by Ben Butina
This morning, Kim's manager chose her to lead a crucial company project. At lunch, her husband texted to ask her to pick up their daughter's medication. That evening, Kim's friend called to discuss a planned weekend spa trip.
Kim's manager, husband, and friend were all asking the same question: "Can I count on you?"
More than 2,500 years ago, Confucius compared dependability to the linchpin of a horse-drawn wagon. Without it, he wondered, how does a person get anywhere? He's not alone. Jewish and Christian scriptures encourage readers to emulate God, whose dependability is compared to a rock and a fortress. The Quran admonishes followers to be trustworthy, even to murderers. Similar ideas can be found in the works of Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.
Psychologists have studied dependability, too, and as is so often the case, their research confirms what our ancestors have been saying all along. People from both the East and the West idealize dependable marriage partners,1 and those with more dependable spouses are happier and enjoy greater life satisfaction.2 Speaking of family, children with dependable parents are more open with them and engage in fewer risky behaviors.3
Research has shown that people value dependability in friends, too.4 Incredibly, dependability is so important to friendships that cancer patients with dependable friends have lower mortality rates than those who don't.5
Of course, employers prefer dependable employees, but you might be surprised at just how important dependability is in the workplace. Employees with dependable managers, for example, perform better and have higher job satisfaction.6 Managers treat dependable employees more fairly, and teamwork improves when team members feel they can depend on each other8.
So how can you become more dependable? First, make fewer commitments, so you have the time and energy you need to keep the ones you've made. Fulfilling one promise makes you more dependable than failing to keep ten promises. Second, sweat the small stuff. Don't excuse yourself for not being dependable in small matters because they seem inconsequential. Finally, take time every evening to reflect on your dependability during the day. Daily self-examination is one of the most powerful tools we have for keeping ourselves accountable for change.
In other words, strive to become the kind of person who can answer "yes" to the question, "can I count on you?"
1 Lam, B. C., Cross, S. E., Wu, T. F., Yeh, K. H., Wang, Y. C., & Su, J. C. (2016). What do you want in a marriage? Examining marriage ideals in Taiwan and the United States. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(6), 703-722.
2 Hu, A. (2020). Specific trust matters: The association between the trustworthiness of specific partners and subjective wellbeing. The Sociological Quarterly, 61(3), 500-522.
3 Guilamo‐Ramos, V., Jaccard, J., Dittus, P., & Bouris, A. M. (2006). Parental expertise, trustworthiness, and accessibility: parent‐adolescent communication and adolescent risk behavior. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68(5), 1229-1246.
4 Apostolou, M., & Vetsa, P. (2023). Friendship Preferences: Examining Desirable and Undesirable Traits in a Friend. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 9(1), 38-49.
5 Weihs, K. L., Simmens, S. J., Mizrahi, J., Enright, T. M., Hunt, M. E., & Siegel, R. S. (2005). Dependable social relationships predict overall survival in stages II and III breast carcinoma patients. Journal of psychosomatic research, 59(5), 299-306.
6 Cho, Y. J., & Lee, J. W. (2011). Perceived trustworthiness of supervisors, employee satisfaction and cooperation. Public Management Review, 13(7), 941-965.
7 Zhao, G., Chen, Y. R., & Brockner, J. (2015). What influences managers' procedural fairness towards their subordinates? The role of subordinates' trustworthiness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 96-112.
8 Chou, L. F., Wang, A. C., Wang, T. Y., Huang, M. P., & Cheng, B. S. (2008). Shared work values and team member effectiveness: The mediation of trustfulness and trustworthiness. Human relations, 61(12), 1713-1742.