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‘Accountability’ and ‘responsibility’ are two terms that you may have heard in place of one another. Even though they describe two relatively different concepts, they’re often used interchangeably, as though they mean the same thing.
But that’s not quite right. They’re actually two different concepts that hold the key to effective delegation, teamwork and relationships - both in the workplace and outside of it.
Knowing the difference between the two could mean the difference between preventing mistakes and having to learn from them afterwards. It will improve the way you allocate time, energy and resources because you’ll know what outcome is under which person’s remit.
The discussion around the two essentially boils down to results. It’s about what happens when desired results are achieved and how you deal with them when they’re not.
To avoid confusion and handle tricky situations effectively, you should really seek to understand the difference between accountability and responsibility. To aid you in that quest, here’s everything you need to know about the two - which should help you become a better and fairer leader, boss, friend and project manager.
Even before we start exploring their definitions, you might already have a grasp of the connotations of each term.
Responsibility is something you might have been given as a child, when you had to look after your sibling while your parents went out to the shops. Or you might have been given the task of feeding the family pet and taking it for walks. Most people have been responsible for the welfare of either themselves or another being at some point in their early lives.
Accountability is a word that carries a lot more weight, and is one that we don’t really hear until we enter the world of work and business. It can have positive and negative connotations, but research suggests that being held accountable for things can have positive effects on enhancing the feeling of self-control in the workplace.
Here’s where the two differ.
If we look at a dictionary’s definition of responsibility, we’re served a good old-fashioned tautology. According to dictionary.com, the noun responsible describes:
‘The state or fact of being responsible, answerable, or accountable for something within one's power, control, or management.’
It’s a self-referential definition, but it is accurate. It does highlight, however, that the difference isn’t always clear.
Responsibility is a valuable trait that brings teams together. Responsibility is often shared and divided among team members; several people may be responsible for achieving a specific goal within a team. Some folks tend to share it by default, which we’ve identified in a trait called Sharing Responsibility.
Responsibility is task-focused and behavioral in nature. It’s not always easy to assign responsibility to someone; it’s up to each person to take responsibility for as long as the task or situation lasts.
Responsible leaders are generally honest, open-minded, inclusive, and empathetic. They inspire others to work hard by being respectful and assigning the right tasks to the right people.
Responsible employees are dependable and reliable. They use their ambition and innovative ideas to solve problems and achieve set goals.
Accountability is the state of being liable or answerable for something.
Accountability—a trait we also refer to as Sole Responsibility—is what we get if we combine responsibility with answerability. It’s a weighty term with weighty consequences as it describes a state of complete responsibility. It’s also not really something that’s shared and thus usually concerns only one individual at a time. If you’re accountable for something, you’re the only one responsible for that something. (Although in legal terms, a company or organization can of course be held accountable for its actions).
Accountability can be assigned to just one person and is results-focused in nature. Unfortunately, the term often has negative connotations, since it usually only comes into play when things go wrong.
It’s often used to point the finger at someone for a specific action that brought an undesirable result. For example, we might say: Mary, the company’s Head of Marketing, was held accountable for the failed campaign. Note how we usually hold someone accountable only after the successful/unsuccessful completion of a task.
But that’s not the whole story, of course. Sole responsibility can act as a motivational force in the workplace. It promotes defined roles and allows team members to work freely and independently by taking ownership. (Here are 13 more unique team motivation ideas to improve performance.)
In recent years, researchers have tried to understand how the accountability environment at work affects employee effort and performance. According to Jermaine Vesey, “accountability is a function of one’s environment”. Employees in strong accountability environments feel a greater sense of accountability themselves.
To reduce role ambiguity and speed up procedures, leaders can encourage team members to take on sole responsibility for certain things - also known as ‘taking ownership’.
Think of it like this: if you’re the only one responsible for a specific task/situation, you’re getting things done your way. Those who trust in themselves, their judgment, and their abilities will gladly take on more responsibility if it translates into faster and better results for the project overall.
Now that we’ve defined the two terms, it’s time to take a look at some specific examples of them in action.
As the facilities manager at his company, Jack’s responsibility is to make sure there are always enough supplies in the office. As long as he replaces items and supplies as they run out, he won’t have to answer to anyone. He’s only held accountable once something (e.g., paper) runs out and isn’t immediately restocked. This is a fairly simple case - one person, one task.
Mary is the head of client success at a marketing agency. It’s her responsibility to delegate tasks and ensure clients’ campaigns are as successful as possible. She retains that responsibility for as long as she maintains her position.
Now, let’s suppose that a recent campaign failed, and one of the company’s biggest clients walked away as a result (e.g., they didn’t achieve results in line with their expectations and budget). Mary’s not an accountant, but because the company is small, she has to calculate budgets and costs on her own; it turns out that due to a miscalculation, she over-promised on the campaign’s potential results. Thus, she’s held accountable for her mistake and has to answer to her boss.
Note that if Mary had the resources to delegate accounting calculations, the accountant would have been held accountable instead. But even in that scenario, as head of the marketing department, Mary still holds the ultimate accountability for messing up the campaign and losing an important client.
Accountability doesn’t always have to be a form of punishment. ‘Taking accountability’ sounds serious, but it’s what responsible team leaders do to get things done properly and fairly.
The real challenge is finding ways to lead by example. Can you inspire members at all levels to take ownership of their own strategic results within the scope of their roles?
A work culture inspired by positive accountability is a healthy culture that doesn’t let projects and deadlines slip through the cracks. If you’re a leader, you should focus on the results-oriented, self-disciplined nature of accountability.
Don’t let the term’s negative connotations hold you back. Think of accountability as a motivating force, and your team members will follow suit.
If there’s one thing we learned today, it’s that dictionaries don’t always capture the delicate nuances that define seemingly similar terms.
Responsibility is usually shared. It’s a task-oriented trait that keeps teams together under a common goal. Accountability, on the other hand, concerns only one person. It’s a result-oriented quality that gauges success with extreme precision through clearly defined roles.
So now that you have a better idea of the difference between accountability and responsibility, it’s time for a little self-reflection:
What are you responsible for? And what are you held accountable for?