Reliability is not a two-way street. It’s a three-way street, and two of the ways can take you in the wrong direction.
Reliability has sometimes been portrayed as one of the most prosaic of all virtues. Brilliance and boldness are the qualities of the genius, the up-and-comer, the superstar; reliability is something you look for in a bus driver. But, while it is true that few people are elected to Congress or promoted to CEO solely because they are dependable, there are uncounted hordes of people who missed such opportunities because they were undependable.
Even in the ordinary course of business, you and your boss and your colleagues want to deal with someone you can count on. How would you feel if you had to team up on a project with a co-worker who was known to be very creative, but also known for always omitting some crucial element in every project? Imagine the anxiety of not knowing how this person was going to drop the ball this time, and of always having to double-check or micro-manage his work. Would even his very creative contributions be worth the stress?
You might tell yourself that you are not like that, thank goodness. You’re certainly not the type of person to screw up every assignment you receive. You can even point to a number of your projects that you executed absolutely flawlessly.
Unfortunately, that may not be enough for people to think of you as reliable.
Reliability is not a binary condition: either a person is totally reliable, or totally unreliable. It’s a spectrum. There are really only a small number of people at either end. On the one side, those folks who always meet their deadlines, cover all their bases, and tie up all loose ends. On the other side, those who are always late, always incomplete, and always wrong.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. Some people are strong in certain areas, but weaker in others. Such a person might, for example, nail every deadline, but in doing so often turns in a product with some gaps or errors. Or maybe every document she produces is flawless, but usually a day or a week late. Other people might just be more generally inconsistent — sometimes missing a deadline, sometimes omitting some important information. Hey, we’re all only human. It really is difficult — maybe even in some cases unrealistic — to aim to finish every job perfectly.
The practical problem, though, is that, while people can fall on a particular point on the reliability spectrum — so that someone who gets it all right 75% of the time can justifiably claim he is more reliable than someone who gets it all right only 50% of the time — in some circumstances, when we are being judged, there is no spectrum. Instead, reliability is more like pregnancy. Either you are reliable, or you’re not. For example, if your boss absolutely needs someone she can rely on to complete a report by the first of the month, then she is not going to ask you to do it if only complete your projects on time 75% of the time. She may not even choose you if you have a 90% on-time record. To her, in that situation, 90% is still unreliable.
That is why reliability is a three-way street. You can be in the right lane, where people can always count on you; you can be on the opposite side, where people can never count on you; or you can be in the middle, where people can sometimes, maybe even usually, count on you. But if an employer or a colleague needs someone from the right lane, traveling that center lane is no different, practically, from skidding off to the left.
Does this mean that the only solution is to get everything 100% right, 100% of the time? Ideally, sure, that’s the goal we should all be working for, and when that is attainable there is no excuse for missing it. But realistically, sometimes choices have to be made. Often people do not make these choices consciously. The stickler for deadlines, for example, might not question whether it is worth taking an extra day to incorporate newly-discovered information. The analytical perfectionist might not question whether a certain section can be omitted, or left unpolished, so that the assignment can be turned in on time.
To the extent that such choices must be made, why not make them deliberately? If you know, for example, that your boss places greater value on timeliness than thoroughness, then, even if it goes against your grain, choose timeliness. Or if you are aware that your product is going to be used in some crucial campaign or argument, so that the quality of the work is of prime importance, then take the extra time to perfect it, even if it causes you temporal angst. After all, whether or not you are judged as reliable does not simply depend on how often you get things right; it also depends on which of those things are important to the person making the judgment.