During the workshop I was running last week, the CEO of the company asked me, “What’s the difference between holding someone responsible versus holding them accountable?” He went on to tell me he thought that the words were interchangeable and that he really didn’t see a substantive difference between the two. I told him that this is actually a great question and in fact, it’s one of the most frequently heard questions. There are many distinctions between responsibility and accountability. In fact, articles and books have been written on the subject.
The short answer is that responsibility is given to someone but accountability is taken. But before I say more, let me tell you what responsibility and accountability are not:
When you are searching for a candidate to fill a position in your organization, it is common practice to ask someone to list the job’s responsibilities. In this use of the word, it is not intended to mean what one is not responsible for, or what one may be carefree or free-wheeling about, or in what situations one is unreliable, feckless and irresponsible. In this use, the term responsible is intended to describe the scope of work given to the candidate. They may be responsible for this and that but hey may not be accountable.
Accountability on the other hand, doesn’t mean someone is blameless, innocent, untrustworthy or unpredictable. Rather, the word is used to mean that someone is answerable for a scope of work that they have taken on. That they are “bound” to it, that it is measurable. It is a commitment and obligation. Accountability implies an agreement to deliver a result. It is what someone has committed to answer for.
Accountability is clearly a higher level of responsibility. When I say just hold me “accountable”, it is my way of telling you that I have chosen to take on writing about the subject and I am accountable for what I am
saying. If you follow my advice and things don’t work out the way you want you can write me or call me and justifiably complain. Because, at the end of the day, I am the one who is accountable for providing this information.