Many people confuse the relationship between responsibility and accountability as they relate to leadership. In many cases the two terms are used interchangeably to the detriment of a project’s outcome. To help clarify these terms, and improve your understanding of the leadership process, I will attempt to explain the difference between responsibility and accountability below.
When it comes to leadership, responsibility is the before-the-fact mindset of taking ownership for the results of a project or job. To be responsible, you must first acknowledge that action must be taken on a particular issue.
As a responsible leader, you must also acknowledge the task may require additional people to be completed effectively. To take ownership of a project, managers, supervisors, and individuals must first assume responsibility.
When a manager, supervisor, or individual accepts responsibility for a situation, she also accepts accountability for the result or outcome, good or bad.
In my professional career I have heard many people (including myself) complain about being responsible for a job but lacking the authority to take appropriate action. I have been responsible for many projects that would have been made much easier (and safer) if I had the authority to order better equipment or hire expert technicians, but I didn’t.
When you encounter a situation over which you have responsibility but do not have authority, you must contact whoever does have the authority and work out a way to complete the task and achieve the results. It’s all about involving the right people in the job!
Accountability is the after-the-fact ownership of the results of your project. It is the commitment to honestly explain why things were done a particular way.
Example: If you ever find yourself in court answering questions about why an employee was injured under your leadership, you are being held accountable.
When results are poor, everyone (particularly managers and supervisors) should avoid blame and act immediately to correct the problem and learn from the experience to prevent it from happening again.
Accountability includes accepting the consequences of decisions made to meet a specific agreement between you and your direct supervisor.
In a team or group situation, people must clearly understand their own responsibilities and be individually and jointly accountable. Each individual brings a unique set of skills to a group and it is the responsibility of the leader(s) within this group to ensure these skills are effectively utilized. Additionally, the leader(s) within the group need to be held accountable if the results of the group do not meet the expectations of management.