The Buck Stops Here: The Difference between Accountability and Responsibility

Posted by Kristin Arnold on March 10, 2014

I was recently engaged by an organization where I was asked to teach managers how to make their people accountable so they can be empowered. Well, this is flawed thinking on a couple of fronts. First, you cannot “force” staff to be accountable. But also, the manager in the end is always accountable.

Employees are responsible.

Responsible for their actions, behaviors, attitudes, decisions, work and performance. Responsibility means taking ownership for situations they find themselves in and for responding honestly when things go wrong.

Accountability, on the other hand, is the process of making, keeping and managing promises and expectations. Accountability is being liable or answerable for the overall outcomes. Holding someone else accountable is like trying to eat their lunch for them.

Without accountability, the ability to manage will not exist. Great managers hold themselves accountable to deliver results. Period. Accountability is something you do to yourself, not something that someone does to you.

So, what is the difference? Responsibility means; who does the work, whereas accountability means who will be answerable when there is a problem. For example, a team member may be responsible for delivering a product or service as expected. But, the manager is accountable for the overall results.

The manager must create an environment where staff will accept responsible for their work. But, there are degrees of responsibility and employees must be constructively coached through that journey.

The journey follows four stages; initially, the employee is only responsible for following instructions accurately and timely. When they display an eagerness to do this, they are then responsible for asking intelligent questions, being enthusiastic and showing a comprehension for the big picture.

When they display a desire and capability for this, they can be coached to being responsible for making educated suggestions and developing intelligent strategies. When questioned, they should be able to display an ability to think through all long-term implications and consequences.

When employees are coached through these stages, they will be able to assume full responsibility and decision making — which results in empowerment. This is how effective managers earn trust quickly and set up employees for success. However, for employees to be comfortable accepting full responsibility and attain empowerment, the following environment needs to exist:

  1. Employees need to know and understand the overall mission. What is the real purpose of the organization and how will the industry, community or world benefit from that mission.
  2. Each staff member needs to know their role and how what they do connects to the Mission. One organization I worked with gave the receptionist the title “Director of First Impressions”. Because that was really her role.
  3. They need to know what the top current priorities of the business are, what goals have been established for the year, and how their job is aligned to those goals.
  4. There needs to be a system of ongoing feedback and support in place to reduce uncertainty, apprehension and risk of error.
  5. Regular meetings and check points should be established to ensure things do not go off the rail. This includes regular coaching and encouragement.
  6. There must be a formal process of recognition for both results as well as behavior.

I was speaking with my friend Howard Putnam, former CEO of Southwest Airlines and author of “The Winds of Turbulence”. I asked him how he was able to transform Southwest to a culture of accountability? He said “the day we realized we were not an airline, we were in the business of mass transportation”.

In order to build a culture to support that vision, our mantra became: “Hire attitudes, develop skills.” With the right attitudes and skills, you can give staff latitude knowing they will act responsibly and managers can be accountable.”

My question for managers this week: What is your process to develop employee’s ability and confidence and build a culture of trust, so they will take responsibility and you can empower them, while you remain comfortably accountable.

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