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Rethinking Reliability

It need not involve always saying yes, being constantly available, or turning the lights on and off every day

Juggling too many tasks
iStock/Nuthawut Somsuk

As lawyers, we take pride in our reliability. But when you think about what reliability looks like in practice, what comes to mind? 24/7 availability? First in, last out? Saying yes to everything?

That was the case with a lawyer named Sam whom I was coaching recently. When I asked about their success in previous roles, they pointed to their reliability — their willingness to say yes, constant availability, and turning the lights on and off every day.

However, Sam was single then. These days, with a young family at home and other pressing commitments, saying yes to everything is no longer feasible, let alone sustainable. Given how critical reliability is to the practice of law, the conversation with Sam made me wonder whether the behaviours they identified are truly the best way to demonstrate that quality. And, if not, which behaviours are?

In essence, reliability is about keeping our promises. It is a core driver of trust, and it shows up at work all the time because we are regularly making commitments and asking others to make them, too. Unfortunately, in our hectic and distracted world, we can make missteps or miscommunicate, leaving commitments partly or wholly unfulfilled. That can lead to perceptions of unreliability and unintentional breaches of trust, which can leave us feeling over-stressed, over-stretched, and unsupported.

If saying yes as a default approach to reliability leads us to harder work with less bandwidth and gets in the way of building trust, perhaps it's time to rethink reliability. After all, are you more likely to rely on the person who always says yes regardless of their capacity and likelihood to deliver or someone who is transparent about their availability, provides sufficient lead time if something comes up, and does what they say they’re going to do?

Charles Feltman, author of The Thin Book of Trust, says there are many ways to demonstrate reliability (and build trust) at work, including being candid, clear, and consistent in assessing and communicating capacity, commitments, and expectations. None of this requires being constantly available or never saying no.

Before committing, determine whether you have the time and resources to live up to your commitment. Do not be shy about sharing some of that information with the requestor. As humans, when we do not have all the information (reasons for delay, inaccuracies, etc.), we fill in the blanks, often without giving the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, be generous when providing information to control the narrative.

Also, get clarity on what the ask is and what the expectations are. This might include follow up conversations to reiterate your understanding and seek confirmation. When you make a request, don’t confuse it with a command. Ask about capacity, be clear on expectations, and summarize action items. Even in the absence of a request, only make offers you are willing and able to commit to. Remember, once you make an offer, you will be held to it.

If you are no longer able to fulfill your commitment for any reason, communicate that as soon as possible and be part of the solution.

Reliability isn’t having no boundaries and turning on and off the lights — it’s about how we approach requests, make offers, and fulfill commitments. The accompanying skills include: listening intently, asking clarifying questions, looping back for understanding, and being open and transparent about your availability.

On this last point, rather than taking on an assignment (or file or project) that you do not have the capacity for and then failing to deliver, offer what you can do instead: “I have three projects due on Friday, but I could get this to you for Tuesday morning, or I can find out if colleague X has capacity.”

If you are reading this and happen to be the person making requests, one of the best ways to ensure they are fulfilled is to earn the trust of those you ask. If you are competent in your role, sincere in your requests, and care about those you are asking, they will happily commit, work incredibly hard to meet those commitments, and feel safe and comfortable saying no when they cannot do so.

Lawyers and clients alike want to set matters and projects up for success. They want to work with people they can rely on. To that end, it will serve Sam, and the rest of us, to rethink reliability: be open about what can and cannot be done, ask questions to clarify expectations, and do what we say we are going to do.