Responsibility and Accountability

I’ve noticed a common problem in some of the places I’ve worked at: everyone’s responsible, no one’s accountable.

The words “responsible” and “accountable” are often used interchangeably in everyday language, but they can connote different things, especially when used in the context of work. Others have written about the difference between the two.

Merriam-Webster defines the difference as: “responsible” implies holding a specific office, duty, or trust; “accountable” suggests imminence of retribution for unfilled trust or violated obligation.

My own feelings lie closer to those of Christopher Avery, who says: 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.

I’ve found it can be easy for people to feel responsible for their work, especially when the work is going well or has high visibility. People want to make their mark on projects and add value to a team. This is how you end up in a room full of people who all think they are the owner of a project.

However, things get dicey when a project isn’t going so well. What happened to all those people who were responsible? Often times, they’re nowhere to be found and their leaders do not hold them accountable. In some cases, the mere fact that they were on a high profile project means their names are on the shortlist to head up the next one!

Holding people accountable for their work isn’t just about punishing failure. As frequently discussed elsewhere, failing can be a critical part of the creative process and avoiding failure at all cost may result in a systemic lack of innovation in a company’s culture. Instead, leaders should try to create a culture that values risk-taking but is accurately able to identify the reasons for failure and work with those accountable to improve in the future.

Creating a company culture where people are both responsible and accountable can be challenging but is worthwhile.