shape your work culture, your approach to accommodations, your approach to recruiting, retaining and promoting. How can you help unlock a person’s real potential without limiting them to their history? Honestly, like, if we, as a society can unlock this, we will finally start living in that utopian society Gene Roddenberry dreamed up when he started Star Trek.
But we’re not there yet. Not even close, I’m afraid. Especially in a lot of workplaces. When I started this section off, I asked if you had ever worked in a toxic work environment before. For some, this is an easy question to answer. Like, I absolutely 100% have. But for a lot of people, it’s not as easy. Work might be a wide-awake nightmare for them, but, well, that’s just work. They don’t know that it can be better. To them, it’s just the way it is.
For me, there are parts of work I love to do, and parts I hate. One-on-one meetings? Team and individual recognition? Getting to present in front of other? Heck yes, sign me up, I love it! Approving leave requests, navigating contracting and procurement, IT project management…yuck. But, those are a part of the job. When those things come up, I tell myself, there’s a reason they give me money to show up here…it’s this stuff! If I just got to do the cool stuff all the time, I might do that regardless of the pay!
But that’s me, and I’m not everybody. For others, every single part of their job is something they’d rather not do, but, they need to the money, so they do it. And, as we’ve all been told for most of our lives, we gotta do what we gotta do. Right?
Well, I say wrong! First let me talk about what a toxic work environment looks like. You can often tell by the things you managers or leadership say, but you can also tell by the things the people you work with say too. After I describe that, though, I do have a light at the end of the tunnel for you! I do have a path out of toxicity for you! But it is not an easy one. Let’s get into it.
First, the obvious, terrible environments. Hopefully, if you are working in a place like this, you know it is bad and are already working towards what I’ll bring up shortly. If not, maybe this description will flip a switch for you and I’ll see that you shouldn’t be treated like this.
When I was a senior in high school I washed dishes at a buffet. I’ve shared some great stories about this job. But, it didn’t start out so amazing. My eventual dream manager, Jason, who I talk about in detail in the 6th episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy, TOS Where No Man Has Gone Before, was just an assistant manager. The General Manager was this dude named Robert. It has been 30 years and I still remember this guy, and not for anything good.
Let me paint the picture. I’m 17 years old, my hair is a little longer than shoulder-length, I wear Rush and Metallica t-shirts every day and I’m just marking time till I ship out for the Navy after I graduate. My job is to wear a plastic apron, hair net and ball cap to wash dishes with an awesome group of people that don’t speak two words of English. Nothing glamorous here at all. Now, quick tangent, I would love to have this job again! Fun, no pressure…it was honestly great. Except for my boss. Robert. There was a company policy on hygiene that said we needed to be well groomed and clean when we came to work, essentially. His interpretation of that included a fresh shave. You could have facial hair, but it needed to be clean and all that. Me, I was 17 so I had a borderline offensive goatee. When I’d show up to work, he would run his finger up my neck and if there was stubble, which there usually was, he’d reach into his pocket, pull out one of the disposable, Bic razors he kept on hand and tell me to go to the restroom and ‘clean up!’ There was no shaving cream, no soothing aftershave. Nope. It was a twin-blade, plastic razor and the gross, slimy pink pump soap you’ll find in most any restaurant.
So gross. Dude was a jerk and a tyrant and the only thing I hated about that job. The good news is the company was wise to all of this and he was only there about 6 weeks. We got an incredible manager after him that literally changed my life, in the long run, so it all ended well. But, if you are working for a person like this, news flash you work in a toxic environment.
But then there are the ones that aren’t so apparent. The ones where you show up every day, you don’t love it and things don’t quite seem right, but, hey! This is the way things are. Here’s a huge red flag in environments like this. You see a thing that could be done better, or you question a decision from leadership that doesn’t actually improve anything. So far so good, yeah? But then, you get an Intendant style response like, “Quiet!” 39:11 No one wants to hear what you have to say. In fact, you are either punished in some way for bringing it up, or a big process is created to placate the masses while ensuring nothing ever changes.
I helped fix a lean implementation once. One of the keys to a successful lean daily management approach is for the people doing the work to be able either improve it or influence it to a point of improving it. This is often done through a mechanism called a Kaizen Action Sheet or Continuous Improvement Sheet. It’s a way to describe a problem and proposed solution in a way that is tracked in daily huddles. They’re super cool. In its simplest form, you fill out the sheet, bring it to a huddle, share it, and then people break off to work on it. Well, in this implementation, the Sheets went into a box and that box was delivered to management every Friday. The people were told their ideas were looked at, discussed and considered, but, the management actually just filed them away and did nothing with them. So people felt like they had an opportunity to share thoughts, but nothing ever actually changed. More subtle than “Quiet!” 39:11, but exactly the same thing.
Another thing you will see is management playing the victim card. Again, the Intendant does a great job of demonstrating this. “This is my reward for treating you with respect.” 39:50 She was so benevolent and caring that se treated people with respect and then she weaponizes that in a way to make it a personal attack against her and to make her the victim. Like, she literally just ordered the public execution of two people when she said this but she’s the victim??
If you’re a manager, I have a huge secret to share with you. And, once you truly accept this secret, your stress levels will all but disappear. You see, almost nothing that is said or that happens at work is personal or about you in any way. People get mad and might even say mean things – that’s not about you. It’s about the work. Or it’s about the message you’re delivering. Or it’s about whatever they have going on in their lives. When your teams are mad or frustrated, even if they say they’re mad at you, they are actually mad at whatever the work-related action or impact is that you are responsible for delivering. It is NOT personal! Swap any person in for you and they are feeling the same way. Do not take their reactions personally and then you can actually focus on the message or whatever it is they are actually unhappy with. You take it personally and you end up trying to get them to like you, and that…that never ends well.
Another one that really stood out to me. Our Kira and the Intendant are talking and Garak brings Quark in. She orders a quick and painless execution, turns to our Kira and says, “I’ve planned a party for us.” 27:54 In a toxic work environment, there is often a lot of fun events, or lunches, or happy hours for management while the workers toil away. Or, maybe even worse, there will be forced fun for the workers, like a potluck where they have to do all the work and spend their time and money to bring things that their peers, but also management get to enjoy while being forced to listen to their manager go on and on about all the great things they are doing.
This line hit really hard for me. I worked for a person that, well, she never actually ordered anyone to be executed, but she would hand out marching orders on who to fire, often for questionable, at best, causes. There was one time that was an almost beat-for-beat version of this scene. I, and another supervisor, were reporting some metrics to her – she was the big boss. She picked two people out of our report, said awful things about them, then told us she wanted them fired and gone by the end of the week. Literally in her next breath she asked where we wanted to go for lunch next week since we were going to do a manager’s day or something like that. Ugh…like…I kinda worked for the Intendant!
Finally, you’ll hear things from your co-workers and team. There will be ways they talk, or don’t talk, that show dangerous levels of toxicity. In this episode, we hear “You don’t understand, they’ll kill me.” 37:28 which, admittedly, is likely more extreme than what you are experiencing, but the core of it still exists. ‘Oh, don’t tell them that, you’ll get in trouble.’ Or, ‘just do it. It’s easier for everyone if you just do it.’ Right. Like, the language will be peppered with avoidance.
So, I’m sorry if I just helped you realize you work in a toxic workplace. That sucks. But, there is hope! You aren’t stuck. Generally speaking, there are two types of this that exist. There’s the one I talked about earlier, when I worked at the buffet, and then there’s the one that is much deeper and worse than that.
At the buffet, it was a person. One person was terrible and they happened to be in a position of authority that pervaded the climate of the whole store. If this is your situation, you need to report this person. Most companies have tip lines or a phone number to HR. General Managers often report to District Managers. Find that person and report them. Now, this is easier said than done. There are absolutely risks here. Most companies have policies against retaliation, but, let’s be real for a second. What’s a policy other than words printed on paper? There is absolutely a risk to making this report. But, if your company follows its policies and carries through on what most say they will do, this will be a big step in changing the environment.
The other version of this option is to make a group complaint. If others feel the same way, either encourage them to also make reports, or come together and report as a group. If you choose this path, though, I will caution you. Anonymity rarely fixes problems like this. ‘Me and 15 other people feel,’ or, ‘a lot of us have been talking and…’ No, it has to be transparent. Names and faces matter. I’ll tell you, as someone that has received reports like this before, I tend to put less stock in ‘this group of 8 of us’ kind of reports than ones with specifics. Like, how do I know you aren’t just saying there are more than you? What if I need more info? Now, I get it, and I agree, there should always be a safe place for people to report things anonymously, but one person coming forward and speaking on behalf of a supposed group will never be as influential or impactful as a group of actual people coming forward.
But what if your report isn’t acted on? Or what if it’s the second category where the toxicity is just part of the fabric of the organization. Well, and this is a lot easier said than done, but leave. Find a different job. Only you can control what does and doesn’t happen to you, so control this situation and leave.
I’ve shared stories from a toxic workplace I was in before. I remember when I decided to leave one of them. I had ben applying and interviewing, taking vacation time to cover my tracks. But one finally hit. They wanted to hire me. But, they wanted to talk to my current employer first. I was terrified. The second he knew I was looking, he would make my life a nightmare. But I had to leave, so I gave them his contact info. Like 8 minutes later he called me and was ripping into me, and, yes, my next two weeks sucked. But then I was gone. Free! It was one of the best decisions I ever made. And I think that’s a key lesson for you, here now, listening to this. The best decisions are hard, and often involve personal risk. But they are important. And two weeks of terrible is worth decades of awesome. It may not seem like it at the time, but you will look back and be so thankful you had the courage to live through that.
And I am more than happy to help you do that! I offer coaching for people in leadership positions and it is great. But if you listened to this episode and are ready to leave a toxic work environment but think you will need help and encouragement to do it, reach out to me and I will absolutely help. Totally on me, free of charge. I create this podcast to help create stronger leaders and better workplaces. I am literally putting my money where my microphone is here. It will be my honor to help you make the change and leave your wide-awake nightmare.
You can reach out on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast most other social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Terok Nor, a k i n. You can also visit starfleetleadership.academy/contact to send me an email.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
The 5th episode of the 3rd season of The Next Generation, The Bonding. This is the first Star Trek episode ever written by Ron D. Moore who would go on to be a core part of DS9 and even launch the epic, rebooted Battlestar Galactica. But this one is a Worf episode. He takes a child that has just lost their mother under his wing leading a fascinating examination of the human spirit. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched this one and I’m looking forward to it.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!