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Accountability vs. responsibility for leaders: back to the basics

March 11, 2021 - 12 min read

accountability vs. responsibility

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What is responsibility?

What is accountability?

Accountability vs. responsibility

What are accountability and responsibility in the workplace?

How to build a culture of accountability

Tips for managers to develop accountability and responsibility

Final thoughts on accountability vs. responsibility

Accountability vs. responsibility: what are they, how are they different, and what are some examples? This article will explore these characteristics and provide tips to develop them.

Consider a time when everyone at your company was working toward a big goal that required cross-functional collaboration. Perhaps you were rolling out a new product, undergoing a rebrand, or expanding into a new geographic area or market segment. Each team member has their own responsibilities and deadlines in order to meet the company goal. 

For instance, the marketing team may be working on a new website. That could mean one person is responsible for website copywriting, another for design, and yet another for technical implementation. The team may hit a snag when another department fails to furnish the required information for the new website. Now, the entire project is at risk of falling off track.

Who’s ultimately accountable? Leaders. 

Leaders must take a proactive approach to ensure that cross-functional collaboration is effective, tasks are completed adequately, and deadlines are met. They must support their teams in whatever ways they need to meet their responsibilities. This could mean opening better lines of communication with other teams, hiring additional support staff, or reprioritizing tasks.

The difference between accountability and responsibility is ever so slight, which is perhaps the reason these terms are often used interchangeably. 

What is responsibility?

Responsibility is the ability to respond to situations and events in our lives, as well as to perform or complete assigned tasks.

Paradoxically, responsibility is often associated with blame, fault, or guilt which could be one of the reasons people are quite resistant to taking responsibility. In reality, it is a personal, mature, and conscious choice.

What is accountability?

Accountability is the recognition and acknowledgment of our responsibilities, and being answerable for the outcomes of our actions, decisions, and mistakes. 

Accountability includes:

  • Acceptance: consenting to receive or undertake something offered.
  • Obligation: accepting the binding power of promise.
  • Ownership: taking responsibility for an idea or problem.
  • Answerability: explaining actions or decisions.
  • Choice: making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.
  • Commitment: being emotionally compelled to an agreement or responsibilities.  

Accountability vs. responsibility

In a nutshell, the difference between these two concepts is: you are responsible for things and you’re accountable to people, but both are a conscious choice that comes from within.

Although these terms are often used as synonyms, several characteristics separate them. 

  • Responsibility refers to the obligation to perform the task or comply with the rule; accountability implies answerability for the outcome of the task or process.
  • Responsibility is imposed whereas accountability is accepted.
  • Responsibility can be partially delegated, but it is impossible to delegate accountability.
  • Responsibility may or may not be measured as part of an employee's performance, unlike accountability which is—and should be—measured. 
  • Responsibility defines our duties to ourselves and others. Accountability demands us to be answerable upon fulfillment or non-fulfillment of our responsibility. 
  • Responsibility is binary and linear, whereas accountability is non-binary and nonlinear.

What are accountability and responsibility in the workplace?

Responsibility vs. accountability comes down to effort vs. results. That is, a team member may be responsible for completing a task or project, and accountable for ensuring it’s done correctly. This can apply to leaders and individual contributors alike.

Let’s look at a few examples of accountability in the workplace:

  1. A sales team leader commits to increasing quarterly revenue by 10 percent after growing their team. After realizing they don’t have enough deals in the pipeline to accomplish that goal, they set to work on a plan. They mentor under-performing team members, sync with the marketing department on upcoming campaigns, and jump in to knock out cold calls with the sales development team. This commitment to accountability inspires the rest of their team to go above and beyond to meet team goals.
  2. An engineer estimates that it will take 25 hours to complete coding on a new product function. As the project nears 15 hours, they realize they underestimated the project scope. Rather than rushing, and submitting a sub-par project, they let their manager know the project will require an extra day of work than originally anticipated. The manager can then reallocate resources and reprioritize tasks among the team to ensure goals are met.
  3. A healthcare provider bills a customer for services that should have been covered entirely by insurance. When the customer calls the healthcare provider to dispute the bill, the customer service representative tells them they need to contact their insurance company instead. However, the insurance company has no record of receiving a claim from the healthcare provider. Rather than passing the buck back to the healthcare provider, the insurance representative offers to call the healthcare provider to sort things out. Then the insurance representative calls the customer back to explain how the issue has been resolved.

These accountability examples represent proactive accountability. This is far better than reactive accountability, in which team members and leaders hold themselves accountable for failures without taking adequate steps to prevent them. 

For instance, a leader may hold themselves accountable and accept blame when a deadline is missed, a customer is lost, or another mistake is discovered. This type of leadership accountability isn’t quite as useful.

How to build a culture of accountability

A culture of accountability encourages all leaders and individual contributors to assume control over their own outcomes. When accountability is a way of life for all employees, companies can benefit from:

  • Making better, faster decisions
  • Tapping into the skills and opinions of all members
  • Avoiding wasting time and energy on conflict
  • Having more engaged employees
  • Increasing productivity
  • Providing better customer service
  • Having less micromanaging and more autonomy in teams
  • Developing trust
  • Decreasing silo culture
  • Achieving better results

Build a culture of accountability by applying the three Cs: 

  1. Clarity. Provide clear, specific expectations and goals to your team members. For example, saying, "This project is due for our meeting on Thursday at 9:00 am” is clear and specific. Saying, “Finish this project sometime next week,” isn’t.
  2. Commitment. Encourage team members to commit to specific outcomes. "I’ll try" isn’t a commitment; “I promise or I commit” is. If a team member has valid objections or doubts about the desired outcome, negotiate the expectation or discuss other ways to achieve the desired results.
  3. Consequences. Outline consequences for not achieving the desired, agreed-upon outcome. Or let your team members come up with their own possible consequences for not attaining their goals.

Tips for managers to develop accountability and responsibility

While accountability ultimately lies with company leaders, each team member can still be individually accountable for their own role in reaching team goals. 

Here are some tips to encourage accountability and responsibility:

  • Accountability starts with you. Be an example of behaviors that you want to see in your company. You're accountable for your team´s failures and successes. If you don't walk the talk, why should your people be interested in doing so? 
  • Build trust. Without trust, you will see the culture of blame, and victims hiding information that employees think could be used against them. To create trust, listen to and understand people's concerns, ideas, and problems. 
  • Promote cultural alignment. Act and speak consistently about “how things are done around here.” It involves living the values, supportive supervision, clear expectations, and teamwork protocols, behaviors, and ethics.
  • Measure objectively. Provide clear metrics by which all team members know they will be measured. Goals and objectives must be based on results and facts and not on opinions, politics, or power struggles. 
  • Provide timely feedback on performance. Provide a safe space to share information on how to improve performance as well as to discuss difficult issues without blaming anyone. The goal should always be to solve problems and to find solutions.
  • Engage employees. Take steps to increase employees' motivation. Use brainstorming sessions, world café discussions, meet the CEO question-and-answer sessions, employee committees, and town hall meetings.
  • Provide support. Set up review sessions to ask how people are doing. It gives you an opportunity to provide support when and if needed, or give praise and encouragement when things are going well.
  • Don’t hold people accountable. With continuous support, people need to make themselves accountable and accept the consequences of their actions. Don’t punish people for making mistakes, but make it clear the mistakes have consequences.

Final thoughts on accountability vs. responsibility

Going back to the basics of accountability and responsibility in our daily life and work is vital. It’s vital for being aware of ourselves, and our thoughts, emotions, and feelings. It’s vital for how and why we take actions and make decisions. It’s vital for changing ourselves and our environment. And it’s vital for our reputation and how we are seen by others.  

Leadership cannot be successful without accountability. Each team member and leader has a job to do to ensure company goals are achieved—but leaders must own the overall result. A leader’s ability to understand and assume accountability is critical for business success.

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Published March 11, 2021

Irina Sergeeva

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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