Accountability vs. Responsibility in Leadership

CEO Insights

Every organization has experienced a crisis when seemingly minor decisions resulted in disaster. And that’s usually when the finger-pointing and the blame game starts unless you have a leader who understands accountability and ownership.

Leadership accountability matters most in a crisis, as it builds trust and fosters a positive organizational culture where team members understand their responsibilities and can perform to the best of their abilities.

Accountability vs. Responsibility in Leadership

We often use the terms accountability and responsibility interchangeably, but they have unique contrasts, particularly in the workplace. Leaders and managers who understand the difference are the ones best prepared to advance their organization forward.

  1. Responsibility is task and project related. When we say someone is responsible, it means they’ve been charged with certain duties that, when combined with other people’s tasks, bring a project to a successful conclusion. Multiple people often share the same responsibilities. A defining characteristic of responsibility is that you cannot force it on anyone; they must choose to accept it (or not).
  2. Accountability is what happens after something has occurred, such as a project’s completion. Because accountability is about the ownership of results, it’s typically confined to a single person, such as a manager. It is someone saying, “I own that” or “I got this” and that you can bank on the completion of the task. When leaders try to assign accountability to multiple people, they usually set off a chain of blame and assumptions. The “he said/she said” only serves to delay fixing the problem and creating tension, anxiety, and turmoil.

To recap:

  • While two or more people can be responsible for a project, only one can be accountable for owning it.
  • Responsibility happens before or during tasks; accountability happens after the task.
  • A responsible person completes a task; an accountable one answers for the results.
  • Responsibility requires no explanation; with accountability, an explanation is expected.

The Accountability of Company Leadership

Leaders set the tone that the rest of the organization responds to. Without leadership and managerial accountability, team members often feel lost and confused. Leaders must prioritize creating a culture of accountability if they hope to foster team success. Here are some ways to start setting that tone:

  1. Set benchmarks that align with organizational WIG’s (Wildly Important Goals). When leaders align goals with business priorities, they make themselves personally accountable for driving results. They also foster the same sense of ownership in those they lead.
  2. Offer constructive performance feedback that helps identify problem areas and encourages team members to participate in investigating what went wrong through RCA (Root Cause Analysis).
  3. Set a good example of leadership by routinely reviewing each team member’s responsibilities and ensuring everyone understands their roles in producing the final product.
  4. Develop a reputation for trust and integrity. A lack of trust and personal accountability undermines integrity and can cause people to lose respect for leadership.
  5. Embrace transparency. Good communication is critical to leadership accountability. Managers and other leaders must take responsibility for their actions, good or bad, and use effective methods of communication that keep people in the loop.

The Misconception of Accountability

The term “accountability” often brings up fear of punishment or negative consequences. As leaders you never want to accept or tolerate carefree, sloppy performance, however, some leaders use accountability as a “big fear stick.” This style could create a culture of anxiety and stress that can infect the entire organization.

It could result in team members reluctance to try new methods or bring up new ideas for fear of failure and reprimand. The net result of this discipline is that performance and productivity suffer, and team members start to disengage. Creating relationships filled with anxiety fails to inspire people to be responsible and do their best work. Having an inspiring and encouraging workplace is one that attracts and retains top talent.

Building a culture of accountability requires leaders of organizations to take a hard look at its current processes and the reason those processes are in place. For those who still say, “It’s how we’ve always done it,” and are not willing to accept the nature of how the workplace has changed, will find their organizations struggling. This type of thinking will create an environment where team members are not highly motivated to help the organization succeed as they don’t feel like they have the ability to exact positive change.

Accountability doesn’t mean physical presence is required.  It’s important for leaders to stop measuring physical presence and in-office time with successful performance and results. Organizations must make trust the foundation of their company culture. Hire for your team culture fit and empower them, expecting great results. Look for team members who want to see the company succeed and are then excited and rewarded when they contribute to the organizations WIG’s.

Some companies install software on their remote employees’ computers so they can monitor when and if they’re working. Using such methods could be counter to your culture and undermine empowerment and trust. It sends a message to your team that you don’t trust them. Why would any leader think the business will prosper if team members feel like they’re being watched by Big Brother? Look for and measure results.

It’s fundamental human psychology:

  • If you don’t trust you shouldn’t expect trust in return.
  • People who feel constantly watched are going to watch you suspiciously, too.
  • If team members feel taken advantage of, expect them to look for shortcuts.

When team members feel valued, they deliver value in return, and when they feel liked, they return it in positive attitude. And when leaders show accountability and ownership, their team they manage will do the same.

It’s time for leadership to let go of outdated definitions of responsibility and accountability. Accountable leaders look to give and serve not only the people in their organization, but their clients, too.

Build a Culture of Accountability

When accountability becomes a way of life for your entire organization, you benefit in countless ways:

  • Decision-making is faster and better.
  • Less time and energy are wasted on finger-pointing and conflict.
  • Team Members are more engaged and productive.
  • Customers are better served.
  • A culture of trust fosters better results.

Choice Solutions connects businesses with the technologies they need to drive improved workplace experiences leading to enhanced productivity and profitability. A happier and more productive environment is one where trust flourishes and responsibility and accountability grow.

Preserving Business Continuity:

Our Business Continuity Plan is designed to keep business up and running during any crisis.

Contact Us