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Responsibility vs Accountability: The Traits Of A Leader

This is a blog about workplace obligations. The underlying principles undoubtedly apply in other parts of our lives, but we’ll limit the examples to business to keep this topic manageable in just one post.

When it comes to workplace obligations, there are two words that I’d call close cousins. They aren’t quite synonyms and misunderstanding that can lead to conflict and confusion when assigning or assuming what your role on the team is.

The two words are Accountable and Responsible. They don’t mean exactly the same thing. Here’s the difference:

To be responsible means to be answerable for something within one’s power or control. Notice the two aspects of this definition – the ability to control plus being able to answer for something.

To be accountable means to be subject to giving an account or having the obligation to report, explain or justify something.  There is no aspect of power or control in this definition. But there is an expectation.

Let me illustrate the difference with an example.

I am a business owner. That means I have a certain degree of control over everything that happens in the business. I am the one who is ultimately responsible for every decision made and every action taken by every person who works here.  Because I have that power, I have to answer for what we do.

There are, however, others who work with me in marketing, art and communications, administrative and training roles. They are not responsible, ultimately, but they are accountable. Work is assigned to them, and they are then obligated to do the work and to be able to report back on it.

This results in two major differences in the work I do and the work they do. First, they walk away at the end of their work day and are able to leave it all behind. I can’t because I am answerable to every client and to each employee. The second difference is in the reporting. I don’t have anyone to report to, at least not formally. I can do what I choose on any given work day, but the others who work here are bound by the work they are accountable for producing.

Said another way, when you are responsible you have a degree of ownership and personal investment. The outcomes are what you must focus on because what you are called to answer for is within your control. When you are accountable, you are more task-focused.

You are accountable for work that is assigned to you. You are responsible for the work you fully own and control and choose to pour yourself into.

In team assignment models like RACI, only one person can be responsible for the final outcomes. Numerous people, however, can be accountable for tasks and pieces of the work being done.

When you are accountable, it’s important to respect that someone else has responsibility for what you are doing. That means they care about what you do, how it’s done and what the finished product will look like.

When you are responsible, it’s important to remember that others are not and should not be as invested as you are in the outcomes. That’s why it helps to give clarity of purpose for the work being done and why helping people understand “the big picture” generally improves the tasks being done.

Blurring the lines between accountability and responsibility can cause conflicts. If you expect someone to be fully responsible on something they don’t control, you may be disappointed. I know I have made this mistake and felt slighted when the person I delegated to didn’t seem to be fully engaged, heart and soul, fully in, dedicated and owning the project as I would have. In hindsight, I now know this was an unreasonable expectation. As the business owner, I will always have a higher sense of purpose and commitment because I truly do have ownership.

Conversely, if you are accountable but give yourself the same “out” that you have because you’re not responsible, you will disappoint others. While being accountable does not mean you have full ownership and the through-and-through commitment that comes with it, others will expect an appropriate level of commitment that includes:

  • Doing the work correctly, preferably the first time.
  • Learning from mistakes so you don’t repeat them.
  • Asking clarifying questions so you can deliver what’s expected of you.
  • Focusing on the task at hand, not wasting time on superfluous activities.
  • Respecting that your work is a part of something bigger and doing what’s been asked of you in a way that supports the broader objectives.

Not sure if this is clear in your workplace? Consider opening up a discussion with other members of your team to get clarity and common understanding of these terms and each person’s role.

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