Accountability vs Responsibility – How to set balance between them

“Leaders inspire accountability through their ability to accept responsibility before they place blame.Courtney Lynch

Accountability and Responsibility are commonly misconceived terms in organizational communication and management.

What happens if you do not know the difference between them?

In that case, it will be a challenge to foster accountability among teams and give clarity on their key responsibilities. It is imperative to understand the meaning and difference of each term and understand how to apply them in different scenarios.

A team leader, for example, is held accountable for reporting the progress and completion of a project or event, whereas team members are liable for completing the duties allocated under the project.

Let us compare the key aspects of accountability and responsibility and how to strike a balance between them. These can lead to result-driven work culture.

Accountability Vs Responsibility – Decoding the meaning

Decoding the meaning of Accountability

The fundamental distinction between accountability & responsibility is that the former is imposed while the latter is assumed. 

Accountability denotes the answerability for the execution of the task set by the senior whereas responsibility denotes the obligation to perform a specific task.

While considering Accountability vs Responsibility, it’s crucial to remember that the former is more about the tasks you’ve set your eyes on to accomplish. The latter, on the other hand, is a mindset on how to respond to outcomes. 

In workplaces across the world, the terms have become synonymous, but they must be distinguished!

It’s critical to identify these phrases and grasp which one is the most relevant to different scenarios. It will guarantee that all people in an organization are held accountable and day-to-day responsibilities are defined accurately.

The key for a manager is to identify is that it’s his/her responsibility to equip the team with everything that’s needed to succeed. Questions pertaining to how the team will be positioned to win must be asked, like:

  • Did the team get enough support & coaching?
  • Did I give my 100% to keep them on the winner’s seat, or was the goal unreasonable?
  • What are the actions that have undermined the efforts?

These are the sorts of questions that must be asked at the start & conclusion of any project to determine the best way forward for your team.

Accountability vs Responsibility : Comparative Approach

A comparative approach to understand the differences between accountability and responsibility based on the key parameters:

Basis Responsibility  Accountability
Meaning It is an obligation to complete a task. A person is answerable for the output of the assigned task/ project.
Role Focuses on each team member’s specific job Takes ownership of the result
Key components  Commitment towards a project or tasks
Defining a timeline
Smart Decision making
Working on resolutions
Emphasizing trust and communications
Predictive decision making 
Assigning process owners and resources 
Effective communication 
Employee Engagement 
Delegation Cannot entirely be delegated Cannot be delegated at all
Explanation Not necessary Necessary
Distribution Can be shared  Assigned to only an individual
End result Task focused Result focused 


Responsibility vs Accountability Examples

Now you must have a clear understanding between the difference between the two. Let’s understand this better with some real life examples:

1. A Marketing campaign launch

Imagine you’re part of a marketing team that’s about to launch a new campaign. The responsibility for creating the campaign’s visuals is assigned to the graphic designer, while the copywriter is tasked with crafting persuasive copy.

Each team member has a specific role to play, and they’re responsible for delivering their part of the project.

On the other hand, the marketing manager is accountable for the campaign’s success or failure. They oversee the entire process, ensuring that everything runs smoothly and that the final product achieves its goals. The manager bears the ultimate responsibility, even if they didn’t personally create the visuals or write the copy.

2. A restaurant kitchen

Let’s consider a bustling restaurant kitchen. Each chef has a specific responsibility, such as preparing appetizers, entrees, or desserts. They must focus on their tasks and ensure they’re executed correctly and on time.

The head chef, however, is accountable for the entire kitchen operation. They must ensure that the dishes are not only prepared correctly but also maintain a high level of quality and consistency.

If a customer complains about their meal, the head chef is the one who must address the issue and take the necessary steps to rectify the situation.

3. A software development project

In a software development team, each member has a distinct responsibility, such as coding, testing, or designing user interfaces. They must complete their tasks on time and to the best of their abilities.

However, the project manager is accountable for the entire project, from inception to completion. They must ensure that the team works together efficiently, that deadlines are met, and that the final product meets the client’s expectations.

If there’s a delay or an issue with the software, it’s the project manager who must answer for it and find a solution.

Read more: Top 15 Accountability Examples At The Workplace

The Path to Result Driven Culture

It may appear that balancing accountability with the team and embracing responsibility as the leader are mutually exclusive goals, but they aren’t. You can strike a fair balance with the correct mindset & tactics, resulting in prosperity for both you & your team and a result-driven culture.

Let us drill down the ways and means to balance accountability and responsibility and create a conducive culture for the team.

1 Develop A Psychological Safety With Your Team

Relationship between Psychological safety and Accountability

According to Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business professor, when the high levels of psychological safety and accountability collide, it leads to high performance. The manager is responsible for modeling psychological safety and accountability to build a result-driven culture for the team.

The key benefit of psychological safety is that it propels the team’s confidence and creates a comfort zone when it comes to speaking up & providing their input. The team’s autonomy is encouraged, and they will be motivated to perform the assigned tasks better.

Learn more: Guide to Inculcate Accountability Culture in the Workplace

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Let us decode the relationship between psychological safety and accountability in creating the team culture categorized as the below zones

Learning zone – This zone exemplifies when the manager creates moon shot goals and assigns responsibility to the team leader to work and achieve on the same. The team leader will assign responsibility and actions to every team member to work towards the goal as he is accountable.

Anxiety Zone – Though this zone belongs to high-performing teams, the employees work hard but get criticized without any support from the manager or peer group. This zone emphasizes psychologically damaging aspects where the company has an ardent focus on only output and not the anxiety level of the employee.

Comfort zone– This is a sheer comfort zone where managers and teams are not willing to take responsibility to improve poor performance. Lack of motivation and trust is prevalent in this zone.

Apathy Zone – This is the most dangerous zone where there are instances of low psychological safety and low accountability leading to conflict between employees. It can lead to emotional volatility and an unsafe team culture due to a lack of trust and team cohesion.

2 Crystal-clear Clarity Regarding Who Is Accountable For What

Crystal clarity on accountability

In the famed The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, the authors have taken a funny but practical theory of a “monkey” that denotes the next move which must be accomplished for a project/task.

Blanchard & the co-authors illustrate a typical situation in the book. Suppose, a team member has approached you with a problem, and you promise to resolve it. 

However, at that very moment, the “monkey” has leaped off from that person’s back onto yours! The team member just handed over the responsibility to you. Every time it happens, things tend to become messy regarding who is responsible for driving the task ahead, which can stifle productivity & overburden you.

Also Read: Top 15 Accountability Examples At The Workplace

A smart manager acknowledges that increasing the productivity of their team is the key. It can be tough, though, to delegate responsibilities to the team members, especially if the task must be executed perfectly.

Blanchard, in his book, recommends assigning the task to team members who have demonstrated their ability to take on new responsibilities.

But, these points must be taken into account while they take on the responsibility:

  • Pre-empt the next moves before the team members separate
  • Who has the “monkey”? Well, someone must be appointed as the owner!
  • Insurance plans are required to mitigate risks and ensure that the task is executed well.
  • A time & place must be decided for further follow-ups on the task.

3 Delegating vs. Stepping In – How To Choose?

Some of the managers struggle with the delegation tasks as they fail to make their team accountable for doing the same.

There is a serious gap in delegating the stretched goals and action items as the managers fail to create a conducive climate of accountability like

  • Clear communication on goals and expected outcomes
  • Following compelling positive consequences can motivate the team. For instance, if the team leader takes accountability in driving the proof of concept before the project starts, then the team gets motivated to work on their tasks.
  • Focusing on facts and observing the changed behaviors of the team after delegation. This can trigger the team to open up and share their apprehensions towards the delegated tasks. The manager can step in to guide the team and be accountable for driving the set goals.

Now the question is when the manager should delegate or step in?

The manager can delegate when the team is ready to take up the tasks and work with minimal or nil guidance from the manager. This will also promote the culture of learning and development.

When the tasks are associated with high risks and outcomes, then the manager must step in and steer the driving wheel of a task and be accountable for the same.

4 Responsibility Breeds Responsibility

Accountability vs Responsibility

Taking responsibility entails more than just addressing problems; it also entails leading by example so that the entire squad accepts accountability for the team’s performance for the assigned tasks. If you assume responsibility & your team sees you doing so, they will start doing the same.

Although you are not the one who is directly responsible for an issue every time, you must be accountable for the outcome. Analyze what you should have done (or not maybe) differently to for a better outcome. If you ensure this while interacting with the team, you’ll be surprising yourself when they mimic you when it comes to accountability.

Final Thoughts

It can make a world of difference in how hands-on you’re with the team, what you’re delegating, and how you react when things deviate from plans. If you can strike the appropriate balance, you will reap rewards.

That’s the importance of striking the right chord for the team(and yourself) when you dwell in the realm of Accountability vs Responsibility and smart goals vs OKRs

Building a result-driven culture is not going to happen overnight, but it’s critical if you wish to progress as a leader & usher your organization in the result-driven era! Connect with our experts today to learn more.

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