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Accountability vs. responsibility for leaders: back to the basics

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.



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