Nigerian Culture and Workplace, by Uddin Ifeanyi

Culture of wooden letters on wooden background

…it is very easy to assume that the intersection between our culture and the modern workplace distorts both morality and common sense. But in reality, something much more prosaic may be afoot. There is not much modern in the Nigerian workplace compared to our ossified cultural practices.

My 35 years of post-school work (in Nigeria) divides (not particularly neatly or with much foresight) into stints in the civil service, the not-too-formal private sector (where the monthly pension deductions from your salary just disappear in a black hole) and Nigeria Incorporated. And though diverse, though the experience in all of these places has been, two common threads run through them: an almost pathological obsession with hierarchy; and a riot of bosses and a disheartening shortage of leaders.

One could explain the hierarchy in terms of the cultural context in which much of our work takes place. And I have often wondered if the cultures built around the elders and the daily obedience that the younger ones must render to them did not lead directly to workplaces built around hierarchies. That the Japanese “sarariman” regularly offers this same kvetch is sufficient indictment of the cultural integuments of our workplaces. Especially when this is advanced as one of the reasons why the Japanese economy scores relatively low on innovation, compared to its peers.

How do you explain the lack of leadership, though? Japan, to stretch our favorite example, may have more than its fair share of morons as bosses in the workplace, but it didn’t want leaders so much that societal progress has stalled in results. That there are few leaders in our local public service is understandable. Purpose is the one concept this workplace needs so badly. As a public servant, you went to work and came back every day not knowing where what you did fit into or with anything. It’s no surprise, then, that most public servants are finding more creative uses for their offices and their time.

Unfortunately, as with building a whistleblower infrastructure to help close gaps in corporate governance, the feedback mechanisms designed to improve corporate cultures are as good as most have become. masquerade festivals in our villages. Like these events, they only validate the experiences of tourists.

Nor is it surprising that the private sector, and its need to make a profit to reward the investors whose money keeps the business going, is spared from public service mission creep. Yet, or perhaps because of this, Nigeria Incorporated is most obsessed with driving change and organizing the retreats that are meant to achieve it. If you can ignore the fact that these retreats almost always mask processes moving in the wrong direction, I learned three lessons from participating in them more than my fair share.

First, while most businesses in what we describe as the organized private sector have no difficulty in speaking out against most forms of bullying (indeed, a few have generally accepted procedures for calling, punishing and trying to remedy stupid behavior), few have thought about defining and managing sexist behavior at work. With few oases, key elements of the Nigerian business are as patriarchal as the nearest Nigerian village to them. Tribalism, on the other hand, although it has merit implications and a motivating effect on high-octane employees, is protected by the Constitution of the federal republic. Unfortunately, as with building a whistleblower infrastructure to help close gaps in corporate governance, the feedback mechanisms designed to improve corporate cultures are as good as most have become. masquerade festivals in our villages. Like these events, they only validate the experiences of tourists.

Second, in the competition between global best practices and local constraints, the latter triumph all the time. The fact that the most visible players in Nigerian business pride themselves on being associated with leading global consultancies provides a useful contrast on this point. In the tension between consultant types and the rest of us, the unspoken requirement is that “if you’ve seen something work well elsewhere, it’s up to you to localize the experience.” Alas, because this requirement is never fulfilled, and this is the third lesson, I can confirm that “the culture eats strategy for breakfast every morning”.

I find that, especially in our larger companies, we have allowed a fossilized view of cultural expectations to drive the modern workplace. It is what allows a boss to tell his subordinate that an apology is all he is due whenever he expresses his displeasure with the quality, direction and/or pace of his job.

Doesn’t that bring me back to where this conversation started? I find that, especially in our larger companies, we have allowed a fossilized view of cultural expectations to drive the modern workplace. It is what allows a boss to tell his subordinate that an apology is all he is due whenever he expresses his displeasure with the quality, direction and/or pace of his job. Until I was in my 20s, the workplace cultural conversations I gathered from my parents centered on the practice of employees’ wives going to do chores in the boss’s house as a condition of employment. advancement of their husband at work.

Not much of that happening these days, thankfully. But then the brown nose did not disappear. It just evolved. To what extent has this been facilitated by (this is not an erosion of values, but) our failure to build strong value systems and the institutions that underpin them elsewhere, including strong reflection on the regulations and their organization? In search of an answer to this question, it is very easy to assume that the intersection between our culture and the modern workplace distorts both morality and common sense. But in reality, something much more prosaic may be afoot. There is not much modern in the Nigerian workplace compared to our ossified cultural practices.

Uddin Ifeanyimissed journalist and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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