The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility

“I TAKE responsibility and I am HELD accountable.”

In my work with The Responsibility Process™ I think, write, and teach every day about the difference between Responsibility and Accountability. I’ve been studying individual and shared responsibility for 20 years and wrote the book “Teamwork Is An Individual Skill: Getting Your Work Done When Sharing Responsibility.”

Enough of that.

A few things I’ve learned

1) As a society we are pretty loose about how we use the language of Responsibility and Accountability. Yes, the words are interchangeable, so I don’t mean to argue how anyone else should use these two terms. However, we also link them together all the time. For the last year or so I’ve used a Google bot to search the web daily for the words Responsibility and Accountability used within the same short phrase. And every day my Google reader is full of blog entries and articles quoting someone saying something like, “When is so-and-so going to take responsibility and accountability!”

2) While I acknowledge the words are used interchangeably, there are two important meanings at work, and it is those meanings I care about: There is the process of making, keeping, and managing agreements and expectations in any relationship (business management or otherwise). And there is the feeling of ownership for one’s life, for situations (including one’s accountabilities), and for r-e-s-p-o-n-d-i-n-g when things go wrong.

I prefer to use the word Accountability to refer to making, keeping, and managing agreements and expectations. And I prefer to use the word Responsibility for the feeling of ownership.

Here’s a fun way to see the difference:  If you have a manager and aren’t clear about what you are held accountable for, you might want to take responsibility for finding out.

3) Whether or not you are held accountable isn’t up to you. It’s up to others. Here’s a test:

Have you ever been held accountable for something you don’t think you should have?

(I thought so. Me too.)

And I bet there have been times you haven’t been held accountable for something you were proud of and wanted to be held accountable for.

4) The primary purpose of a hierarchy is for systematically managing accountabilities. See the 50-year research effort of management scientist Elliott Jaques on this topic.

I and most companies I see could be much much better at managing accountability.

5) Responsibility trumps accountability. It doesn’t matter what you are supposed to be accountable for — what matters is what you feel a sense of ownership for. If a person’s sense of responsibility is smaller than his or her accountabilities, the accountabilities will suffer.

This is a trillion dollar problem in business, I’m convinced. Also in social and government sectors. My corporate services group Partnerwerks addresses this in our leadership development and organizational change work with clients.

6) Managing accountability is the systemic stuff of management. Creating a culture of Responsibility is the stuff of leadership.

and finally, and most exciting to me…

7) Responsibility is not just a character trait (or flaw), but instead a mental process that operates in everyone exactly the same way. It regulates how we choose to avoid or take responsibility. This means that Responsibility can be systematically observed, taught, and learned.

So anyone can learn to master responsibility. And anyone can develop responsibility in a team, a family, a church, a school, or a work culture.

That’s very cool. That’s why I’ve devoted my life to a worldwide vision to promote this knowledge.

What do you think?

Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

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34 Responses to The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility

  1. Hi Christopher, it’s been many years. How are you? I’m researching a new book (actually 2nd ed. of an old book), and your page was just what I needed just when I needed it. Thanks!
    My last daughter just graduated from UT. The Austin ties are slipping away…
    Take care,
    Fred

    • Dehlia says:

      Hello Fred, Nothing makes me smile more than a parent who happily shares a child’s success at graduation from college. As a parent myself of a son who gradually from high school, college and near the end of graduate school over the past five years I can say I too agree. How happy we are to see their miraculous accomplishments when there are so many things in the world to prevent them from doing so. Your daughter had a father who let his children know how very important college is, will be and is needed to succeed in America today. Congratulations!! I am always amazed at political candidates who want to dismiss education as not necessary? Seriously?

  2. Hey Fred. It is so good to read your comment here and follow it to your Conscious Manager blog. I am well. Congratulations on your daughters’ successes.

    Tell me about your book and why was this blog post important?

  3. Javed rao says:

    I am completely agreed with Christopher.

    Its help me to improve my knowledge on this topic.

    Thanks

    Javed Rao

  4. sir
    i would like to ask what is the right term to be used: “accountable for” or “accountable to.”

    thanks

  5. Hi Keinth,

    Thanks for your question. Both phrases are commonly used. Here are some examples:

    I am accountable for completing my job assignments.
    I am accountable to my management.

    I am accountable for delivering what I promise.
    I am accountable to my customers.

    I am accountable for paying my taxes.
    I am accountable to the Internal Revenue Service.

    I hope that helps.

    Christopher

  6. Gyriene says:

    This is an excellent summation of responsibility vs accountability. I still need some help understaning accountability. I define responsibilities as the items/duties/expectations indiviuals are responsible to complete/uphold. I define responsibility as ownership of the collective items/duties and expectations individuals are responsible to complete/uphold. As to accountability, I find myself struggling for a definition as a member of the military. I hold my personnel accountable for their actions (good or bad). I too am held accountable for their actions and mine. If one of my Marines committs a crime, the first person that is asked how this happened is me (my personnel reflect my leadership). I am responsible for training them, mentoring them and ensuring they understand their responsibilities. Can you help me define accountability in this context?

    • Accountability to me is when the person is liable to rewards or punishments. For example a sales manager is responsible for the the development of sales representatives reporting to him – but is accountable for the sales and recoverables.

      • Christopher says:

        Thanks Vivek — that is a common understanding. So the way I read your sentence, this sales manager is “supposed” to develop sales reps but won’t be held to account for doing so or not doing so?? Hence “responsible” is a position of non-liabillity?

    • J Moore says:

      Yes Gyriene. You are responsible for training these individuals. You are accountable for the way you trained these individuals. Let’s say that the marines were trained poorly. Whenever they performed, they demonstrated substandard knowledge and understanding of the task. Therefore, you are to be held accountable for the way you trained them.

  7. Gyriene says:

    This is my take on accountability — accepting the consequences (good or bad) in regard to the outcome of your decisions/actions, the decisions/actions of your personnel, and the outcomes (good or bad) of operations for which you are responsible.

    • Gyriene, Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your model of accountability and responsibility. I may not be able to give you a precise definition in your context of the Marines. As I say, the two words are so often used interchangeably. If I were to be the word police I might say this: Accountability literally means the ability to give an account. It’s looking back and explaining. So my accounting for failure by saying “it’s not my fault” is giving an account. Whether or not that gets me off the hook with, say, you — my boss, is up to the one holding me to account. You can hold me to account or not. So I think of accountability as the entire process in hierarchies or elsewhere of making and keeping agreements about action and performance, and of managing the consequences of those agreements.

      And in my word police role I would say that responsibility literally means the ability to respond. It is in the present, the now. It has to do with what you think and do when things don’t go as planned. My wider definition of responsibility is this: Owning your power and ability to create, choose, and attract. Responsibility is subjective, internal, and transient as described by the Responsibility Process.

      Here’s my best example. On my way home I call my wife. She asks if I could pick up bread, milk, and eggs. I say “Sure Honey.” When I get home without the groceries, can she hold me to account? Absolutely. Why? Because I said yes. However at the moment, more important than whether she has the right to hold me to account is my sense of responsibility.

      Regardless of what word you use where I believe the internal subjective response to something going wrong will trump the external management process every time. I hope this helps a little. Interestingly the process of managing accountability is the single most important and basic tool of hierarchy and yet the management literature on the subject is a huge void. Management scientists seem to avoid the arena like the plague.
      .

  8. Saltarelli says:

    Awesome post, thanks for sharing mate. Keep the good work coming.

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  10. elizebeth gracia says:

    thank you so much for the post to the topic responsibility vs accountability.
    as it help me more understand on this topic as well as completed my assigment up to this topic.

  11. James says:

    I like what you have said here. However, I will add two things:

    1. Being responsible is an [adjective] in it’s usage, however its respective verb [responsibly is the action I perform. One that I have control over.
    2. Accountable is a means of measurement that others perceive as to whether my [actions] were performed.

    These two terms and their respective counters [responsibility, accountability] should not be interchanged, but most often are unfortunately. This may be due to not fully understanding the subtle differences. One I control, the other is how I am viewed and measured.

    In other words, hold me responsible for the actions I do and do not do, and subsequently accountable for my duties whether fulfilled or not.

  12. Thiago says:

    Thank you so much man, I´m from Brazil, 22 year old, and this article was so clear about this question, brings up a solution instead of the traditional bla bla bla about the theme, and therefore a great opinion. Thank you so much man. Hope I made myself clear about this.

  13. Dennis Deitch says:

    Perhaps it would help to think of one of the quotes that former President Harry S. Truman was famous for, and that is, “The Buck Stops Here”. That is probably the clearest and most well-known statements of accountability ever made, and it leaves no doubt in one’s mind as to where the ultimate responsibility lies.

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  15. Lucky Qwabe says:

    I had a conversation with my Sales Director about this Topic, it’s quite strange how this two words commonly intervene with one another. But your insight has helped Christopher.
    P.S. even my Director had a problem defining the difference between both terms… :)

  16. Gopal Karunakaran says:

    The military school that I went to in India in 1980 taught me the difference between responsibility and accountability that corporate warriors could use – there seems plenty of confusion here!

    You are “responsible downwards” and “accountable upwards” … which means, for e.g, I am responsible to my soldiers to train them for the task, to explain the job to them, to monitor their progress, and accountable to my seniors to accomplish the task.

    Its pretty simple – in a clear headed organisation – responsibility can be shared , accountability should be clear and not shared.

    • christopher says:

      Thanks Gopal for sharing the Indian military model.

      • Claudia says:

        I like Gopal’s explanation, and I completely agree that accountability should be clear and not shared. To have “fuzzy” accountability invites situations that can become ethical and financial nightmares. Someone has to know what’s going on and agree to it — different corporate cultures have different ways of sharing power, but lines of authority and accompanying accountability should be clear. Otherwise, we set people up for potential integrity issues and failure.

  17. brima says:

    from all the comments I ve seen so far this is what I ve come up with: responsibility has to do with an action, while accountability has to do with the outcome or result of the action. for example one might be responsible for training (an action) trainees in a company and might be held accountable for their level of success (the outcome). so in other words your responsible for taking an action and accountable for it’s outcome.

  18. Dan says:

    Yesterday, on my return from vacation I discovered that my line manager had resigned and that I had been appointed a new line manager. The new line manager, on explaining his management style, to my colleague and myself said “Responsibility flows up & Accountability flows down. I am prepared to take on the responsibility of managing you, but you are ultimately accountable…”

    This very much sounds like Christopher’s response to a post above:

    - Christopher says:
    April 22, 2011 at 8:38 AM
    Thanks Vivek — that is a common understanding. So the way I read your sentence, this sales manager is “supposed” to develop sales reps but won’t be held to account for doing so or not doing so?? Hence “responsible” is a position of non-liabillity?

    The way I understood my new boss was – Win together / Lose on your own. And it was through that meeting and those comments that brought me here.

    After reading the posts here I have come to the conclusion that the idea of bottom-up responsibilty and top-down accountability is simply backwards. Let me give you an example:

    A child kicks a ball through a neighbours window. The parent, on learning of this act, compensates the neighbour to the cost of repairing the window. Who is responsible? Who is accountable?

    My view, rightly or wrongly, is that the child committed the act, therefore they are responsible for that action. However, it is the parent that must account for the child’s behaviour and make good on the damage. Therefore it is the parent who must take accountability.

    On the comparison of the parent:child vs manager:employee, surely the employee is responsible for performing their job responsibilities and the manager is accountable for the performance / non-performance of the employee?

  19. Jon S says:

    There really is no significant difference.

    Being responsible means being obliged to respond/account for acts or omissions.

    Being accountable means being obliged to respond/account for acts or omissions.

    Generally, we are responsible for doing something and accountable for how it was or was not done. We can’t be responsible but unaccountable for something nor can we be accountable without being responsible for it. The choice of word is generally dictated by the phase and context.

    I dare say that ‘acting responsible’ has been understood through the years to describe a person who exhibits the behaviours associated with responsibility/accountability. The common understanding of the word has superseded its origin to the point where it appears to mean something other than being accountable.

    Generally, we are responsible (charged) with the discharge of our duties, these have evolved to become understood to be responsibilities. Duties may be implicit or explicit, they are not always responsibilities but responsibilities are always duties.

    A manager delegates the responsibility for checking something, he remains responsible and accountable to the CEO and his subordinate becomes responsible and accountable to him. The accountability to the CEO direct isn’t delegated but the requirement is. If the task isn’t completed satisfactorily, the CEO can hold the manager to account and likewise, the manager can hold his subordinate accountable.

    If there really is a difference, perhaps it is in that someone responsible must respond if asked but one must give account without being asked if accountable. There really is not much between these terms.

  20. Gopal Karunakaran says:

    Dear Jon,

    That’s precisely what i tried to bring out in the Jul 10th comment here – that there IS a difference and its not too clear usually in the corporate world – I shall try a non- military example :- “Responsibility” is downward and “accountability” upwards – as a father I am responsible to bring my kids up, take care of their physical and other needs – but actually I am not “Accountable” to them. Conversely I am accountable to my boss for a job not done – i need to explain why it was not done.

    • Jon S says:

      Hello Gopal,

      The example you use could cause some confusion. You’re responsible for your kids behviours and caring for them, you’re not responsible to them but you do owe them a duty to care. That duty is more to do with morals than it is accountability or responsibility. Most laws are based on morals so it is no coincidence that you also have a legal responsibility to care, cases of neglect are accountable/answerable to the courts.

      As I see it, you give account upwards for a given duty/task but can delegate responsibility for it down. You account for the discharge of your responsibilities and people you’ve delegated them to become accountable to you. You can’t be responsible to your employees (other than for their pay etc.) but you may have a responsibility to care for their health and safety.

      If someone isn’t accountable to you you can’t really make them truly responsible for doing something.

  21. The difference between accountability and responsibility is obvious. Responsibility is about doing something and responding to concerned that you have completed the tasks that you were assigned with due process of law. Accountability is an obligations to answer the concerned that the tasks were completed . Failure to complete the tasks invites punishment if some body is responsible where as the failure to complete the tasks invites moral obligation to accountable persons to correct the mistakes or to take necessary actions against those who were responsible to do things. A manager could be both accountable and responsible depending on the situation.
    Res: I will do it and bear sanction if I fail
    Acc: I will make it done and I will correct it if I fail and take action against those responsible as will as I will moral responsibility for this failure.

    • christopher says:

      I’m glad it is obvious to you Gopi and I hope it is working for you. Your clarity comes from one of several traditional and competing management practices.

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