Responsibility and Accountability: They’re the Same, Just Different

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If you look up the definitions of responsibility and accountability you’ll find they are used interchangeably. But there is a subtle yet important difference between the two words.

A good way to separate them is to consider responsibility as ownership of a task, and accountability as ownership of the results.

Consider this example. Jack leads a team on which Jill is a member. Jack assigns Jill a task. It’s a large task and Jill forms her own team to help her. Jack has delegated responsibility for the task to Jill.

Although Jack has delegated responsibility for the task, he still retains ultimate responsibility. That ultimate responsibility is accountability. If Jill fails in her responsibility, Jack is still accountable.

That is a very simple example so consider a larger team or a team of teams. Jack cannot do everything the teams do. He must rely on his team leaders and their teams to accomplish his organization’s mission. So, he delegates responsibility to his team leaders. Now let’s suppose that a junior member of one of those teams makes a mistake. Perhaps it was an unintentional hazardous chemical spill. Or perhaps it was intentional fraud.

Jack’s organization is large and he does not know the individual who made the mistake, but has been very clear about his expectations and the organization’s values. He doesn’t mince words about the importance of excellence in everything they do. In spite of Jack’s communication with and direction to the entire organization, the bad event still happened. In this case there are several layers of responsibility. Of course the employee is responsible for his or her own actions. The team leader is also responsible for what the employee did. But Jack, as the senior leader who has delegated responsibility, is accountable.

That means he cannot wash his hands of the incident and claim, “I didn’t know it was happening.” Nor can he say something like, “I’m not responsible for everything that every employee does on the job.”

In fact he is. Jack is accountable.

It’s easy for leaders to take accountability when their teams succeed. There is an old saying that victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan[1]. Leaders must understand they are accountable for everything their teams do: success and failure.

Not only is this often true in the eyes of the law, it’s probably the case with your company’s board and shareholders. But it isn’t all negative. In fact, embracing your own accountability is an important step to solving problems and overcoming failures. Rather than approaching an issue by first assigning blame, accept accountability, then strive to find solutions.

But wait you say. Isn’t that low level person accountable as well? And isn’t the supervisor accountable. Absolutely. As you work through the process of analyzing what went wrong and how to correct the situation you will determine who else is accountable. Your accountability isn’t a free ride for everyone else. Your team members have individual accountability for their actions and you must hold them to that; however, that is not a way to excuse or ignore your own accountability.

That’s where accepting accountability has another benefit. When your teams see that you embrace your accountability, they are more likely to follow your example.

Leaders can and should delegate responsibility. Leaders must always accept and embrace their own accountability.

 

For an excellent and detailed study of leadership accountability, read Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

[1] Usually credited to Italian Diplomat, Count Galezzo Ciano.

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