Accountability and Responsibility

A member of my development team asked me to clarify the difference between accountability and responsibility. It is one of those seemingly innocuous questions, where you think the difference is obvious, but is not so obvious once you have to actually verbalize it. So I thought about it for a couple of days, and decided to write down my answer.

I will limit my answer to Accountability and Responsibility in the workplace. Their definition in ones personal life is a different kettle of fish.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines these two words as follows (only the relevant definition shown).

responsibility

the opportunity or ability to act independently and take decisions without authorization:
     we expect individuals to take on more responsibility
[count noun] (often responsibilities) a thing which one is required to do as part of a job, role, or legal obligation:
     he will take over the responsibilities of Overseas Director

accountability

the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility:
lack of accountability has corroded public respect for business and political leaders

To elaborate, your responsibilities are the set of tasks which you are assigned and you have the authority to execute. This is something you’ve agreed with your manager, and you are expected to perform as long as there are no extenuating circumstances. You are therefore accountable for your responsibilities.

My experience in large organisations has been that accountability tends to mean more than responsibility. So senior management roles tend to have the word accountable used more often, whereas the word responsibility is used for junior roles. The perception also tends to be that the word accountable carries a greater burden of responsibility.

I suppose that is because when you are a manager, you have no direct control over the actions of your staff. You do all you can to set a good example and create the right working culture, and then hope that your staff behave responsibly. Of course you can have regular check points, feedback loops, status reports etc, but ultimately you are dependent on your staff to do the right thing, and you are to a greater or lesser extent, accountable for the result of their actions. So the risk that the manager may be held accountable for a staff member’s actions puts a greater burden on the manager, which is reflected in the way these words are used. The burden carried is clearly demonstrated in the recent controversy at the BBC, where the director general resigned for the actions of his staff.

For additional reading, here is an article about accountability published recently in the Harvard Business Review. So what do these words mean in your organisation? And does accountability exist at all levels?

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2 thoughts on “Accountability and Responsibility

  1. I think these two terms can often lead to quite cyclical ; the dictionary definition of accountability uses the word responsibility! So, in common English usage I suspect the two are actually synonyms.

    I tend to think in terms of ‘who gets kicked if it all goes wrong?’ Someone, somewhere must have the mandate to make sure the right thing gets done, and
    who will be held to account if it goes wrong. Ergo, they’re accountable.

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting Phill! While there is some overlap in the definition of the two words, responsibility and accountability often resides in different parts of the organisation, which I’m sure you will agree with. But yes, ‘getting kicked if things go wrong’ is a nice rule of thumb to use when deciding where accountability lies.

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