Reliability is in the Eye of the Beholder: Dealing with Negative Reliability

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

Reliability is an interesting personal trait. You don’t really posses reliability, it’s more of a trait that others place upon you. If you think of an individual on a deserted island where there is no external point of reference for reliability, can that person truly be considered reliable?

While contemplating along this line it becomes apparent that different types of reliability exist. Mostly we think about positive reliability, like picking up the milk, washing the dishes after your spouse cooks, or delivering that report on time. What we generally fail to realize is that reliability works in the opposite way as well. For example, we all know those people who are always fashionably late. We come to rely on that bit of knowledge as a defining part of their character.

So we come to a question of positive and negative reliability. Positive reliability can be thought of as a favorable trait that others place upon you when they trust you to complete a task that takes your relationship in a positive direction. Negative reliability would be a trait that works in the opposite direction. If you consider it carefully, negative reliability can be either mild, or destructive.

Mild Negative Reliability

Mild negative reliability (MNR) is a trait that can be viewed as generally negative but can be overlooked and integrated into another’s perception of you. This trait can be seen by others as quirky or harmless and fits into their overall perception of you as a person. For example:

“Johnny will get us there on time, he doesn’t stop for traffic lights!”


“I scheduled dinner for 8 and told Mike to meet us there at 7. You know he likes to wait until the last minute to get ready.”

Both of these statements tell you something about the person they refer to. They’re not really positive traits, and overall are not that bad, just a quirk of personality that the observer can hook reliability onto.

Destructive Negative Reliability

Destructive Negative Reliability (DNR) is a trait that is harmful to your credibility. People who are viewed in this light are hard to trust and can be passed over for really important work. This trait is one that you want to avoid if at all possible, in both yourself and others. A person with DNR will drain you of energy and time while providing no benefit to your relationship. They are best cut from your life before they can do too much damage. A couple examples of this reliability type:

“Joe’s a real procrastinator, are you sure you want him to write this proposal? It’s too important to be left to chance.”


“I asked Jenny to pick up a couple things at the market for dinner, but she’s so lost in social media that she’ll probably forget again. I should just do it myself.”

Again, both of these statements tell you something about the person they refer to. The difference here is that you can feel a more damaging impact to the relationships. This type of trait cannot be overlooked and if left alone can eventually erode the relationship to the point of breaking.

Determining and Avoiding Negative Reliability in Yourself and Others

Listen/Observe: The first step in avoiding negative reliability is becoming aware of the tendency, both in yourself and others. Listen carefully to how others talk about you. This is an easy way to determine if you have mild negative reliability since others will usually have no trouble bringing it to your attention or making a joke about it at your expense. You can also learn more about your acquaintances by listening to how other people view them. Just remember that the trait of reliability that you place on another person should be based on your own views and values, and should be influenced by others as little as possible.

Ask: Determining if you have destructive negative reliability is a little more difficult if you’re using an indirect approach like listening. If someone views you as unreliable they may not want to talk to you about this trait or mention it around other people if you are near. If you think you are viewed in this light and you want to get to the truth you will need to push them on the subject. Tell the person you are talking to that you want to improve and can only do so if you know where you need the attention.

Evaluate: Once you are aware of a negative trait you will need to evaluate it. No one wants to think that they have negative traits, but it’s a fact of life that there will be something about you that others view in a less than positive light. You will need to determine if the trait is impactful enough to warrant attention or whether it can be written off as a personality quirk.

Act: If you determine that a negative trait is serious enough to alter then it is time to plan and act. Research ways to improve the behavior or habit in the most efficient way possible. Keep track of your progress and ask others for input along the way.

Using Negative Reliability to Your Benefit

I wouldn’t be covering all of the bases if I didn’t include this rather dubious though powerful technique. This plays off of Robert Greene’s 26th Law of Power, Keeping your Hands Clean. If you find yourself in a position where you need to get out of a project or relationship you can utilize the negative reliability in another person to accomplish the task.

For example, as a leader you know that a certain feature in your project will add nothing to the bottom line and is likely to only drain resources away from other vital areas. The catch however, is that a member of the board has their heart set on including it. Directly cutting the feature and backing up the decision with reason and facts may work, but it could impact your career and make it harder for you to get ahead. Instead, give the feature to a person you know has negative reliability and is likely to drop the ball.

Utilizing this tactic allows you multiple advantages. You keep the board member happy by showing that the feature is being worked on while the core of your resources concentrate on more important features and tasks. In the end you win whether the NR person completes the task or if they drop the ball. You may catch some blowback if the feature fails to be created, but not as much as the person who was responsible for the failure.

Reliability is a trait that others place upon you. Good, bad, positive, negative, you have some control over it, though ultimately your reliability is governed by the other person’s view of you. Negative reliability doesn’t have to be a bad thing and it would benefit you to become aware of your own tendencies and quirks. Use the steps above to determine if you have negative reliability and whether or not it is damaging enough to remedy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s