Accountability and responsibility are often used interchangeably in daily conversations. In organizations and businesses, the confusion between these two words can have significant consequences – things might not get done, issues might explode and at an extreme justice might not be served. This blog explains Accountability & Responsibility, how leaders can benefit from both.
Responsibility in Leadership
Let’s start with RESPONSIBILITY. People are responsible for tasks, processes and executing a role. Hence why most job descriptions list responsibilities related to the job. People are responsible before doing the work as well as when they are doing it and responsible for what they did once it’s done.
Ideally employees assume their responsibilities rather than being assigned their responsibilities. People TAKE responsibility for something – our tasks, a response, an action.
Responsibilities can be shared between people. An obvious example is staff in a retail shop. Every retail employee has the task of serving customers while some are responsible for taking payment and some for stocking merchandise. Every task needs at least one person who is responsible for it. And an individual usually has many tasks for which they are responsible.
Accountability in Leadership
ACCOUNTABILITY is when an individual has to answer to another or to someone in authority. You are accountable for something when you have an obligation to update, justify or explain a given result or task to an individual or body beyond yourself.
People are HELD accountable for an outcome or result. Accountability becomes particularly important after something has been done, a situation has occurred. The accountable person is the one who people will look to for an explanation or status of the situation. The accountable person has a duty to give an account to others.
Unlike responsibility, accountability can’t be shared. The buck stops with the ONE person who is accountable.
Examples of Accountability and Responsibility in Leadership
A simple example is illustrated by my friend and her 8-year-old son. He is accountable for vacuuming/hoovering the hallway daily for his pocket money/allowance (they have a shedding dog). He is accountable to his mother for getting it done and has to explain to her why it isn’t done or not done to a satisfactory standard. If my friend did the vacuuming herself, she would be responsible for it as she has no one to answer to about whether or how it’s done.
My friend above is a financial analyst. She is responsible for providing updated costs on a quarterly basis to her boss for one aspect of a particular project. Her colleague is responsible for providing revenue figures to the same boss for the project. The boss is accountable to the Chief Financial Officer for the overall project financial reporting. The boss monitors the results, raises the alarm if the numbers are off-track and deals with the consequences if the reporting is late or inaccurate.
How to Distinguish Between Responsibility and Accountability in Leadership
The key to distinguishing between accountability and responsibility comes down to communication. Here are some ideas on how to:
- Use the words responsible and accountable when discussing tasks and setting expectations. Be clear if someone will have to answer questions and deal with the (negative) consequences of the work to others in authority.
- Define who is responsible and accountable for the different tasks and projects within your team. There is a project management acronym, RACI, which stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. It says each project and process should be broken into tasks with the letters R, A, C, I assigned to the different elements. Each task can only have 1 person accountable for it. As an aside, consulted means who needs to be consulted while working on the task and informed means who needs to be informed about any resulting decisions.
- Ensure those who are responsible take the responsibility rather than you assigning it. This means discussing responsibilities with an employee in a way that empowers and engages them to take on the tasks. Some tips to do this: give the context of how this work fits into the bigger picture/company mission; explain why they are the right person for the job; describe what success looks like; ask them what the work means to them, what more they need to know to take it on, what their plan is to approach it, what obstacles they foresee.
- Be prepared to be vulnerable when you’re accountable for a project. By being accountable you are taking ownership for the results, which if something goes wrong, means you have the duty to explain those results and face the consequences. It might mean admitting a mistake, overturning a decision and making amends to improve the situation. This is often where politicians fail – in their accountability – being vulnerable and admitting mistakes.
We are all responsible for what we do and how we do it. When working we take responsibility for our work and the quality standard we deliver. When we’re in a leadership position it usual goes the step further to accountability for the deliverables of your team. The key for those who are accountable is to stand up and share information and answer questions especially when things go wrong.
What leadership improvements would you and your team benefit from with regards to clarity between accountability and responsibility?
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