What is quibbling and why does it matter to leaders?
Do you remember watching Superman, and seeing what happens to him when he comes in contact with Kryptonite? How weak and ineffective he becomes?
I think that there’s something just as powerful that we are all exposed to every day, and it can have a similar impact on our efforts to lead.
It’s called quibbling, and I think it’s time to reintroduce this word into our vocabulary. Like Kryptonite to Superman, we have to see it for what it is, and avoid it at all costs if we want to be strong leaders.
Let’s start with another super hero. Maybe you remember the 2002 Spider-Man movie, where protagonist Peter Parker takes on a professional wrestler so he can earn some cash? He wants to be able to buy a car and impress Mary Jane.
He answers a newspaper ad that specifies “$3,000 for 3 minutes in the ring” with professional wrestler “Bonesaw McGraw.”
Parker nervously enters the ring wearing a make-shift costume as the crowd jeers at him and calls for his blood. A steel cage descends, locking him in with the fearsome muscle-bound McGraw. The bell clangs, and McGraw charges.
But Parker was recently bitten by a radioactive spider and has discovered that he has super-human abilities. Leaping, swinging, and counterattacking, he not only survives McGraw’s onslaught, he defeats him in short order.
After the match, Parker asks for his $3,000. But the promoter refuses, pointing out that the arrangement was for the challenger to last for three minutes. Because the match only lasted two, Parker hadn’t earned the reward. The promoter gives him only $100 and tells him to get lost.
The promoter quibbled.
Dictionary.com tells us that quibbling is “an instance of the use of ambiguous, prevaricating, or irrelevant language or arguments to evade a point at issue.”
The term quibbling has been around since the mid-17th century, but we’re using the word less and less at a time when it seems we’re seeing the act more and more.
Synonyms include evasion, equivocation, sophism, and ambiguity.
What’s the antonym? I think it’s trust. And that makes quibbling a leadership issue.
It’s a Leadership Issue
One recent study found that 57% of business employees stated categorically that they didn’t trust their manager. Why? One big reason had to do with an absence of clear healthy communication: quibbling. Employees suspect their leaders of hidden agendas, reputation protection, and they often see inconsistencies between words and deeds.
And when it comes to public leadership, there’s a whole cottage industry built up around fact-checking because we don’t trust what our ‘leaders’ are telling us. Soon after any major politician speaks, you can count on seeing how many Pinocchios he’s earned, or where his claims land on the Truth-o-Meter.
The military understands this, and takes quibbling seriously. At one point, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point even kicked a cadet out of the Corps for quibbling.
If we hope to be effective as leaders, we have to have the trust and respect of those we hope to influence.
Quibbling comes in several forms, and it’s best to avoid all of them, because if our teams see us doing these things it’s like Superman stuffing bricks of Kryptonite into his tights.
Quibbles All Around Us
Half-truths and Omissions. Answering the part of the question that makes us look good, or at least keeps us out of trouble, while omitting the part that might reflect poorly on us.
Evasions. Changing the subject, or avoiding a direct answer. Like they coach politicians to respond to tough questions by saying, “I’m glad you asked that…” then quickly pivot to talk about something else.
Misleading statements. Making something appear what it is not. They ask, “Have you coordinated this with the team?” You say “Yes” when really you just CC’d them on an email five minutes ago.
Technicalities. Like invoking a rule or twist of logic to avoid having to do something, as Peter Parker learned at the hands of the unscrupulous promoter. The match didn’t go three full minutes, so technically he didn’t fulfill his part of the deal.
All of these involve deception and violate the spirit of honest interaction among people for the unfair gain (or avoidance of loss) by one side or the other.
What’s the so-what of all of this? Well, if you were Parker, how would you feel?
In the movie, soon after the promoter cheats Parker out of his reward, a robber mugs him. Still angry at getting stiffed, Parker does nothing to prevent it. In the moment he was only too happy to step back and let Karma have it’s way with the promoter.
It’s no different in the real world. Which is worse – the boss who led you on, or the one who made a mistake but owned up to it and then fixed it? Who would you rather follow?
And just as we’d prefer our leaders be honest and direct with us, we need to do the same with our own teammates. In fact, if we hope to build a culture with clear communication and mutual trust as hallmarks, it’s up to us as leaders to set the example.
The temptation to quibble comes as we struggle to avoid near-term discomfort – admitting error, lack of knowledge, or a desire to protect our reputation.
But ultimately it leads to a long term and much more harmful loss of trust if our teammates learn of, or even suspect our quibbling.
On Quibbling – The Takeaway
Our ability to lead and influence is heavily dependent on the perception others have of us. Do we know what we are doing? Will we keep our word? Will we deal honestly with others? Can we be trusted?
When we lapse into quibbling, we erode the foundation of trust we need to lead effectively. In placing self-interest ahead of team interest, we expose the entire structure to a kind of damage that can never be fully repaired.
Instead, when the temptation comes up, it’s better to step away from the Kryptonite, and take extra pains to be as clear and direct as you can.
Even if, in fact, especially if, it might make you look bad.
There may be no more powerful way to earn their long-term trust.
Of course I’m not saying we have to be brutally honest in every situation.
If you’re a dinner guest and the host asks you how you liked the pot roast, it’s not helping anyone if you include the phrase “shoe leather” in your response.
That’s a different kind of Kryptonite.