Sisko introduces the concept of Just Culture
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Deep Space 9, Waltz (Season 6, Episode 11). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Sisko and kind of Dukat too.
There is a lot to unpack in this episode. Jeff dives into Just Culture, the danger of labeling people (with a tangent into alignments from D&D), and offers a glimpse into the genius of Chris Voss's book, Never Split the Difference which is the best read on negotiation you will ever read.
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. Organizations talk about values a lot, but what do you do when your behavior doesn’t align with your organization’s values? We’re going to talk about that, as well as the trap of labeling people. I also get to introduce the concept of Just Culture and how that can apply to your day-to-day. And I get to do that while talking about an iconic episode of Deep Space 9. The 11th episode of the 6th season, Waltz.
A lot has happened in Deep Space 9 up to this point. We are in the throes of the Dominion War and the Federation isn’t doing great. The important things for you to know, heading into this episode are: The Dominion captured the station awhile ago and the Federation recently reclaimed it. In the battle to take it back, Dukat’s daughter, Ziyal, was killed. Dukat was arrested and is to be tried as a war criminal, but while in custody, he suffered a mental breakdown. This episode begins with Dukat in the brig of the USS Honshu. Captain Sisko is on board as well and they’re taking him to Starbase 621 to stand trial for his alleged war crimes. And that’s where we join them.
Sisko visits Dukat in the brig. Dukat asks Sisko if he thinks he’s guilty and Sisko sticks to the point that, in the Federation, you are innocent until proven guilty. He’s all business, very formal. But he’s still compassionate, and tries to connect, “I never told you how sorry I am about Ziyal.” 2:12 He was involved in her daily life on DS9 and misses her as well. As they talk about Ziyal, the ship gets hit by an attack and they go to red alert! The Dominion has attacked them, and “The USS Honshu was destroyed this morning.” 6:21 3 escape pods and a shuttlecraft got away.
The team at DS9 sends out the Constellation and the Defiant to search the area. But, the Defiant is time constrained. They have to meet a team of 30,000 Federation troops to escort them. If they don’t make that rendezvous, the transports will be destroyed and the troops killed.
We aren’t left in suspense long. Dukat and Sisko are in a cave. Sisko is hurt, “The left side of your body is covered in plasma burns.” 8:22 Holy crud, that has to hurt!! During the attack, Sisko was taken down in a plasma burst. Dukat helped get Sisko to a shuttle, found this planet and crashed on the surface. Dukat was able to salvage the distress beacon and says he’s activated, but “Who’s signal are you send? Federation or Dominion? Both.” 9:41 Dukat spends time foraging for firewood, food and water while Sisko rests to heal.
The rest of the episode is a lot of escalating back-and-forth between the two of them, but Dukat slowly slips into paranoia. It is really cool how they show this. Different characters pop up and taunt him. As it goes on, his grasp on reality slips further and further away. “I doubt he’d respect you if he heard you screaming. NOOOOO!!” 11:43 Oh, oh shoot. Dude’s got a phaser on him too.
This goes on for quite awhile. Dukat makes food for Sisko, trying to build on their connection. But why? I mean, long-time viewers, like me, would expect Dukat to just kill Sisko and move on. But he’s trying to prove a point. It’s a point Dukat has been trying to make over the entire series. He’s a good guy, and has gone out of his way to try and protect people. “I hope they told you my policies towards the Bajorans were most generous.” 15:46 Hmm.
The Defiant is running out of time. They’ve rescued 12 people so far, which is great, but they want Sisko.
Over time, while Dukat is prowling around the cave and the surface, Sisko notices the distress building isn’t actually transmitting. He’s hurt, so it’s a challenge, but he activates it, and covers it up so Dukat won’t notice.
The crew on the Defiant have picked up the signal! “Commander. Picking up a distress signal.” 21:31 On the planet, Dukat is trying to get Sisko to tell him what he thinks of him. Sisko starts talking with Dukat, agreeing with his viewpoint, he gets Dukat to open up more and more. But in the back and forth, the cracks start to show. “Haha! You are such a fool. Leave us alone!!” 26:50 He yells at a vision of Kira right in front of Sisko! Sisko ignores it and keeps getting Dukat to talk. “Let’s pretend the Major isn’t even here.” 27:27
The Defiant is closing in. “I’m picking up two lifeforms.” 27:37 They beam them up, and, “We have the survivors. Two women.” 28:38 They’re upset and very aware that they are almost out of time.
On the planet, Dukat checks the beacon and sees that Sisko activated it. Furious, he whips out his phaser and blasts the beacon! And then he beats it into oblivion with a stick, right before he bashes Sisko into unconsciousness.
But, there’s hope! “I thought I picked up another beacon but now it’s gone.” 30:11 They track after the beacon but aren’t sure they’ll have the time they need to complete a search. “It’s time.” 42:00 Worf orders them to the rendezvous at maximum warp.
With all pretense gone, Dukat and Sisko are letting it all hang out. And, finally, after a monologue, a diatribe, really, about what a hero Dukat believes he is, Sisko gets the truth from him. “Of course I hated them! I should have killed them all!” 38:36 This is HUGE! He has told everyone, even himself, that he loved them, that he was their benevolent savior. But now the truth is out. Sisko knocks him out and escapes to the surface. But he’s hurt. Dukat overtakes and attacks him. He steals and flies off in the shuttle, leaving Sisko, alone, on the planet.
On his way out, Dukat signals the Defiant and tells them where Sisko is. They are able to pick him up just as they ran out of time, but Dukat was able to escape. Recovering, and talking with Dax, Sisko vows to protect Bajor and to take down Dukat. “I fear no evil.” 43:48
What an episode! I’ll tell you something. How much you like, or dislike this episode has everything to do with your opinions on Avery Brooks and Marc Alaimo’s portrayal of their characters. Because, literally, there is less than 8, maybe even 5 minutes of the episode with anyone else in it. Me? I love them both, so that, along with the huge implications this episode has on the conclusion of this series makes this one of my favorite Deep Space 9 episodes.
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Like I said, you have to really appreciate Avery Brooks and Marc Alaimo’s approaches to their characters to dig this episode. It is literally the two of them, alone, in a cave. And they go on an incredible journey! Dukat slowly descends into a place of pure, unadulterated hatred and madness, while Sisko takes his time in dropping the pretense that he needs to be diplomatic and then just comes out swinging!
What makes this work is how they take their time. It’s all set up in the beginning when Sisko is walking to see Dukat in the brig. “As terrible as it sounds, I wish he were dead. But that’s not how Starfleet works.” 0:25 Like, there’s a real dissonance between how he feels and how he decides to behave. And then he faces serious hardships before he finally drops the act and lets Dukat know how he really feels!
And then Dukat. He has just completed an intensive, inpatient stay to help begin healing from the trauma of losing his daughter. From go, it’s obvious he’s on a ledge, but then we get to watch his slow descent, helped along the way by visions of Weyoun, Damar and Kira. It was great! And I think one of the greatest things about it is that Dukat has been lying to everyone, even himself, about his feelings on the Bajorans for years now! This is the first time he’s ever honestly said what he feels. Even to himself. Like, the biggest revelation of this episode isn’t that Dukat hates the Bajorans. As viewers, we’ve kind of known that. The revelation is that now Dukat knows he hates Bajorans. That’s next level stuff right there.
The other key piece to this puzzle is the directing. You put two people on a dimly lit set and tell them to make TV; 8 times of 10 you get a snoozefest. But not here. Rene Aberjonois directed this one and really pulled out the incredible performances we just talked about. Really, two absolute masterclasses here. One in acting and another in directing.
But I can’t quit with the praise there! No, the writing, editing and scene-blocking was top-notch too! The scene, earlier on, where it sounds like Defiant found them but they end up beaming up to randos…so well done! The crew was visibly deflated and we were too! And then the final shot of Dukat. He’s closing the shuttle door, staring down Sisko, and standing with him; Weyoun, Kira and Damar. It’s like the final exclamation point that dude is not ok and some bad stuff is about to go down.
I think it’s ok giving some little spoilers here. If you haven’t watched yet, go ahead and skip forward 30 seconds. But I love how they follow through with this too. The next time Sisko sees Dukat, they end up locked in a life or death fight with the fate of everything hanging in the balance. Amazing storytelling.
When I first watched this episode, I wasn’t sure what I would talk about here. And then I started taking notes, and now I have to decide what, from the very long list of concepts, we’re going to dive into!
There is an incredible concept introduced in this episode I am going to dive into. It’s called Just Culture, as in a justice-based culture. It’s in use in some medical and industrial practices, but I believe it has application in management as well.
I’m also going to talk about aligning your behavior with your values and the danger of labeling people and not acknowledging their complexity.
But first, one of the coolest things Sisko does in this episode is show us exactly how to get to the meat of the matter in negotiations.
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In the 31st episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy, TNG’s Elementary, Dear Data, I introduced an incredible and important book. Never Split the Difference by former FBI negotiator, Chris Voss. In this piece of what I will call required reading, Voss shares how he was successful as the Bureau’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. He has broken down the skills necessary to negotiate when there are actual lives on the line.
In the book, he offers a number of approaches and techniques that have proven time and again to lead to successful negotiations. One of those is mirroring. Mirroring is where you repeat what the person just said to you. Like, just the 3 key words of what they said. These are not the droids you’re looking for. Used well, it helps build trust; the person feels heard and acknowledged.
From mirroring, you can label what the person is feeling, behind what they are saying. Sisko uses this beautifully with Dukat. “I think you’re right. You probably had good reasons for all the choices you made.” 26:02 He mirrors what Dukat has said, labels the emotions behind his words and this gets Dukat to open up even more. It’s so well done.
When you mirror what they are saying and label the emotions, it allows you to calibrate questions that get you closer to the truth, like in this example, or towards an agreement or solution. An example many of us can relate to is buying a car. Let’s say you can afford a $20,000 car but the ideal choice for you is sitting on a lot with an asking price of $25,000. After talking with this salesperson for awhile you tell them you’re interested in buying it and ask if they can come down on the price at all. The salesperson tells you what a great car this is and what a bargain they’re selling it at.
Now, this response is meant to focus you on the value they are already offering. Many people might start arguing specifics at this point. There’s a pain chip over here, I heard a rattle in the dashboard…stuff like that. But if you go that direction; if you take their bait, you’re not getting what you want. You’re playing on their terms now.
Instead, mirror them. ‘This car is a great bargain.’ Boom. No back-and-forth, you’ve just taken the quality of the car and the tit-for-tat off the table. Then label what they are feeling. ‘It sounds to me like you don’t think I’m serious about buying this car.’ This labeling is important because it will almost always force them into a ‘no’ response – which is a good thing. They’ll likely respond like, ‘no, that’s not what I’m thinking. I just want you to know what a great deal this car already is.’
So, you tell them that you can only afford to pay $20k for the car. They may come back, sticking to the $25k or they may come down a little. You’ve established you’re serious, you haven’t walked away and there is at least a little trust here. So now you calibrate a question based on what you know. You know that they think this is already a great value and they believe you are serious. You ask, ‘This is a great car, and a real bargain. I can offer up to $20,000, so how am I supposed buy this car from you?’ You want to buy the car, they want to sell it, and there are a few thousand dollars between both of you getting what you want. By asking what you are supposed to do, it basically forces a real conversation about what really needs to happen. No tactics, no gimmicks. Just what matters.
This can be done with your teams as well. Use mirroring to avoid arguing over the little details that don’t necessarily matter. Label what they are feeling and then use all of that to calibrate questions to get you all to focus on the important matters at hand. Why waste your time talking about the limitations of Excel when you can focus on what the data will be used for?
This all becomes a lot easier to do when you share common values. But I’ve talked here before about having Values for the sake of putting them on posters and screensavers and then actually having and living the values. And when your organization actually lives them, you will run into situations where your personal value set doesn’t align. And this doesn’t mean one is good or bad, they’re just different. And, that misalignment can be minute as well, they don’t have to be diametrically opposed. Life often works in degrees and not just binary labels. More on that here shortly.
When this episode begins, through his Captain’s Log, we get a glimpse into Sisko’s brain as he identifies a misalignment between his values and views and the values of Starfleet. “As terrible as it sounds, I wish he were dead. But that’s not how Starfleet works.” 0:25 What we end up seeing through the rest of the episode is Sisko working to align his behavior to Starfleet’s values and he’s successful up until the point he gets smacked across the face and knocked out. Which, I desperately hope doesn’t happen to you in your work environment.
But for those times we are faced with this misalignment, you have to make a personal choice as to whether or not you are going to change your behavior, because, news flash, your organization is probably not changing their values. I mean, they printed all those posters, after all. Most of the time this is probably pretty easy. Hopefully you haven’t started working for a company that is so against your value system every day is a fight. You work where you do because, at worst, you can tolerate the values they demonstrate. So once you’ve decided to stay, you have to be able to reconcile your behavior with their values in a way that doesn’t compromise your integrity.
Much like the mirroring and labeling I talked about earlier, you’re going identify the gap that’s causing the misalignment and then label what you can still support within that. And then you base your behavior off of that. As an example, your company has a value of honesty, but you are asked to withhold information from your team. Remember what Picard told us in the last episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy TNG’s The First Duty, a lie of omission is still a lie. So how do you lie when honesty is the value.
The gap there is pretty clear, right? What can you support in it, though? At face value, I could support being honest about what I know. That’s at least something. But can I take it further? If I’m being told to hold back information, can I, knowing what I know about the company’s values and how I want to behave, can I calibrate a question to the people asking me to not tell the whole truth? I sure think you can! And the question I would calibrate to them is: can I tell them that I can’t tell them everything?
As a manager, you’ve likely run into this exact scenario. I like to joke that a key skill in promoting into higher level manager positions is being able to tell people no, and that you can only share what you can share, in a way that is genuine and doesn’t incite a riot! So, in this example, I would want to say to my team, ‘I have some news. Unfortunately, I can’t share everything at this time because…whatever the reason, um…because details are still being worked out, but here’s what I can say…’ You drop that on a team, and, I’ve got to be honest, most everyone is going to be ok with it.
Now the flip side to that coin is they aren’t ok with you prefacing the statement. Well, in that case, I’d take you back to the step where you ask if you still want to work there. If you do, I’ll take you a little further back and have you step through Chris Voss’s method. Mirror, label, ask a calibrated question. ‘So, don’t tell them the whole story? Ah, so you are concerned they are panic and quit their jobs? I believe in our value of honesty, and you are asking me to lie. How am I supposed to do that and still uphold our values?’ What a powerful approach, right? Mirror, label and ask a calibrated question.
I have to say, there is so much more to what Voss’s book offers. This is a substantial distilling of what he offers.
One more quick note on what it looks like to uphold and live your organization’s values. In the episode the Defiant is running out of time. They reach out to Kira to try and get more time, but she says no. The comms are super choppy. Just a quick quiz, knowing what you know about Starfleet, who here, in this next clip, is living the values, and who is not? Hit me up on twitter, @SFLApodcast and let me know! “I couldn’t understand what she said. I could and we all could.” 31:05
Sometimes, though, people won’t do what the person that was upholding Starfleet’s values did. Or they won’t pushback to the people telling them to not tell the whole truth to their team. Do you know why they won’t? Well, there are a lot of reasons why, actually, but one of the biggest fears, and one we see play out in this episode, is the fear of being labeled. No one wants to be seen as a troublemaker or to be perceived as a problem-employee. And I totally get it! For the most part, the only labels most people want are things like, awesome, important, critical to our success and things like that! But there’s even danger in those labels.
When we label someone, we put them in a tight, little, uncomfortable box. Every interaction we have with them is biased by that label. If you label someone, even subconsciously, as critical to our success, while that might feel good and validating, in the back of your mind, you are always going to expect this person to overperform; to pull a trick out of their sleeves and save the day. Essentially, in the name of being cool to someone, you’re setting them up for failure.
And this happens! It really, actually happens! We often think about the opposite, labeling people as bad things, but we do both things. In this episode, Sisko decides to label Dukat. He puts him in this tiny, little box called evil. “Nothing is truly good or evil, and then you spend time with Dukat.” 43:12
Now there is a whole, deep dive we can do on the complexity of human beings and how no person is truly evil or even truly good. We are somewhere in between, and sometimes, several places in between and sometimes in the same day! It’s one of the things I always appreciated about alignment in D&D. Now, full disclosure, I haven’t played since second edition so I might be way off base here, but back in the early, early days of the game, there was a basic version that came in a boxed set and then the Advanced version where you had to buy a small library of books. I loved both of them. But in the basic version, you were basically, good, or lawful, evil, chaotic, or in the middle, neutral. So simple, right? In this setup, Dukat is chaotic and there you go.
But it really is more complicated than that. I mean, just looking at Dukat, he does really good things in this episode. He saves Sisko, feeds him and even provides some medical care. Then he teeters off the deep end, threatens to genocide the Bajorans and gacks Sisko in the face. Oh, and then he calls the Defiant to tell them where Sisko is so they can pick him up. Yeah…there is a lot more here than just being evil.
In the Advanced game, AD&D, they added a qualifier to the lawful, neutral and chaotic alignments. And that is good and evil. So Lawful Good is a person that believes in order, and rules, and will use them for good while a Chaotic Evil person is all about chaos and wants to watch the world burn. I’d call Dukat a Lawful Evil person, which might just be the most evil of all of them. Like, he wants order, and rule, but he wants to be the one dishing out the orders and rules and wants to use them for evil.
On the other hand, I’d call Sisko Chaotic Good. He’s not so much for rules but he wants to steer the galaxy to a positive place. He gets that there are rules, but won’t hesitate to ignore them if that’s the right thing to do. All of this to say that you cannot just label someone. There has to be shades of grey, or degrees. No person is always a thing, and when we expect them to be, we’re all in for a world of disappointment.
Just culture. Have you heard of it before? It’s pretty amazing. At a high-level, it’s the opposite of a blaming culture. It’s where people are held accountable for intentional mistakes or misconduct and systems are looked at for most every other problem. The European Union has even codified most of the aspects of it into their regulations! Regulation EC 376/2014 defines Just Culture as a culture in which operational staff or others are not held accountable for actions, acts, omissions or decisions commensurate with their experience and training, but gross negligence, intentional violations and destructive actions are not tolerated. When I think of it, I think of it in terms of what you ask when there’s an incident. In a blaming culture, you ask, ‘who caused this?’ or, ‘what did you do?’ In a just culture you ask, ‘what went wrong?’ or, ‘what in the system or process allowed this to happen?
Here's an example, based on a real scenario, that, at the time of this recording is still being tried in criminal court. A nurse in a hospital gave the wrong medications to a patient and that error resulted in the Patient’s death. At face value, conventional wisdom would say that that nurse should be punished in some manner, right? But let’s dive a little deeper into the details.
This nurse was in the 13th hour of her 12-hour shift. Yep, you heard that right and if you work in the healthcare industry you know what that is like. She was asked to cover another nurse’s usual group of patients, so she was unfamiliar with them. When she went to get the meds dispensed for these patients, she made an error that resulted in the wrong medication being dispensed. The hospital did not have checks or balances in place so she left, administered the medication and shortly after, the patient died.
So, blame culture: what did she do wrong? Well, she failed to follow what are called the 5 rights: right patient, right drug, right dose, right route and right time. And yeah, that’s not good.
Just culture: what went wrong? No checks at med the med dispensary, nothing enforcing the 5 rights, taking another nurse’s patients on without adequate handoff, and an exhausted medical professional.
In the blame culture, the nurse would be punished based on the severity of the outcome. In this case, the person died, so the nurse was fired, arrested and is now facing reckless homicide charges and a litany of abuse allegations. But what would have happened if the patient just got nauseous and then was ok? What, maybe a reprimand or a note in her file. A suspension and investigation at worst. But what does any of that do to actually improve the situation? To be sure other patients aren’t hurt; that other nurses won’t make the same mistake?
That’s where just culture comes in. In just culture, the first step would be to be sure the nurse was ok. I mean, a person they were responsible for just died! No one would be ok after that. And after that, it’s all about looking at the processes and systems. In a just culture, this horrifying incident would have led to better checks and balances, improved scheduling and care for nurses, and probably a number of improvements I can’t even think of. And the nurse, would she be punished? Probably not! Punishing her would do nothing to fix or improve the situation and would most likely make her so averse to making mistakes in the future she would second guess every action she took and eventually become ineffective as a medical professional.
As an added note of context on this story. The family of the person that died has testified that they forgive the nurse and that the patient, the person that died, would have also forgiven her. They said that it’s not realistic or reasonable to expect someone, working in the conditions she was, to never make a mistake.
So I brought this all up because of one, single line. Sisko says this little thing in his Captain’s Log that starts the episode. He says, “Isn’t that enough punishment?” 0:30something And it immediately made me think about just culture. Has Dukat been punished enough? Did the Federation’s approach of arresting him and standing him for trial do anything to fix the situation?
And that’s what you have to ask yourself. When an incident occurs at work, do you wonder what the person did wrong, or do you look at the process and systems? Sticking with the medical field here, a Johns Hopkins study from 2016 says roughly 250,000 people die each year due to medical errors. A US Department of Health and Human Services study says that 1 in 7 patients in a Medicare hospital setting experiences a medical error. Are these all people making mistakes?? I have a very hard time believing that!
One of the less terminal medical errors are billing errors. The Johns Hopkins study estimates these cost Americans some $210 billion a year. And, yeah, that’s billions, with a B. But they also say that there are over 70,000 diagnosis codes and some 71,000 procedure codes available and that, and I quote, makes errors nearly inevitable.
These are system errors. These are not people acting maliciously or incompetently. So, back to you. Something has gone wrong. Is the person you work with being malicious? Are they incompetent? And if they are incompetent is it because of the training they were provided, or, more likely, not provided?
I love just culture because it acknowledges the human doing the work and the inherent flaws in our systems. If you’re on the fence here, and you still think there is value in blaming and punishing people, let me ask you this: how is the current system of dinging employees for mistakes working out for you? Is everyone snapping into line and doing perfect work because mistakes are scrutinized and punished. And I know what you’re thinking…it’s not punishment, it’s discipline, or a work plan, or some other buzz word-y thing industry has made up to disguise the word punishment. And if you don’t believe that, come back to me after you are in a ‘corrective work action’ meeting and tell me it doesn’t feel like a punishment.
But, seriously, take a long, hard look at how well addressing human error has worked for you. And after you’ve done that, I’ll be eager and excited to welcome you the beautiful world of just culture!
I want to read a 5-star review that just came through on Apple Podcasts, this one from Think Blue 78. They say: I’m soooo pleased that I found this podcast! Very happy that the r planes were so relevant to my organization even though I’ve never seen the Star Trek episode that was referenced. It didn’t matter because the truths that were communicated are universal. Excellent addition to anyone’s podcast feed! Looking forward to more.
Thanks, Think Blue 78!
Hop on over to Apple Podcasts and leave a review as well, and there’s a good chance I’ll read it on the podcast.
I’d also love for you to join me online. I’m on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and you can follow me on most of the other social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Two women, a k i n.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
It has been a long time since we’ve gotten a Discovery episode and here we are! The 8th episode from the 1st season, oh, I know I’m going to say this wrong…Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum. I remember this was one of the early Discovery episodes I really enjoyed. I think, actually, it’s the first episode with like an away team where they go to a planet and do stuff. A Star Trek staple that had been missing up to this point. And, if I’m remembering correctly, we get to explore the classic Star Trek question of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, or the one. So, until then, let me try some more latin…
Ex Astris Scientia!