Richard Carlson said, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” I disagree.

When it comes to building your reputation as a reliable person, it’s the small stuff that makes all the difference. You can be the most brilliant person or the most innovative thinker, but if you can’t keep a promise or don’t pay attention to detail, no one will trust you on the big stuff.

At the most basic level, do you have people in your life who are always late? Not a minute or two, but generally somewhere between five and 15 minutes late to every appointment? That’s just long enough to be annoying but not so long that you would cancel the appointment. What does their lateness do to your feelings about them? Does it cause annoyance? Resentment? Lack of trust?

The people I know who are perennially late always arrive with big apologies. They’re sorry—but not really because they continue to do it again and again and again.

Sure, being late is not the “crime of the century.” But I find it emblematic of something bigger or deeper. What’s really going on with these people? Why are they late, and why don’t they fix their behavior given the impact that it is having on their relationships with others as well as their reputations?

Imagine if your hairdresser had a terrible haircut or color. You are hiring this person to make you look great, and yet she can’t get it right for herself? 

Or consider a tailor who wears ill-fitting clothing…or a doctor with a torn lab coat…or a chef whose home kitchen is always in a state of chaos?

Early in my career, I was an assistant account executive in advertising. One of my tasks was to report on how our account was doing versus the monthly ad spending budget. Were we hitting our target? Overspending? Underspending? I put together the numbers, and my boss would forward them to the client. Precision mattered…and errors, while not fatal, were noted. You didn’t want to be known as the assistant whose numbers couldn’t be trusted, especially when much of your job was to manage numbers and dates.

When I participated in the Landmark Forum nearly 20 years ago, the instructors were unyielding about being sure that everyone was in their chairs on time. If one person from the group was missing, the group was not complete and the class could not start. Mind you, this wasn’t a small group seminar—there were approximately 200 people in the room.

The leaders weren’t trying to be abusive by making us wait for everyone to arrive—even if it meant waiting for well over an hour. Instead, they insisted that it was the responsibility of everyone in the group to be sure that the class was complete, even if it meant offering your living-room couch to someone you had just met the day before so that the commute to New York City would not cause him to be late…or creating a phone tree to ensure that no one overslept. The leaders were making the point that keeping your word as an individual (you promised to be at class by the start time with homework in hand) and as part of a team is vital. It was about respect for the group, but even more so about respect for yourself…and the destruction of your own self-respect when you break a promise, no matter how small or anonymous.

Similarly, when I worked with an executive coach, her first step was always to have people address their weight or dietary concerns. Why? Because most people have these concerns, and they are a perfect “laboratory” to help you realize the excuses you make in your life and the power you have to be accountable to the promises you make to yourself…and to others.

How many times have you told yourself that you can’t resist pizza or ice cream? Or that you simply can’t function without a third cup of coffee even though you know it makes you feel all jittery. So you eat the pizza and drink the coffee…and then feel regret for breaking down again. I know I have done it. We all have. It’s part of being human. But by the time I was done with this first segment of coaching, you bet I would keep my word…because it felt horrible to break it.

Five minutes late or a piece of pizza—neither one seems like a big deal. But as I have experienced with several former young staff members, all of whom had reliability problems (seems to be a pattern among younger people—but that’s a different topic for a different day), as brilliant as they were at the big stuff, their breakdowns on the small details tainted my perception of each of them. And worse for each of them, as it is for all humans, not delivering on the most basic of promises feeds into their own silent self-destructive voices telling themselves what “losers” they are (as I discussed in my blog a few weeks ago).

The goal is to be proud of our efforts and accomplishments, but we can’t be truly proud when we know in our hearts that we cut corners or skipped the small stuff. This is true in your personal life as well as in business.

It doesn’t take a lot to…

  • Be on time
  • Proactively communicate if you will be late…or a project has run into a problem…or you have a concern about something
  • Put all the food back in the fridge after you prepared your snack
  • Follow up on details, double-checking that whoever needs information has it
  • Make sure your numbers are right
  • Make sure that you have someone’s name right when you send them an e-mail solicitation

The list goes on and on.  None of it is rocket science. It’s the most basic of stuff. But sweating those small things frees you and your guilty conscience for success at the things that really matter. 

Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast,  where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.