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What is the Difference between Accountability and Responsibility?

While responsibility can be shared, accountability is personal and individual. Learn the difference between these two terms and tips to develop responsibility and accountability in your team.

Accountability VS Responsibility

Accountability and responsibility in the workplace have become somewhat synonymous terms, even though they carry very distinct qualities. The difference between accountability and responsibility is somewhat foggy, which makes it challenging to hold your team accountable and/or responsible in their various duties in their role. To ensure your group is being held accountable and that you are defining responsibility effectively, you need to be able to distinguish each term and understand which one is applicable to different situations. 

To clear up this confusion, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about accountability and responsibility in the workplace in this article.

What is Accountability?

Accountability is individually owned and is what takes place after a situation has already occurred. A recent article published by Springg HR explains that accountability is literally the ability and/or duty to report (or give account of) on events, tasks, and experiences. It has to do with answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of reporting back on particular outcomes. Essentially, it is the way in which an individual chooses to respond and takes ownership of the results of a task that has been assigned to them. 

What is Responsibility?

Responsibility can be shared among the whole team and tends to be ongoing for the duration of a project or task at hand. You can’t actually assign responsibility to your team because your employees need to choose to take responsibility themselves. Eagle’s Flight communicates in their recent blog post that: 

“Responsibility focuses on defined roles, job descriptions, and processes that must be in place to achieve a goal.”

This focus on defined roles can include clarifying roles within the group, what each role entails and what must be done in order to find success in the ongoing project.

The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility

Now that we have a solid understanding of how to define both accountability and responsibility in the workplace, let’s summarize the key differences:

What happens after a situation has occurredIs typically ongoing
Assigned to one individual onlyCan be shared
Responding and taking ownership of the resultsFocuses on the defined roles of each team member
Results-focusedTask or project-focused
Explanation is owedExplanation is not owned

Where accountability is what happens only after a situation has occurred, responsibility is usually ongoing. Being held accountable is personal and individual, meaning it cannot be shared and belongs to only one person. Conversely, responsibility can be shared and divided among team members, collectively working towards a goal. Accountability means taking ownership of the results that have been produced, where responsibility focuses on the defined roles of each team member and what value they can bring to the table because of their specific position. Where accountability is results-focused, responsibility is task or project-focused. Lastly, an explanation is expected (and maybe even owed) when being held accountable, but it is not expected for a responsibility.

Accountability at Work and the Benefits

Enforcing accountability in the workplace is going to result in less turnover and happier, more productive employees who view their jobs as positive and meaningful. Individually owning the outcome of a task is going to empower your employees and make their contribution to the project evident. 

On the other hand, holding your employees accountable is also going to promote better customer service. Owning things individually will avoid confusion amongst your team in not being completely clear on who is in charge of what, delaying service to your customers or clients.

A blog post by Ian Cornett from Eagle’s Flight reinforces this idea: 

“Leaders who are not accountable for their actions, and in turn their consequences, can significantly impact the customer experience. Lack of accountability diminishes the level and quality of customer service. It also impacts how customers are treated, which can lead to negative reviews, dissatisfied customers, and shaken customer relationships.”

Responsibility at Work and the Benefits

Taking responsibility in the workplace is essential to your team’s success. To achieve this success, employees need to want to take responsibility for new projects and see the value in it.

This is the foundation of responsibility, although it is in motivating and inspiring your team that you will notice your employees taking personal responsibility for their tasks. According to Jason Armstrong, in order to inspire your team to take responsibility, you must lead by example and hold yourself responsible for motivating and inspiring them:

“As a leader, make it your personal responsibility to connect with, motivate, and inspire your team… Holding yourself personally responsible to the highest of standards of leadership elevates your personal and professional results.”

Tips for Managers to Develop Accountability and Responsibility

1 Act on the feedback you get to improve company procedures and interactions

Lead by example, driving suggestions into action, based on the feedback you ask for and receive from your group. Demonstrate both responsibility and accountability for your actions and project outcomes. In doing so, you are going to encourage and influence your employees to do the same. If it is easily noticed that you are putting in the work based on their feedback, your team is likely going to apply the same effort in taking responsibility and holding themselves accountable. 

2 Make an effort to understand the perspectives of others

This effort means understanding the responsibilities of your group, to then determine the fairness of your expectations and ways to keep them accountable for their work.

💡 Pro tip: Use your weekly team meetings as a space to understand and assign each person’s responsibilities, and make sure to ask for your teammates’ feedback and perspectives on what the team is working on.

3 Make expectations clear through effective communication

As a leader, you know that situations continuously change and evolve. Ensure you are engaging in ongoing communication with your team to give them the latest updates and to understand how these changing parts may impact their ability to deliver results. 

Although the difference between accountability and responsibility is often blurred, they hold very key distinctions. It is in understanding these differences that you will be able to ensure that the right people are assigned to particular tasks and which people will be held accountable for the results generated. It will also make evident the number of people that you need to complete a job and how your group can work together to fulfill their responsibilities, while still holding each other accountable for individual ownership.

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Kate Dagher

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