Responsibility vs. Accountability

Choose Accountability.

When a result isn’t achieved, that’s when most of us start hearing words like “responsibility” and “accountability.” While responsibility is appreciated and often used correctly, accountability continues to be misperceived and gets a bad rap—we’re here to tell you why it shouldn’t.

Two Words, Two Meanings

The words responsibility and accountability rear their heads when people start talking about results—especially when the desired results are not achieved. That’s when remarks and phrases like, “Who’s responsible for missing the deadline?!” and “Which department is accountable for not delivering our goals?” begin to get thrown around. Are these words being used correctly? As the pioneers of Accountability Training®, we often get questions around the differences between these two words and how they tie to the achievement of results. In fact, many professionals we work with initially don’t think they have accountability issues but, rather, believe that they have responsibility issues instead. It’s not until we demonstrate the way we address accountability that they begin to see that accountability, not responsibility, plays a major role in overcoming almost every challenge they face. To do this, we first help them understand that the definition of accountability is broken and must be fixed to be truly grasped. defines each as:

Accountable: “subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.”

Responsible: “answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management.”

While the words responsibility and accountability are often used interchangeably, we believe there is an important and fundamental difference between the two—a night and day difference—and that currently adopted definitions for accountability are wrong. We appreciate the definitions and respect the notion of being responsible and the need for it, but we know from decades of experience that accountability is something truly empowering, not something consequential (“subject to; answerable”). When people use these two words synonymously, this misapplication can unintentionally create tendencies to blame, add unnecessary confusion, cause disengagement, and lead to poor performance.


Is More “Responsibility” Going to Lead to Success?

For instance, a responsible team or organization can be successful in many ways:

  • Define roles and job descriptions with focus.
  • Establish clear organizational hierarchies.
  • Have processes and systems in place.
  • Have feedback sessions in the form of reviews.
  • Even consistently hit their numbers.

But, even then, these organizations can still get:

  • Siloed thinking and acting with reluctant behaviors around getting involved in things outside their control.
  • “I thought you had it” mentalities where people ignore and deny one another’s ability to positively contribute.
  • Attitudes where people justify the ways they think and act to cover their tails.
  • Poor performance and development due to infrequent feedback exchanges.

These last points around justification and feedback are possibly the most damaging. Justifying the way you think and act in an effort to “cover your tail” pulls in the opposite direction of achieving results—often sapping time and resources to the detriment of others or the organization. And when it comes to feedback, many organizations rely solely on performance reviews to exchange feedback and it’s typically too late if and when the person receives the feedback. With other companies, feedback only occurs when things go wrong, and, in the worst cases, not at all. In fact, our Workplace Accountability Study revealed that 80% of survey respondents said that feedback is typically consequential or not even being exchanged. This huge miss prevents employees from truly developing and inhibits their ability to get the right result.

Organizations often try to solve these problems by redefining responsibilities—reorganizing what people do and restructuring the way work is done—only to find that changing where people sit in the organization won’t necessarily change how they think and perform. What they are lacking is personal accountability—involving a choice to move closer to the success that you or your organization wants. When you step up to greater personal accountability, employees stop blaming each other, salespeople stop blaming the marketplace, companies stop blaming their competitors, and we all stop blaming the economy—you get the picture. Finding convenient reasons to shift responsibility or blame is never effective and never brings better results.


Accountability: The Secret Sauce of Responsibility

 Clearly defining responsibility is certainly essential, but encouraging people to go a step further to get personally involved will secure better results every time. That’s where taking accountability comes into play. The notion of “taking accountability” naturally sounds more significant than “having responsibility”—you’re making the choice to go beyond what you’re responsible for, carrying with it an idea of ownership, involvement, and engagement. Earlier we looked at how a responsible team or organization might function. Now, let’s look at an accountable team or organization. In a workplace culture where this positive and empowering version of accountability is embraced, you’ll find that:

  • People at all levels take ownership for the strategic results of the organization.
  • Balls do not get dropped and projects do not slip through the cracks.
  • People think differently about the job that needs to get done.
  • People break-down barriers and collaborate to achieve the right results.

Why? Because accountability is a broader concept than responsibility—it’s something you do to yourself, not something that someone does to you. It’s with this version of accountability that people not only take accountability for the results they need to achieve individually but for results that they are not 100% in control of.  Organizations embracing positive accountability have a culture of people that hold themselves accountable for the ultimate results of the organization.


Getting Positive Accountability

It’s not hard to see that the prevailing notions of accountability need to be fixed—we need something more positively defined as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results.” When you shift mindsets and thought processes this way, you’ll begin to see and feel traction in yourself and in others. Over nearly three decades of working with some of the world’s top organizations and leaders, we’ve observed 16 Accountability Traits that are the essence of “taking accountability.” Accountable individuals, teams, and organizations are good at:

  1. Obtaining the perspective of others
  2. Communicating openly and candidly
  3. Asking for and offering feedback
  4. Hearing and saying the hard things to see reality
  5. Being personally invested
  6. Learning from both successes and failures
  7. Ensuring my work is aligned with Key Results
  8. Acting on the feedback I (we) receive
  9. Constantly asking “What else can I (we) do?”
  10. Collaborating across functional boundaries
  11. Creatively dealing with obstacles
  12. Taking the necessary risks
  13. Doing the things I (we) say I (we) will do
  14. Staying “Above The Line®” by not blaming others
  15. Tracking progress with proactive and transparent reporting
  16. Building an environment of trust

These traits have proven, over time, as being the mandatory actions that create the process of taking positive accountability. Adopt the right mindset and step up to these traits and you’ll quickly realize that accountability is not assigned, not put upon, not, at times, so exactly defined that it creates silos, finger pointing, and the blame game. It is chosen.

is a choice.


Making the Choice

Working on getting good at the 16 Accountability Traits is just that—work. Where do you begin?

  1. Look them over and be honest with yourself on the ones you need to improve.
  2. Think about what you can do better and where you can help others.
  3. Then, do them!

In time, taking accountability for demonstrating improvement in these 16 areas is going to enhance your life, both personally and professionally. When individuals, teams, and organizations choose greater accountability, you’ll see and get more. More ownership. More performance. More innovation. More heart. And better results. In summary, responsibility can be given or received, even assumed, but that doesn’t automatically guarantee that personal accountability will be taken.

Accountability is a choice. If that choice isn’t made, it’s possible to have responsibility for something or someone but still lack accountability. So, responsibly choose accountability. As you do, you’re sure to discover just what accountability can do for you and those around you.

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