Something you need to learn when managing a team of Nigerians is that their private lives are considerably different to those of a westerner. When contemplating the work-life balance of a western employee, you have to think of his or her family, mainly spouse, children, and possibly an elderly parent. Where they live is important, especially if the employee is working remotely, and the ages and school levels of the children too. As a westerner myself, it’s not too difficult to figure out the role the employee plays outside of work in relation to family and financial commitments. Most of the time, they’re in much the same position as me.
But managing Nigerians? Well, they live a little differently. If a Nigerian gets what is considered a “good” job – meaning, he actually has a contract, a place of work, and a reasonable expectation of getting paid – he suddenly finds his obligations to others have increased by an order of magnitude. This is especially true if, as is usually the case, he is the only one in his family who has a “good” job. However, the concept of family is a little less easy to define in Nigeria than it is in the west. Few Brits would be expected to support siblings (unless they’ve fallen on hard times) let alone cousins, uncles, and more distant relatives. By contrast, in Nigeria, those who consider themselves owed something by a relative who has got himself a “good” job are spread far and wide through the family tree. If a Nigerian who suddenly finds himself in regular employment recognises all those “relatives” who are now approaching him for a handout, he’s doing well. Indeed, many of them won’t be relatives, merely school friends, neighbours, or people from the same village who see no harm in asking.
One of my European colleagues in Nigeria hired a driver, as we all did, who he paid more than minimum wage but still a pittance. When the driver’s father died he told my colleague that all his family expected him to pay for the funeral because it was he that was “doing well”. So you can imagine the demands placed on a young engineer who’s landed himself a full-time job in a major western oil company. They are endless, and what makes it worse is the demands are not only financial. Relatives, friends, friends of friends, and people with only the flimsiest connection to the individual ring up at all times of the day asking for help with X, Y, and Z: can you buy this for me and bring it to here, can you get me a job there, can you ask so-and-so if he can do this, that, or the other. This is how it works in Nigeria: anyone who has a “good” job acquires status, and he’s expected to wield it on behalf of the extended family.
This might sound reasonable, but a lot of the time these supposed relatives and friends are lazy, useless, and often highly dishonest (which is why they are still in the village earning nothing). But the familial and tribal system in Nigeria work in such a way that the person with money and influence is not permitted to dismiss their requests out of hand, particularly if the person is a close relative. At the very least, they have to hear them out and make a token gesture in their direction. If he doesn’t, or even if he does, this can lead to bad relations which can be deadly. A Nigerian colleague once told me going back to the village for a funeral can be a dangerous undertaking for anyone who left and is now “doing well”. Aside from being expected to pay for everything, a lot of people will turn up expecting a handout, or with a list of debts the deceased owed both real and imagined (mostly the latter). Others will simply be envious that someone is “doing well” and harbour a grudge, even taking it as far as poisoning their food. The same colleague told me you should never eat anything at a Nigerian village funeral for this reason.
This new patriarchal role employees suddenly have thrust on them when they get a “good” job takes up an awful lot of their time. Arranging something in Nigeria on behalf of someone else is not a simple process, especially when it involves several people and everything is conducted by phone. And few Nigerians understand the concept of “working hours” during which an employee is not supposed to be engaged in personal matters, meaning their mobile phones are going off constantly and they often have to go out to “take care of something”.
There is a temptation to lay down the law to these employees and say they mustn’t take non-essential personal calls or deal with personal matters while in the office, but this simply won’t work. The societal and familial obligation that is placed on them is real, and carries a lot of importance in Nigerian culture. It’s no more possible to tell them to ignore it until 5pm than it is to tell English employees not to talk about the weekend’s football or forbid them taking calls from their wives. You can’t let it get out of hand, and they still need to do the work, but any western manager in Nigeria needs to understand this aspect of local culture and make allowances for it. In this regard, I had a lot of sympathy with the engineers working for me: I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their position for all the tea in China.