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Responsibility vs. Accountability

by The Authors on April 7th, 2010

While the words responsibility and accountability are often used interchangeably, we believe there is an important, fundamental difference between the two. Responsibility may be bestowed, but accountability must be taken. In other words, responsibility can be given or received, even assumed, but that doesn’t automatically guarantee that personal accountability will be taken. Which means that it’s possible to bear responsibility for something or someone but still lack accountability.

The difference between responsibility and accountability is most readily observed when people “drop the ball” on an important project, seemingly because individual duties were not more clearly defined. “Whose ball was that?” “I thought you had it?” “It wasn’t my job!”— are frequently offered as explanations that someone did not shirk their responsibility and fail to do their job.  Clearly defining responsibilities is certainly essential, but encouraging people to go a step further and take personal accountability will secure better results every time.

When people take accountability for results, not just doing their jobs, they take ownership for making sure the ball does not get dropped.  Organizations often try to solve this problem 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. Accountability is a broader concept than responsibility, making it possible to keep things from “falling through the cracks” that always exist between the responsibility boxes on an organizational chart. When people take accountability, they are more likely to invest their hearts and minds in getting things done, allowing them to achieve results that often exceed expectations.

In our first book, The Oz Principle, we write that taking personal accountability means making “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results; to See It, Own It, Solve It, and Do It.” Accountability is something you do to yourself, not something that someone does to you. In short, you can be given responsibility, but you have to take accountability. One may be bestowed and assumed, but the other must be personally acquired and then actively applied.

To learn more about the essence of taking personal accountability, holding others accountable in a positive, principled way, and creating a culture of accountability, visit www.ozprinciple.com.

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One Comment
  1. Henry Wythe permalink

    I often hear people use ‘accountability’ as you have as in ‘demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results’.

    Although I heartily agree with the principles you state in this posting, I humbly submit that you are describing ‘responsibility’. ‘Accountability’ stems from ‘to give an account’ and is used to describe the requirement that a person explain or justify actions. ‘Responsibility’ means the satisfactory completion of an assignment.

    These two words have become commingled and subject to personal interpretation. I think this is unfortunate. If I hold one of my staff accountable for an assignment, I expect him to be able to describe everything that happened and why he performed in the way he did.

    On the other hand, if I hold a staff member responsible for an assignment, I expect the duties to be performed correctly. If I am dissatisfied with the result, I will probably ask her why she did what she did, which is holding her accountable. In another circumstance I may hold her responsible for the result, which usually means she is expected to satisfy the customer’s needs.

    Kind regards,
    Henry Wythe

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