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Nigerian Culture and The Workplace - The Bad Parts

June 3, 20233 min read

I was reflecting on an interview I had with a company recently. During the interview, I was asked if I had any shortcomings when working with others. I responded that I sometimes find it challenging to speak up or suggest opinions when I perceive that everyone else in the room is more experienced than me. I often wonder what I could say that would be better than what everyone else would say.

Both interviewers, who were from the UK, were surprised by my answer. This led to a fascinating discussion about the cultural peculiarities of Nigerian culture and how they influence my approach to workplace relationships.

From my primary school years up until college in Nigeria, one thing that was instilled in me was uncritical obedience and respect for people in positions of authority. If a teacher said "x is equal to y," I was expected to accept it without asking why or considering other possibilities. In Nigeria, respect is often not earned based on someone's achievements or accomplishments, but rather simply because the person is older or happens to be in a position of authority higher up the social hierarchy than you.

This leads to a culture of fear and silence that permeates every Nigerian, creating toxic dynamics, especially in the workplace. Those in authority who are familiar with this culture, because they were also raised with it, often exploit it in spectacular ways. It's worse in the workplace because this culture operates behind the backdrop of the poor economic situation in Nigeria. Jobs are very hard to come by, so employees are often willing to put up with almost anything at work because finding new employment is very difficult, and facilities like unemployment benefits are nonexistent in Nigeria.

Before I started working in tech, I aspired to be a lawyer. One of my first work experiences was interning at a law firm in Lagos, Nigeria. Law firms typically have a hierarchy, with partners being the most senior lawyers in the firm and interns like me at the bottom of the food chain. However, this particular law firm had some strange rules, such as:

  • Only partners were allowed to enter through the main entrance of the office building. The rest of us had to use the back door at the rear of the building.
  • The office was a three-floor building, with all the partners working on the third floor. Every morning, everyone had to go to each of the partners' offices to greet them.

During all-hands meetings, it was not unusual to hear partners yell at other employees in very disrespectful ways in front of the whole company.

Toxic work culture is prevalent in Nigerian workplaces, and it persists due to the culture of fear and silence that many Nigerians are raised with. This is something that every Nigerian has to unlearn, especially when exposed to more normal workplaces where ideas, and not people in authority or high hierarchies, are respected.

Personally, I have learned to find my voice in the workplace. I have been fortunate to work in environments that encourage healthy discussion and debate, allowing everyone to have a voice. A simple "Hey, what do you think about this?" during a meeting can do wonders for someone's confidence.

Coming to terms with the impact of Nigerian culture on my workplace relationships has taught me the importance of understanding the context in which everyone operates, whether at work or elsewhere. Without appreciating or understanding that context, building deep connections can be difficult.

What is your context ?