March 9, 2021

022: VOY: Learning Curve

Janeway's first misstep...

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Voyager, Learning Curve (Season 1, Episode 16). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Janeway and Tuvok.

We learn the value of ongoing coaching and how important it is to assume positive intent.

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Hello, and thank you for joining me today as we dive into the first season finale of Voyager, Learning Curve.  


The episode starts off with Janeway in a holonovel, probably trying to enjoy some time off. The holonovel is a super cool piece of technology I can’t wait for! You basically get to play a character in a novel! Super cool. Janeway is portraying a governess in what looks like Victorian Britain, basically getting bossed around by a little boy. This isn’t the Starfleet Psychological Academy, because if it was, we’d spend the whole episode talking about this scene and how someone that is responsible for the lives of her crew and the smooth operation of their ship 10’s of thousands of light years away from home spends their free time getting bossed around.

Anyway, the program glitches so she ends the program – thankfully it actually ends; we haven’t had a full holodeck episode yet – and the crew starts looking into power distribution issues.

Tuvok comes across crewman Dalby, a former Maquis. He saw that one of the bioneural gelpacks was malfunctioning so he went to fix it. Tuvok tells him he failed to follow protocol when doing his repairs and caused a number of systems to fail. 

He fires back right away – I was just doing my job, saw something broken and tried to fix it. It immediately becomes a Maquis vs Starfleet issue and Tuvok fails to salvage it. 

You know, in the United States, criminal law really leans on the intent of the individual. It can be the difference between a 10 year or lifetime prison sentence. As we interact with the people around us, both as leaders and as humans, intent matters just as much. Here, Dalby had the best of intentions; he saw something wrong and immediately tried to correct it. It was his execution that was wrong.

That matters.

But, as a leader, the way you handle a situation like this should depend on the person’s intent just as much as their approach. Tuvok is singularly focused on the execution and the negative consequences of that execution. Those are serious, and need to be addressed, but if he listened to Dalby here, heard his intentions and the messages he’s giving, he could have responded in a very different way that would have given us a very different, and much more cheesy episode. You’ll see what I did there here in a little bit. 

So let’s walk through this scene but give consideration to Dalby’s intentions.

He says, “I was just doing my job.” Tuvok would then respond with, “I appreciate that, Crewman Dalby. It is refreshing to see someone taking the opportunity to solve a problem. Were you aware that you repairs shut off some critical systems and affected others too?”

He answers, “No, I didn’t know that.”

So Tuvok would continue, “That’s why we have established protocols for this type of work. Had you just taken a few extra steps and conferred with your division officer, you could have fixed this without the negative impacts. Would you like me to set up some training on these protocols?”

Or something like that. Acknowledge that he was doing what he thinks is right and then offer to help solve the problem in the long-term. Some time ago, an e-commerce company, Next Jump’s CEO, Charlie Kim said it would no longer be firing low performing employees. Instead, it would offer additional training and resources. Put simply, they consider an employee’s failed performance, their failure. If something goes wrong, it’s because they did not offer the thing that was needed. Here, there is a clear gap in Dalby’s training, or in the reinforcement of his training. A simple pivot from Tuvok on his approach could have resolved the situation without tempers flaring. 

But, that’s not the way we go, so we’ll get to see Tuvok try and claw his way out of the hole. I’m curious if any of you will see yourselves or your organizations in Tuvok’s approaches.

Janeway, Chakotay and Tuvok are meeting on the bioneural gel pack malfunction. If you remember from Caretaker, these were really an experimental technology at the time; there is little practical knowledge on them, and, per Tuvok, they only have 47 spares and they can’t replicate new ones. 

I always find it convenient what they can and cannot replicate – there doesn’t seem to be a ton of logic behind it. Now, I’m sure there’s an article on the Daystrom Institute sub reddit on this, but I’m just not going to take the time to search! If you have, hit me up and let me know!

Chakotay says it would be worthwhile to convert some systems, or at least create backups for some systems, using the standard isolinear circuitry. Janeway agrees and tells him to look into it. 

Tuvok brings up Dalby’s behavior. Janeway mentions she’s heard complaints from other on him while Tuvok ticks off his poor performance record. Chakotay, having worked with him with the Maquis provides some insight, but stands up for him too. Tuvok thinks discipline may be the best approach and Chakotay disagrees. Says it’ll just make him more aggressive. Janeway agrees with Chakotay and, once again, is the voice of reason. She points out what everyone has been missing. The Starfleet crew went through the Academy, for years. Protocol has been drilled into them and made a part of their routine. “You can’t expect Starfleet behavior…” She has Tuvok put together and execute a training for them. He taught at the Academy for 16 years, so, knowing his strengths, Janeway puts him on the task. “show them why – a crash course.” She asks Chakotay to put together a roster of Maquis he thinks would most benefit from this. “I’ll tell them to take it easy…” 

So good! This is exactly what I was talking about earlier! Janeway is demonstrating a core belief that most people don’t want to do a bad job. When they do, it’s usually the result of not knowing how to do what they need to do or the expectations not being clearly communicated. She immediately identifies the training gap we referenced earlier and puts a solution into place. Brilliant. 

This really hits on one of the biggest opportunities for improvement across all industries and most all societies. Management and leadership are skillsets. You can learn them, improve on them, and practice them. But our organizational hierarchies aren’t built on that fact. We build our hierarchies by promoting the best widget maker to lead the other widget makers. An entirely unrelated skill, apparently qualifies you for a critical role?!?

Tuvok has a long and fascinating history – much of which we’ll get into in future episodes. But, at a high level, he worked, for a short time, as a science officer, and then became a security and tactical officer before serving as an instructor at Starfleet Academy. Most recently, he was assigned to Voyager as the Security Officer. You know what isn’t in that rundown of his CV? Leadership. But, as we saw when he ran into Crewman Dalby earlier, leadership is a part of his job. 

As much as this was an opportunity for Janeway to step in and problem solve, it was a missed opportunity to coach Tuvok. Now, we can assume there was coaching that occurs off-camera, but I think we’ll see, once he works with the assigned crewmen, that he was pretty much left on his own. But, what a great opportunity to step Tuvok through your thinking, as Janeway did, but then to talk through what the proposed training would look like. What would the approach be, the objectives, the time commitment? As experienced managers, these questions and discussions are just what happen as you head into an undertaking like this. But, Tuvok is left to kind of figure out on his own. I feel like that’s an approach we’ve all found ourselves in, at some point, and it doesn’t feel good. I mean, yeah, I learned a lot from those times, but, in the ideal situations, I was left on my own in relatively low-stakes situations. Not something like this.

The mixed Starfleet/Maquis crew was not embraced by everyone; in fact, it was forced on them after an agreement between Janeway and Chakotay. As we saw in Caretaker, and in the Deep Space 9 episode For the Cause, the Maquis can be a violent group. So, the stakes here are huge! We’re not talking about a disgruntled or unengaged employee here, we’re talking about the possibility of a violent uprising! And Janeway lets Tuvok figure it out for himself. One of Janeway’s first missteps, for sure. 

So, how often do you do this? How often is this your organization’s default approach? As we’ll see with Tuvok, it can be a rocky road to success when not guided well. Watch this and think about how different it could have been – how different it can be in your environment – with coaching and guidance both before initiating the project and throughout. 

Ok, Tuvok meets the crewmen Chakotay assigned. We’ve got Dalby, Henley, Chell and Gerron. He tries to explain the purpose behind this, and, well, he fails miserably. “You are all here because Janeway…” Not surprisingly, this doesn’t go well. They start arguing with him, with results in Tuvok sending Chell to run 50 laps around the cargo bay. That doesn’t help matters at all. It actually just bonds them together against him. So, all the Maquis simply walk out of the cargo bay. Tuvok, again, fails as he tries to get them to stay. “You are being insubordinate and I order you to stay…” 


Anyone here a vet or currently serving? I was in the Navy, back in the 90’s. I went through boot camp at Great Lakes, or Great Mistakes as we lovingly called it. I tell you what, that was an experience I would be ok never repeating again! I mean, you haven’t lived until you’ve made it rain inside the place you sleep just by doing jumping jacks, push-ups and self-destructs! 

If you’ve been through boot camp, or basic training like I think it’s actually called, this episode will absolutely bring back some memories! But, you also have some insight into Tuvok’s approach. He is going to attempt to accomplish, during one duty shift a day for an unspecified period of time, what the United States military accomplishes in a hyper-focused, full time 8ish weeks – emphasis on the ish, if you remember your p-days or waiting to get sent to your A-School. I have a hard time seeing success in the future. Especially because of a point Dalby makes – they never asked to join the crew. At least, for me, in the military, I raised my hand and volunteered to go there! That point alone is huge in the success of basic training. You chose to be there and you want to do well. You also want to get the BEEP out of there and move on with your service! But these crewmen, these Maquis, never raised their hands. They do not want to be here. 

That’s enough time spent on boot camp memories! I am 100% positive we’ll have more opportunities in the future!

In the mess, Gerron is thinking they may have overreacted. Dalby and Henley tell him it’s fine and all they have to do is keep doing what they’re doing. Chakotay drops in and asks for their side of the story. They say “there’s the Starfleet way and there’s the maquis way.” Chakotay agrees to do things the Maquis way and smacks Dalby across the face! Then he tells them shape up and report to Tuvok. “How does a starfleet crewman answer a question?” 

Ok, hear me out on this while I tell you what an awesome move Chakotay makes here. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a drummer. I like to hit things with sticks! In my ever so humble opinion, I believe the drummer is the real leader of any band. They take 2, 3 or 10 people and keep them all on the same beat, at the same time with the same feel and motion. When one of the musicians starts to veer from the tempo or the feel, you have to bring them back. Super simply, you do that by connecting with them – often with eye contact or a signal of some kind – and then match them. You match them enough to bring them back to speed with the rest of the group and the song as a whole. 

That’s exactly what Chakotay did here. He saw the Maquis crewmen were veering off track so he connected with them. He asked for their side. Then, he matched them by playing by Maquis rules and smacking Dalby in the face. And then he brought them back to speed, aligning them towards Tuvok and the ship as a whole. 

I like to hit things with sticks, Chakotay, apparently, just uses his hands. 

They report to Tuvok and he continues the boot camp approach. 

After a uniform inspection, Dalby is in Engineering with Torres. Another gelpack malfunctions so Dalby heads off to fix it while she takes the gelpack to sickbay.

She can’t find any mechanical issues with it, so she asks the Doctor to check its biological components. He scans it and finds that it is sick. He explains there is a highly contagious infection in the gelpack, but the infection doesn’t appear to affect the crew. He recommends quarantining the affected gelpacks until they can determine a solution.

That hits a little too close to home!

Torres comes up with a plan and takes it to Janeway.

Tuvok and the crewmen are going for a run…and a climb. Going through over 50 Jeffries tubes just to travel two decks. One they get there, they have to run a 10k. So many memories of the grinder at 0430!

Chell is awesome through this! He complains while they’re climbing the ladder, as they run through the mess hall, he snags a glass of water from somebody’s table. Great stuff!

He and Gerron end up getting lapped 3 times by the others, but they don’t quit! Once they all finish, Tuvok says they’ll do it again tomorrow. The scene ends with Dalby panting and giving Tuvok a death stare. 

Torres and Kim are checking transporter records for any trace of what caused the infection. They don’t find anything…except for Chell degauzing the transporter pad with a micro-resonator. You know, cleaning the grout with a toothbrush kind of thing!

He keeps coming up with new activities. He’s set up a war games scenario for the crewmen to work through on the holodeck. They’re focusing on team work. And they fail. Tuvok recommends they should have retreated instead of “going out with phasers firing.” The scenario seems to have failed him more than they failed it. “You’ve proven your point.” 

Neelix comes to Tuvok in the mess hall. He says he can see Tuvok is distressed. “You’re making wild assumptions. Yeah!” Neelix shows Tuvok some flowers that have very flexible stems; they can’t be broken. But if they’re brittle, they do break. “No Mr Vulcan, you’re rigid.” He suggests getting to know the crewmen and to adjust his teaching method. He makes the same point Janeway made earlier, and that we’ve made a couple of times here – they are not Starfleet cadets and they didn’t choose to be here.

Good advice from Neelix here, reinforcing what Janeway initially assigned. This is what it looks like when there is regular coaching on an assignment. I mean, this is great, and a good moment from Neelix, but this is what Janeway or Chaoktay, as the leaders Tuvok reports to, should have been doing all along. 

Neelix continues to cook as he talks with Tuvok. He has a particularly odd dish that Tuvok asks him about. Turns out Neelix has been making cheese. Ech! There is nothing about that that sounds good or appealing! Tuvok does some math, realizing Neelix has been cultivating bacteria right under a ventilation intake.

Torres and her team are investigating the ventilation and all of Neelix’s food. They take the cheese to sickbay for testing.

Tuvok is at Sandrine’s with Dalby, playing pool. He’s trying to get to know him better. He’s wise to it, though, and dumps it all on Tuvok. He was an angry young man, fell in love with someone that made him happy. Then he watched 3 Cardassians brutally murder her. So he joined the Maquis and never looked back.

Showing his total lack of social grace, Tuvok plays a long, “What about you? Any family? I do.” But he has the wherewithal to say his experience doesn’t compare to Dalby’s. While the attempt doesn’t go well, they do learn a lot about each other. 

The Doctor is totally perplexed by the infection and the cheese. It’s actually Kes that comes up with the idea that leads to the solution. Maybe the bacteria have been carrying a virus that would escape the ship’s scans. The Doctor checks the bacteria, and she’s right! They get to work while Tuvok and the Maquis crewmen end up trapped in the cargo bay with no access to communications. Kim lists all the systems that are currently failing “transporters and everything.” 

The Doctor says they need to basically give the bioneural gelpacks a fever to fight off the infection. Torres says they can do it with a plasma burst, which would put the ship at extreme risk. Janeway says to make it happen. 

In the cargo bay, the heated gel packs are making the area unsafe. It’s wild, all hell is breaking loose across the ship! They hit the plasma burst which releases toxic gas into the cargo bay. They start crawling into a Jeffries tube to escape the gas. 

Dalby and Tuvok go at it. Tuvok tells them to leave immediately, which would leave Gerron on his own and kill him. “The needs of the many.” Dalby goes after him but Tuvok forces him back into the Jeffries tube. He seals it shut and goes after Gerron himself. He struggles, and eventually he passes out from the exertion. 

The crew is in bad shape. Super hot, sweaty, many have passed out. The Doctor cheerfully reports the infection has been cured. The fever was a success.

The Maquis crew head back into the cargo bay and pull Tuvok and Gerron to safety; working together. They have a kum bay ya moment when Tuvok realizes that sometimes it is appropriate to bend the rules and Dalby says “if you can bend them we can follow them.” They help each other to sickbay, apparently now being perfect, Starfleet crew members. 

<<Red Alert>>

So, this is a tough one. I enjoyed the episode - mostly. It finally really addressed some of the Starfleet vs Maquis stuff that was planted in the first few episodes. But, it really wasn’t all that good. It kind of painted Tuvok as incompetent and had a pretty disappointing conclusion. I think there was some “stuff” around scheduling and production where this just kind of ended up as the season finale, but, yikes. As finales go this was a bust. 

The sci-fi big bad guy in this one was the failing bioneural gelpacks. Super interesting issue, with really high stakes. I’m glad they introduced this as a threat for them. I also, really love that it was Neelix’s cooking that caused the problem! Thanks to him, “Who Moved My Cheese” has an entirely different meaning now!

I’ve been very honest about how I feel about Neelix. I am trying, though, to look at him more objectively. So, here are two things Neelix did in this episode that I think were great. First, the counsel he gave Tuvok. Well done and effective. 

Second, the whole reason he made the cheese was because one person mentioned they wanted macaroni and cheese. He had no idea what that even was, so he researched it, learned how to make cheese – how many of us can say we know how to do that? – and was working to prepare it for her. That is pretty cool of him. 

All in all, it was a decent background kind of episode. I say background because, again, if you watch too closely Tuvok comes off looking totally unqualified for his job. But, still worth a watch if, for nothing else, watching Chell during the workout scenes!

<<Command Codes>>

When this episode started off, with the run in between Dalby and Tuvok, I talked about taking the intention into consideration. Now, that doesn’t mean everyone gets a pass every time because they had good intentions. In this case, Tuvok could have changed his entire approach and likely had a better outcome. 

When you assume a person has positive intent, it changes everything. Here, Tuvok approached this from a top-down, addressing a subordinate perspective which, ultimately, just led to a lot more work for him. Had he assumed positive intent, he could have said, “Crewman Dalby. I assume your intentions are positive and that you want to help repair the ship. If that assumption is correct, it may please you to hear that there are more effective approaches to repairing the ship.”

I tried to do that as a Vulcan…you can use your own words, of course!

In your interactions, it could change a, “That report was completely wrong. Do it again, and this time do it the way I asked,” to, “Thanks for getting me the report. There are some problems with it, though, but I know you intended to get it done on time and right. Would you like to go over it with me so I can show you how to get it right, or is the attachment I sent good enough?” 

Something that acknowledges the effort and the intent but also offers a path to correction. They did it wrong, but likely didn’t mean to. In fact, they only wanted to do what was right.

And in this scene, Dalby tells him exactly that! He hands Tuvok the answer to the problem like a present! “I was just doing my job…” I have a dear friend and colleague that has the best analogy for situations like this. She calls them sandpaper presents. You’re being handed a gift, but it’s wrapped in sandpaper. You’ll have to rip through that to get to the good stuff.

Dalby comes off immediately aggressive and confrontational – sandpaper. But what he’s saying is golden! Here’s why I did what I did! Solve that, and I’ll be an amazing crew member. There’s the present!

Keep an eye, and ear, open for sandpaper presents in your interactions. You’ll find that people offer them all the time! Especially the ones you’re related to… 

So, Tuvok is given a sandpaper present, doesn’t open it, but does walk through the problem with Janeway and Chakotay. She hands him the answer, on a silver platter, but then leaves him to it. 

What we saw in this episode, through its absence, was the critical value of coaching. When giving an assignment or a project, take the time to talk about expectations, possible approaches, and desired outcomes. Don’t just assume they’ve got it handled. 

This doesn’t have to be patronizing. Even with an experienced colleague you can accomplish this pretty easily. “Alright, sounds like a plan. Have you got it handled?” 

“I sure do!”

“Ok, walk me through it. How are you going to kick this off? What happens when this unexpected thing comes along? What will it look like when you’re done?”

It can be a quick touch base or an involved discussion; it all depends on the situation. But that’s not where it ends! Check in, make sure they’re doing ok. Is the original plan working well or have they needed to adjust? Can you help them in their adjusting? 

This is invaluable at any level. And it not only sets up the person and the project for success, but it helps everyone learn from it. By stepping through the process and the plan, and then checking in on it, there are countless opportunities to learn from each other or to engage others in the process as needed. Don’t squander these opportunities by just trusting it’ll be done right. That may be the quick answer, but I can assure you that it is not the correct answer. 

<<Hailing Frequencies>>

What do you think about assuming positive intent? Have you been left on a project without coaching or support? Do you have any cool or terrible boot camp stories to tell! Let me know! I’m on all the social media @jefftakin Jeff, t as in 10k, a k i n. And, if you would, I’d really appreciate it if you told a friend or a co-worker about the Starfleet Leadership Academy. 

Now let’s see what we’re going to watch next time…. 

Season one, episode 16 – hey, that’s the same as this episode! Oh, of the Next Generation, Too Short a Season. I’ll be honest, I don’t really remember much about this one other than it has something to with an evil admiral. I haven’t watched a lot of season one TNG in a good 20 years, so this will be a fun refresher for me! 

So, until then, Ex Astris Scientia!