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  • Writer's pictureAli McNab

Reliability: Strength or Curse?

I love working with reliable people, don’t we all? In fact I pride myself on being a reliable person and I value this as a core strength of mine.

And yet, in conversations with reliable friends and clients, I often hear a belittling of this positive character trait, an exasperation towards it even: “They just think I’m reliable”, “I’m just a safe pair of hands” as if this is somehow a sign of weakness. So what’s going on here?

Reliability is about being consistently there, showing up as you say you will, creating a trust that you will do what you promise. As a reliable person you are likely to build stronger professional relationships. People know you care, this in turn feels good and can build self-esteem.

However, reliability, by its very nature, can lead us to feel that others take us for granted or walk over us. We have a tendency to strive on being helpful and wanting to please others, so we say yes to everything and work our evenings and weekends to get things done. In time, this takes its toll and we begin to see our reliability as a curse rather than a strength. Our own respect for this personal characteristic dwindles and we feel hard done by or bitter about the burden it puts on us.

Embedded in us through our upbringing and past experiences, reliability comes naturally to us, it is part of who we are. We therefore overlook it as a positive trait, we assume that anyone can be reliable and we discount it as a strength.

Reliability is absolutely a core and brilliant strength!

It is not a given, not everyone is good at it!

So, how can we learn to value, nurture and manage this golden asset of reliability?

How do we ensure that we, and others, appreciate our reliability and do not take it for granted? How do we protect our boundaries and wellbeing without compromising our reliability?

Reliability should be given and received in equilibrium with the other person without a feeling of superiority or inferiority, without us feeling undermined, used, bitter or frustrated by what we have agreed to do. A mutual agreement of what is expected of us that we are both comfortable and happy with.

I'm OK, You're OK

A useful tool to keep this balance in check is the “OK, Not OK” model. This model is derived from a system of psychology called Transactional Analysis and founded on the conviction that people are “OK”. Meaning everyone has worth, value and dignity and should be accepted and respected just as they are.

The OK, Not OK model looks at how, in our interactions with others, we find ourselves in one of 4 “Life Positions”:

  • I’m OK, You’re OK: The ideal position: neither person is inferior or superior, you are comfortable with the other person and with yourself. In this life position you are confident, happy and get on with people even when there is disagreement

  • I’m Not OK, You’re OK: Here you see yourself as inferior to the other person. You put others' needs before your own or see others as more important, possibly resulting in frustration and resentment

  • I’m OK, You’re Not OK: Here you feel superior to the other person who you see as "not OK", you may experience anger, impatience or contempt towards the other person

  • I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK: The least healthy life position. You feel you are “Not OK”, but you also see the other person as “Not OK”. In this position you may experience hopelessness and a sense of ‘we’ll never do this’ or ‘this is doomed’.

In a position of I’m OK, You’re OK we maintain our boundaries while demonstrating and utilising our reliability strength. The balance or equilibrium between us and the other person remains intact and everyone is happy with the outcome.

Try this: In a situation where you feel you must say Yes to something despite feeling worried, frustrated or bitter about the impact it is going to have on you, think about which life position you are in and see if you can shift yourself to a place of I’m OK, You’re OK:

  • Explore what it is that’s making you feel uncomfortable with fulfilling this request

  • Ask yourself whether the boundaries of your role or remit or your personal boundaries are being crossed?

  • Assess whether this is of greater priority than other things already on your plate, and if so can you re-prioritise the other commitments?

  • Explain why you don't feel you can do what they're asking and help them find another solution: What do they really need? Is the deadline set in stone? Is there someone else who would be better placed to do it?

  • Consider whether the appropriate response is actually neither Yes or No, but has room for negotiation, for example:

"I’m not best placed to support on this because…., but so-and-so may be able to help you"

"I’m afraid I don’t have the time to do this right now because…., but I could set it up so you can do it"

"I can do this if we can reprioritise some of the other things you’ve asked me to do"

"My diary is full this week but I could look at it next week, what’s the absolute latest you need this by?"

"I can do this, but it will take a while as it involves X, Y and Z so can we set a more realistic timeline?"

"I notice you’ve asked me to help on this quite a bit lately, shall I walk you through the system so that you can access the data yourself in future?"

Ali McNab is a Transformational Coach helping people who feel frustrated, stuck or lost to reach a more fulfilled and balanced life. She will help you clarify where you want to be, explore your strengths and obstacles and define what needs to change to get you there. Ali works directly with individuals and with charities and social purpose organisations supporting their approaches to staff well-being and development.


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