The Difference Between Leadership Accountability and Responsibility

Posted on October 26, 2022 by Nate Regier / 1 comments
Share via

Accountability and Responsibility are big, heavy words. Especially in leadership. I hear these words thrown around frequently in our work with leaders who are building more compassionate cultures. We’ve discovered that there’s a misunderstanding about the difference between accountability and responsibility. They mean different things, and when leaders confuse the two, it can lead to frustration, trust problems, difficulty with execution, and potential burnout.

A leader is accountable TO their organization, FOR their own behaviors, THAT help others deliver the results. 

Leaders Are Accountable TO Others

Accountability means, literally, “I have to answer to someone else about an outcome, metric, or end state.” Usually this incudes the key performance indicators of the arena they lead. If they are the CFO, they account for the financial performance of the organization. If they lead quality control, they are accountable for the quality metrics of the organization. If they are the manager of customer service, they must answer to the rest of the organization for the customer satisfaction ratings.

Leaders Are Responsible FOR Their Behaviors (no more, no less)

The only thing a leader is responsible for is their own behavior. That’s because we can only control our own behavior, not that of others. Obviously, we try to influence behavior of others, but we can’t control it. We are not responsible for other people’s behaviors.

Let me explain. Although leaders are accountable TO others, they usually aren’t the ones actually creating those outcomes.

As a CFO, I am accountable to my executive team regarding the financial performance of the organization, but I am not the one making daily spending decisions, giving raises, or generating leads for new business. All these behaviors contribute to the outcomes for which I am accountable, but they aren’t my behaviors.

As the Chief Experience Officer, I am accountable to organization around our quality metrics. But I can’t control, and I am not responsible for the choice that a customer service agent makes in the moment with an upset client.

The Consequences of Confusing Accountability and Responsibility

When we confuse the two, it’s easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed. Have you ever heard a leader say, “The buck stops with me?” What does this mean? Many leaders take it to mean, “Ultimately, I am responsible for things getting done.” This is just the opposite of what the phrase really means. The true meaning of this phrase is, “Don’t pass the buck on your responsibilities.” As a leader, this means taking responsibility for your behaviors, and letting others do the same. If you try to take over or control one of your employee’s behaviors, you have crossed the line and enabled them to pass the buck to you. That’s because they are accountable TO you, FOR their behavior.

I totally understand why a leader would be tempted to take over other people’s behaviors. There’s a lot of pressure to perform. Our constituents, peers, and bosses are asking for results. They want to see the numbers trending in the right direction. Under pressure it’s easy for a leader to try and take over responsibility for other people’s behaviors in an attempt to meet the expectations. But this isn’t leadership. Sometimes when leaders get upset that people aren’t doing their job, or try to micromanage their people, I want to grab them by the shoulders and tell them, “Do your job. Be a leader.”

What It Means to Hold People Accountable

Holding someone accountable means upholding a contract between people that goes something like this:

As the leader, I am accountable to my organization for the outcome of your performance. We have agreed on the following behaviors that contribute to our target outcomes. You are accountable to me and your team for these behaviors. My job is not to do your job, but to help you execute those behaviors consistently and effectively.

Being accountable to others around outcomes that someone else is delivering requires a unique understanding of roles, boundaries, and responsibilities.

The whole notion of holding someone accountable implies that the other person is responsible for the behavior, but I care enough or am connected enough to the outcome to make sure it gets done.

How Leaders Hold People Accountable

A leader is not responsible for the behavior of their employees. But they are ultimately accountable to their organization for the results. Here is a list of leadership-specific behaviors, things over which leaders have control, and which they are uniquely responsible for executing.

  • Clarifying and communicating vision, expectations, and goals.
  • Frequent and clear feedback about progress and performance.
  • Teaching, mentoring, and building capability in others, but not doing it for them.
  • Helping people maintain focus on what they are responsible for, not what they can’t control.
  • Helping employees see the connection between their behaviors and the organization’s purpose.
  • Offering affirmation, recognition, support, and other methods to enhance employee engagement and motivation.
  • Executing consequences within their scope of authority, e.g. firing, promotion, discipline, incentives.

When Leaders Hold Themselves Accountable

Holding yourself accountable means looking in the mirror and asking yourself, “Who am I accountable to? And what am I responsible for?”

Here are some examples of leader behaviors that cross the line:

  • Inconsistent conversations about performance.
  • Lack of clarity around goals and progress.
  • Avoiding tough conversations around behavior.
  • Regularly jumping in to clean up messes, put out fires, or finish projects
  • Using threats, passive-aggressive comments, or coercion to influence behavior.
  • Delaying or failing to execute proper consequences.
  • Neglecting personal boundaries.

You’ve probably seen the consequences when leaders confuse accountability and responsibility. The results are lowered morale, confusion of roles, poor execution, and ultimately a leader who is tired, stressed out, unsatisfied, and ineffective.

Improving CSR Metrics with Compassionate Accountability¬ģ

When leaders keep these roles clear, they can enjoy more satisfaction, energy, and positive impact. One of the largest national auto rental companies approached us to help them build a more compassionate culture among their call center managers and customer service representatives. Using our compassionate accountability diagnostic we discovered that many of their managers were confusing accountability and responsibility by engaging in behaviors from the list above. We helped them recognize the difference and provided training on how to apply Compassionate Accountability in their daily interactions with their CSRs. The results were dramatic; more positive interactions and more consistently meeting performance targets. Best of all, the managers felt more confident in their role as leaders.

A leader is accountable TO their organization, FOR their own behaviors, THAT help others deliver the results.

Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2022

Start Building Your Culture of Compassionate Accountability Today

Book Your Next Keynote Speaker

Dr. Nate Regier

Author and Co-founder of Next Element, Dr. Nate Regier is available to speak at your upcoming event.

Submit a Speaker Request

Podcast: Listen to Nate "On Compassion"

On Compassion with Dr. Nate Listen to the Podcast

Join Our Community

Want To Republish Our Posts?


Photo of Michael Gilbert
Michael Gilbert
Posted on November 2, 2022

For your consideration:

Power is the ability to act.
Authority is the right to act.
Responsibility is the obligation to act.

Leave comment for this reply

Add comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.

Add comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.