Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.

– Thomas Sowell

Today we associate the word barbarian with the undesirable, chaotic, and destructive. We see dramatic images of grim and merciless men rushing headlong into battle. That makes for an interesting scene in a movie but doesn’t reflect the historical reality of the concept. In the ancient world, barbarian meant the others, those outside of society. Some barbarians were good, friendly allies, others were destructive. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The reality of these “others” hasn’t changed much in the past several thousand years. Therefore we can use the historical concepts f barbarians as a sense to view business interactions. In modern business, barbarians come broadly in two flavors. Let’s call them good and bad.

Good barbarians are those who push the boundaries, agitate for change, support the unsupported, and generally move organizations and society at large forward. They can be difficult to deal with and can challenge the status quo, but this friction comes from a place of honest engagement meant to improve things. And it often does improve things. The improvement may not be smooth or consistent, but they do ask questions that most will not ask, and that is a valuable asset in any organization.

Bad barbarians, unlike in the ancient world, are not massed at the entrance to the city. Today, the bad barbarians are already behind the city walls. They are there because you let them in. You gave them a desk and business cards and allowed them to get to work. You’ve probably promoted more than a few bad barbarians in your time! Bad barbarians can be those who thrive on control, submission, chaos. They can even be narcissists or sociopaths. They hold back organizations and oppress others for personal benefit. Every organization has them.

A powerful but often missed defense against bad barbarians is that people are not necessarily locked into one role or another. Bad barbarians can improve, especially if their actions are a result of the system they operate in. Much of this transformation depends on the leadership in an organization. It depends on you!

Barbarians at work is about reflecting on both the stories of bad barbarians, with a focus on what we can all learn to avoid the negative consequences of their presence and move actively to convert people in our organizations from bad barbarians to good. We can all improve the system, but first is understanding what’s really happening. Understand the tools available to fight chaos and learn from real-world examples where things went wrong. And there are a bunch of examples where things go wrong!