What’s The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility?

Posted on August 2, 2023 by Nate Regier / 0 comments
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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 people often misunderstand the difference between accountability and responsibility. Each concept is unique, 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 is when people have to answer to someone else for an outcome, metric, or end goal. Usually, this includes the KPIs 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 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 control only our own behavior, not that of others. Obviously, we try to influence the behavior of others, but we can’t control it. We are not responsible for other people’s behaviors. 

I’ll 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 my organization around our customer service metrics. But I can’t control and am not responsible for the choice that a customer service agent makes at the moment with an upset client.  

The Consequences of Confusing Accountability and Responsibility 

When we confuse accountability and responsibility, we can easily 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.” But this phrase has the opposite meaning: “Don’t pass the buck on your responsibilities.” As a leader, you should take responsibility for your own behaviors and let 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 understand why a leader would be tempted to take over other people’s behaviors. We feel 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, a leader may try to take over responsibility for other people’s behaviors in an attempt to meet 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 about 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 over which leaders have control and are uniquely responsible for executing: 

  • Clarify and communicate vision, expectations, and goals
  • Give frequent and clear feedback about progress and performance
  • Teach, mentor, and build capability in others, but not
    doing it for them
  • Help people maintain focus on what they are responsible for,
    not what they can’t control
  • Help employees see the connection between their behaviors
    and the organization’s purpose
  • Offer affirmation, recognition, support, and other methods
    to enhance employee engagement and motivation
  • Execute consequences within your scope of authority, such as
    firing, promotion, discipline, or incentives

Do you want more specifics on how to hold people accountable? Check out this article I wrote for Brainz Magazine.

When leaders understand the difference between accountability and responsibility, and keep these boundaries clear, they can enjoy a greater sense of satisfaction and effectiveness. And their employees will thank them for being a leader who practices compassionate accountability.

Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2023

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