The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility

chris photo team in front of board “I TAKE responsibility and I am HELD accountable.” In my work with The Responsibility Process® I think, write, and teach every day about the difference between Responsibility and Accountability. I’ve been studying individual and shared responsibility for 20 years and wrote the book “Teamwork Is An Individual Skill: Getting Your Work Done When Sharing Responsibility.” Enough of that.

A few things I’ve learned

1) As a society we are pretty loose about how we use the language of Responsibility and Accountability.

Yes, the words are interchangeable, so I don’t mean to argue how anyone else should use these two terms. However, we also link them together all the time.

For the last year or so I’ve used a Google bot to search the web daily for the words Responsibility and Accountability used within the same short phrase. And every day my Google reader is full of blog entries and articles quoting someone saying something like, “When is so-and-so going to take responsibility and accountability!”

2) While I acknowledge the words are used interchangeably, there are two important meanings at work, and it is those meanings I care about:

There is the process of making, keeping, and managing agreements and expectations in any relationship (business management or otherwise). And there is the feeling of ownership for one’s life, for situations (including one’s accountabilities), and for r-e-s-p-o-n-d-i-n-g when things go wrong.

I prefer to use the word Accountability to refer to making, keeping, and managing agreements and expectations. And I prefer to use the word Responsibility for the feeling of ownership. Here’s a fun way to see the difference:  

If you have a manager and aren’t clear about what you are held accountable for, you might want to take responsibility for finding out.

3) Whether or not you are held accountable isn’t up to you.

It’s up to others. Here’s a test:

Have you ever been held accountable for something you don’t think you should have? (I thought so. Me too.)

And I bet there have been times you haven’t been held accountable for something you were proud of and wanted to be held accountable for.

4) The primary purpose of a hierarchy is for systematically managing accountabilities.

See the 50-year research effort of management scientist Elliott Jaques on this topic. I and most companies I see could be much much better at managing accountability.

5) Responsibility trumps accountability.

It doesn’t matter what you are supposed to be accountable for — what matters is what you feel a sense of ownership for. If a person’s sense of responsibility is smaller than his or her accountabilities, the accountabilities will suffer. This is a trillion dollar problem in business, I’m convinced. Also in social and government sectors. My corporate services group Partnerwerks addresses this in our leadership development and organizational change work with clients.

6) Managing accountability is the systemic stuff of management.

Creating a culture of Responsibility is the stuff of leadership. and finally, and most exciting…

7) Responsibility is not just a character trait (or flaw), but instead a mental process that operates in everyone exactly the same way.

It regulates how we choose to avoid or take responsibility. This means that Responsibility can be systematically observed, taught, and learned. So anyone can learn to master responsibility. And anyone can develop responsibility in a team, a family, a church, a school, or a work culture. That’s very cool. That’s why I’ve devoted my life to a worldwide vision to promote this knowledge. What do you think?      

See this companion post The Difference Between Accountable and Responsible Leadership.  

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

Posted in Leadership, Responsibility on 09/15/2007 03:42 pm
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