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  • cynthiaccheng

Why Reliable is the New Sexy

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Innovative, creative, dynamic…these are all sparkly, sought after qualities that employers look for in a star candidate. We want creators, ideators, visionaries, trailblazers – people who dream big, look positive and talk fast. Yet we often idolise these characteristics at the expense of a far less glamourous sounding, yet arguably more fundamental, one: reliability.

Admittedly, the word ‘reliable’ makes us want to hit the snooze button. It is on par with other seemingly lacklustre characteristics such as ‘prudent’ and ‘earnest’. It inevitably conjures up images of the diligent and dowdy librarian in a grey wool cardigan, the bespectacled uncle who is too square to get a witty joke, or the boxy, maroon-tinted Volvo. Yet without the strong and unyielding presence of reliability, buzzwords like team-player, critical thinker, problem-solver, collaborator…are all as good as fairy dust.

What does it mean to be reliable?

It means doing what you said you would do, at a time when you said you would do it. Consistently. It boils down to two things: fulfill the promise that was made, or don’t make the promise at all.

Businesses need people who they know they can trust to get things done. A competent and reliable worker is far more valuable than a brilliant and flaky one. A reliable team member is someone who respects time, who delivers consistently to a good quality and who can be depended on to meet both internal and external deadlines.

What about being mostly reliable – isn’t that just as good? No. Being 75% reliable is not being reliable at all. Being 75% on time doesn’t make someone a punctual person. A spouse doesn’t expect their partner to be faithful three times out of four. In a professional context, people need to know that they can confidently count on their boss or their colleagues – 100% of the time, except for in emergencies or extenuating circumstances. This is the essence of trust, and trust is at the core of building good teams and thriving businesses.

Reliability is not a one-way street

The reliability of employees is key, but so is the reliability of managers. Teams are more likely to be consistently motivated and productive when their boss is predictable, communicates clear expectations and follows through on what they said they would do. To build credibility, time is of the essence when fulfilling these commitments. The result of erratic leadership is that the team may end up feeling like it’s chasing its own tail. It is a significant drain on time, energy, and resources – a big red flag for productivity.

The unbearable selfishness of being unreliable

An unreliable co-worker prioritises their own self-interests over the interest of their team. Regardless of whether this is intentional or malicious, the result is the same. They work to their own timeline without regard to how that may impact on others, expect teammates to pick up the slack when things fall behind, and demand last minute solutions when none needed to be found in the first place if they had just done what they said they would do when they said they would do it. Being unreliable causes co-workers unnecessary stress and anxiety – valuable energy that could be more efficiently channelled to creating better work products.

There will be occasions where we simply have no choice but to let someone down. We are not robots, and the world will never stop throwing curveballs. However, in most cases there is a choice to not let someone down, just potentially not a very easy or appealing one.

On the flip side, a reliable co-worker considers how their actions affect others in the team. They are aware that how they work directly impacts on the wellbeing of others. They take accountability for faults rather than deflect. They make sure that they are never the ones holding up other people, the project or the deliverable, and they expect the same in return.

Breaking it down

So why are some people less reliable than others? One reason could be that they have people-pleasing patterns and are unable to say ‘no’ or disappoint someone even if deep down they know that (i) they don’t actually want to do what they promised, (ii) they have no time to do what they promised or (iii) they want to avoid conflict and maintain ‘face’. The obligation in question is then ushered along for as long as possible until the commitment becomes impossible to fulfil.

Another is laziness and tendency to procrastinate. Being reliable requires effort and getting back to the basics of using daily checklists, time management tools and Kanban boards. It requires effort, organisation and consideration, which is why the quality is far more alluring than we give it credit for.

The final culprit is poor communication. If it becomes clear that a deadline cannot be met, then it is crucial to manage expectations so that a workaround that considers the needs of all co-workers can be found as soon as possible. Otherwise, this is just like the forever tardy friend who drops you a line at 8:30am to tell you they are running late when the meeting was…at 8:30am. Unless there really was an emergency (and most of the time there isn’t), the only explanation for this behaviour is poor communication, a lack of consideration for others and an entitled belief that someone else’s time is less valuable.

Unravelling the layers of reliability

While these qualities share the element of consistency, self-discipline is inward looking and reliability is outward looking. It’s a sociable quality. It affects how we interact with the world and how others react towards us. Swaddled in the comforting reliability-cocoon are other beautiful qualities that are inextricably linked to it – respectfulness, trustworthiness, efficiency, resourcefulness, honesty and integrity.

Reliability is taken for granted in quality products and food outlets, but true reliability in humans is rare. We may be lucky to count a handful of such individuals in our lifetime. People who have our backs, people whose words we can depend on, and people who act with integrity - even if it means confronting conflict. Work relationships, as with all relationships, are centred around trust.

Reliability is one of the lesser-celebrated but most attractive qualities that a person can have, both in and out of the workplace, as it encompasses greater values far beyond its humble label. Without this fundamental attribute, every other quality is built on a house of cards.

It's about time to bring reliable back.


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