The Crucial Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility in Your Culture

Often we are asked about the different between responsibility and accountability when working with workplace cultures. And there’s a simple way to answer: a responsible employee completes what they are asked to do. They can be leaned on. They speak up when they are involved.

Look up “accountable” in any dictionary and you will meet “responsibility” as its synonym. But “accountability” has taken on more nuance since we first started talking about it in terms of workplace culture over thirty years ago. To be accountable is to own not just your job but your organization’s results as well as its purpose. It is true psychological investment.

“Accountability” calls to mind being on the line, at the forefront of an issue in the workplace. (And when we talk about it with leaders in the Culture Equation Journey, it often comes with that kind of shiver.) We think of the negative aspects of accountability: being held culpable for a mistake. More than just being responsible, accountability is approaching your work with your full potential and ownership. It is operating from a place of psychological safety where you and your people can approach challenge creatively and ask: What can I do to achieve the desired results?

It’s that kind of taking ownership, when a person in an organization voluntarily takes it on, that changes culture. In a Culture of Accountability® people demonstrate high levels of ownership to think and act in the manner necessary to achieve organizational results. They feel attached to the purpose and results of the organization. Rather than having accountability mandated in an Employee Handbook, something happens internally. When people are personally committed to achieving key results, and they never wait to be asked for a progress report or a follow-up plan, you know you have more than a responsible culture. You have an accountable one.


It may sound pie-in-the-sky. But we’ve seen the Culture of Accountability® come to life, time and time again. And when leaders are truly accountable—putting themselves on the line with their employees with humility and transparency—it works even more effectively.

Consider one of our clients, a national clothing chain. Each year they conducted a women’s suit contest, a sales event lasting four weeks that included a companywide competition. Susan, a district manager of ten of the chain’s stores in Nevada, had always come in dead last in the contest because neither she nor her people believed they could sell suits in Nevada, especially in a spiraling economy. When a new regional manager told her that district managers fell into two groups—“owners” and “renters”—and that she was a “renter,” something clicked in Susan. She got angry. And that anger clarified something.

Instead of blaming or lashing out, Susan stepped back. She took in the regional manager’s comment. Yes, it stung. Yes, it made her want to scream. But it also opened Susan’s eyes to her own comfortable, responsible way of going about her job. She tapped into her own inability and unwillingness to get her store managers in her region to take accountability for achieving the desired results. With a new fire and commitment toward greater personal accountability, Susan persuaded her store managers that their collective excuses were preventing them from achieving better results. She shared her own failure with them. Together, they committed themselves to embracing the steps to accountability on the road to Culture Strength.

Once Susan and her managers had tapped into accountability and the belief that they could meet results, they started to innovate. They worked together to target the annual women’s suit contest as a sales event they could own. Susan visited each store to provide coaching and assis­tance as store managers hosted VIP parties to get their people and preferred customers excited about the contest. They installed “Think Boxes” in every store, giving people a way to share their ideas about what else could be done to increase sales.

Four weeks later, when the suit contest ended, Susan’s district finished in first place. Her regional manager congratulated her on making the move from an entrenched “renter” to a solid “owner” of the business. She was invited to speak at a company-wide conference about the transformation she had engineered in her district, where she said to her organization:

“A lot of you know me. I’ve been with the company for twelve years and I have never been the number one district in anything before. What changed for me this year was I applied what I learned about how to help people take accountability, and it totally changed my life.”

During the next three years, Susan’s district rose from the bottom 20% of the company’s 90 districts to the top 20%.

Learn how to unleash the power of your culture. Start with accountability.

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