Cycle of Bad Governance: Unlearning for a Better Future

Bad governance remains a prevalent issue in business environments, including within the dynamic tapestry of Pakistan’s organisational landscape. While the impact of harmful governance is well-documented in the form of low morale, decreased productivity, high turnover rate, and much more, how exactly are bad leaders formed and how can we protect ourselves from the adverse consequences of intergenerational governance? In this blog, we delve into the roots of bad governance, discuss its adoption into employees and explore strategies for unlearning toxic behaviours to pave the way for a better future.

Ethical Implications of the Cycle of Bad Governance

Addressing toxic behaviours at work is not only a matter of organisational efficiency, but is also a significant ethical issue that affects the well-being and dignity of individuals within the workplace. Ethical leadership is characterised by principles such as fairness, respect, and integrity, all of which are essential for nurturing trust and creating a comfortable work environment. Often, leaders may engage in toxic behaviours such as exploitation, favouritism, and manipulation, that violate these ethical principles and the fundamental rights of employees. This not only leads to psychological harm but also fosters a culture of fear, resentment and mistrust (Brougham-Chandler, 2024). Extending beyond the workplace, such governance also has adverse impacts on the mental well-being and quality of life of the workers. If left unchecked, these behaviours can be transferred into the new generation of employees, ensuring their integration into the company culture and setting a precedent for future mishandlings. Hence, as important as it is to prevent the origination of toxic leadership, devising ways to strangle its perpetuation is just as much of a moral imperative.

The Origination of Bad Governance

Immanuel Kant’s proposition of radical evil suggests an inherent darkness within human nature leading to certain personality traits but it is perhaps an oversimplification of the complexities surrounding harsh management practices. Instead, these behaviours often stem from a misguided belief that such behaviour is necessary for achieving organisational goals (Allio, 2007). Regardless, it is obvious that the transition of bright-eyed new employees into hardened and disengaged employees is partly owed to the kind of governance they encounter within the workplace.

In the context of organisational development, the social learning theory provides insight into how individuals replicate the behaviours they observe in their work environment (Bandura, 1977). In the absence of positive role models for governance, the actions of managers and supervisors that contribute adversely to the growth of an organisation are unfortunately adopted by the employee. Therefore, once they rise to a position of power, they may find themselves following what they’ve seen from others assuming that is the way leadership works. Hence, bad leadership perpetuates itself.

Embracing Unlearning

Whether it can be helped or not, nurture is a huge part of the human condition, and without meaning to, we learn and pick up on self-damaging habits, communication styles, and personality traits. With time and feedback, we may catch ourselves mirroring behaviours that do not resonate with the leaders we aspire to be. However, recognizing and addressing these issues is not impossible as this moment of realisation sparks the significance of unlearning or undoing the circuits of one’s personality.

Unlearning acts as a precursor to learning. Before we paint the canvas of our minds with new skills and habits, we must first cleanse the palette. It is akin to moving houses: before arranging your belongings in a new space, they must be cleared out of an existing one, which in itself is a process that demands a considerable amount of endurance and fortitude. Unlearning is a transformative process albeit an uncomfortable, frustrating, and depressing one since it requires people to face and let go of deeply ingrained habits and beliefs. However, through this process of deconstruction, we can rebuild ourselves into something extraordinary.

The process is a testament to our ability as humans to rectify our mistakes, to evolve, and to transcend our limitations. Unlearning involves not just eliminating outdated knowledge and behaviours, allowing for personal and professional growth, but also becoming change-makers, challenging long-standing norms that hinder organisational progress, and advocating for a better future. Consider the historic journey from the widespread acceptance of slavery to its abolition – a testament to society’s capacity to unlearn deep-rooted principles and address broader societal issues.

On an individual level, recognizing and unlearning destructive habits is much more time-considerate and within reach. The desire to change must evolve into a proactive willingness for personal transformation rather than reactive complaints. Being curious about alternatives, seeking inspiration from those who embody desired qualities, and embracing change with an open heart all propel the process. This level of involvement paired with a willingness for change is an automatic recipe for inspiration, employing ingredients ranging from self-help books to autobiographies to Spotify podcasts.

Unlearning Strategies – Individual and Organisational Change

Alas, if inspiration was enough and if motivational speeches could change the world, then existence would be a utopian paradise. Imagination, though potent, requires companions: willpower, social support, financial stability, and emotional resilience. The process of unlearning can be consolidated into three steps:

  • Recognizing a fault. Admitting wrongdoings can be challenging, yet it is a crucial step towards growth and improvement. Acknowledging our faults allows us to understand and address areas that need change, paving the way for personal and professional development. One of the best ways to do this is to consult with the people you interact with the most for constructive criticism (Moore, 2021).
  • Finding an alternative. According to the great scientist, Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Therefore, adopting a mental shift and engaging in ambidextrous thinking in exploring novel solutions is vital to making meaningful intellectual progress.
  • Taking the initiative. Possibly the most difficult part of change-making is taking responsibility for a problem and following through with the change. A notoriously onerous task, this is often the barrier standing in the way of dreams and their fulfilment. But it’s important to realise that no race can be won without taking that first step and working up a sweat.

Moving on from individual strategies for change, businesses need to be able to prevent, identify and eradicate toxic behaviours within the workplace to break the cycle and foster a culture of unlearning. The first step towards this is to acknowledge their presence and demonstrate a public commitment to correcting them, projecting a zero-tolerance policy towards the employees so they feel more comfortable stepping up against harmful governance (Shukla, 2023). Organisations also need to consider holding their leaders accountable for their behaviours by enforcing a clear code of conduct applicable to each member of the team to create a culture of responsibility.

Further, although mentorship programs serve as an opportunity for positive role modelling and for young leaders to learn from ethical leadership practices, the quality of this supervision also needs to be constantly monitored. By implementing regular feedback mechanisms that give employees a safe and anonymous platform to voice out their concerns and suggestions, businesses can identify and rectify issues early on, preventing their normalisation and perpetuation. Through investing in leadership development and capacity development, organisations have the potential to target the root causes of the problem at lower organisational levels and mitigate the risk of toxic behaviour, promoting a more supportive environment.

The Way Forward

Changing one’s circuitry is a formidable task, but within each individual resides an inner “handyman,” ready to facilitate change. Initially, it’s no surprise that old habits are easy to fall back into; when one is angry with a subordinate, it seems natural to express it in a counterproductive manner. However, it takes courage to recognise that this reaction is not inevitable, and great strength to hold back that anger and respond thoughtfully. This process isn’t instantaneous, yet every step towards growth matters.

The pursuit of unlearning is an ongoing odyssey, characterised by growth, self-discovery, and the will to evolve. As we unravel the layers of past influences, individuals and organisations can lay the foundation for a brighter future. The canvas of our minds may have been painted before, but it’s our prerogative to reimagine it, stroke by stroke until we create a masterpiece.


Written By

Maryam Javaid

Community Research Technologist
Pakistan Institute of Living and Learning