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BOOK REVIEW

The Ten Thousand Things: A story of the lived experience of the I Ching

Paperback, 227 pages, A5 format. Published by G.P. Martin. Released August 2010.
ISBN 978 0 9804045 3 1

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Review by Mike Toten (writer for Workplace Info)

A new book by a leading business ethics and HR writer/consultant provides some valuable insights into how unethical behaviour by senior managers can emerge within an organisation, how it influences the actions of others, and what options a line manager may have to combat it.

The Ten Thousand Things, by Glenn Martin, is written as a novel, but is based on a true story. The central character is employed as the manager of a government-funded, not-for-profit disability services organisation in a small country town. Almost immediately after he commences work, the President of the organisation, a high-profile local politician, is charged with embezzling from the organisation, throwing it into turmoil.

The manager stays, and over the next few years, he is able to restore employee and community confidence in the organisation by engaging with both groups, pursuing successful new business opportunities and securing its financial viability. Then, however, the organisation’s Head Office (HO) begins to interfere in operations, demanding control over various functions such as payroll, questioning expenditures and demanding “business cases” for trivial items. It becomes apparent that HO has a political agenda which is at odds with the “community service” mission of the organisation, and wants to take over management of it.

The manager resists these attempts as not being in the best interests of the organisation, its services or the community, and there are some confrontational meetings with HO management. The latter then attempt to undermine the manager by convincing members of the organisation’s management committee that the organisation is in financial trouble (untrue) and that the manager should be sacked. Their tactics work and he is dismissed, but it becomes clear that he still has significant community support. HO’s real agenda becomes apparent a short time later when the organisation is closed down.

Implications for business ethics

After the initial shock of the embezzlement scandal, the manager had to not only get the organisation back on its feet but regain the confidence of both its employees and the community who used the disability services. This required him to be transparent and highly ethical in his behaviour, but also to be a strong and courageous leader with clear goals. Martin explains how the manager developed effective control systems to ensure that this occurred and that any problems could be handled effectively, and the steps he took to engage the stakeholders and gain their support. It meant finding a set of key ethical principles to guide his behaviour, then following them. Any mention of “vision” can make some people cynical, but Martin explains why it is important and its role in transforming an organisation.

The book also provides advice on dealing with conflicting demands from above (Head Office interference), below (employees and committee members) and externally (clients and community). This advice is provided in the form of lessons learned in hindsight. A final lesson is that people who are brave enough to stand up to intimidation and dishonesty from above often discover that they have a lot of grass-roots support from other people who are hoping that someone will take up the fight on their behalf. Support can thus be mobilised.

An interesting feature of the book is that the manager regularly seeks inspiration from the teachings and interpretations of the ancient Chinese philosophy of the I Ching. He uses it often to interpret the meaning of the work situations he encounters and to guide his responses to those events.

Probably because it is based on a true story, the book is both a moving account of the events and a bit confronting to the reader when the extent of the nasty politics is revealed. In other words, a much more interesting read than the average business ethics textbook, and many readers will be able to relate to the conflicts that arise.

This review was first published on the Workplace Info website.