Accountability vs. Responsibility: Why Do Managers Need Both?

January 23, 2022
Accountability vs. Responsibility
Mary Nour
Written By
Mary Nour

When your company decides to work towards an important goal, this requires cross-functional collaboration. Consider a time when your company was rebranding or coming up with a fresh product or planning to enter a new market segment.

You’d find that each team member is responsible for certain tasks and must meet preset deadlines to align with the company's goal.

For example, if the company is launching a new product, the marketing team should work on the task. That could mean one person is working on copywriting, another on designing the new product, and another on promoting the product on social media channels.

The marketing team might be unable to finish the task if another department fails to provide the needed information for the new product. This could risk the success of the entire project.

And questions like who is accountable and who is responsible arise.

In this article, you will know the key differences between accountability and responsibility, their benefits at workplace, how to build a culture of accountability and responsibility, and what tools you can use.

What is accountability?

Accountability focuses on how a person takes ownership and responds to the outcomes of a task assigned to them. It is shown after a certain situation occurs where one must face the consequences.

It is related to how someone answers for certain actions, is ready to take the blame, is liable to face consequences from some authority, and is expected to report the results.

According to BetterUp, accountability is often associated with the following actions:

  • Accepting to receive something offered
  • Obligation to a certain task
  • Ownership for an idea or problem
  • Explaining actions or decisions
  • Deciding when faced with possibilities
  • Commitment to an agreement

What is responsibility?

Responsibility is task-focused. It answers the questions of who has what role, what that role includes, and what should be done to ensure the success of the task/role.

In other words, to achieve a goal, responsibilities must be clear, with a focus on defined job descriptions and processes that must be in place.

Moreover, responsibility can be shared. A team of people can work on the same task or different tasks to reach the same goal. The responsibility continues as long as the project or task at hand is ongoing.

One of the reasons people may be resistant to taking responsibility is that it is often associated with blame, fault, or guilt. Responsibility should be a mature and conscious choice.

Accountability vs. responsibility: key differences between accountability and responsibility

Is responsibility the same as accountability? Well, the difference between accountability and responsibility is so slight that they are often used interchangeably. However, there are key differences between the two, so let’s summarize them.

Accountability Responsibility
About measuring results About ownership
Happens after a situation has occurred Ongoing
Accepted Imposed
Focuses on results Focuses on the defined roles of each team member

Explanation is owed

No explanation is owed
implies answerability for the outcome of the task in case of success or failure
The obligation to perform the task or comply with the rule
Assigned to one individual only, impossible to delegate Can be shared
Problem-solving when something goes wrong Letting someone know if you can’t complete your task

What is responsibility in the workplace?

Responsible teams or organizations have the following in common: they have a clear definition of roles and clear job descriptions, they have excellent organizational hierarchies, processes, and systems in place, and they hold consistent performance reviews and feedback sessions.

However, these organizations may also face attitudes where people blame each other and act reluctantly when things get out of their control and try to cover their trials.

You may think that changing and reorganizing what people do and restructuring how work is done will change how they perform. However, what is lacking is a personal responsibility. 

Stepping up personal responsibility is key to stopping the blame game: employees will stop blaming each other and companies will not blame their competitors for their downfalls.

Obstacles will always arise and finding reasons to shift responsibility is not the solution. To increase employee responsibility, encourage people in your organization to be creative and fully engaged in solving the problems they face rather than stopping and waiting for someone to intervene and remove the obstacle for them.

What is accountability in the workplace?

Accountability goes beyond responsibility. It is choosing ownership, involvement, and engagement.

In a workplace empowered with accountability, you would find that people at all levels take ownership of the results and collaborate to get tasks done. Projects are well-tracked. And there are clear expectations for everyone.

Organizations embracing encouragement and offering a safe environment have a culture of people holding themselves accountable. Such organizations experience less turnover and happier employees that regard their job as meaningful.

Accountable team members require less supervision as they feel connected to the organization's mission and want to contribute to its success. Moreover, in a culture that supports accountability, leaders and team members have clear expectations and trust each other.

What comes first, accountability or responsibility?

As a leader, when it comes to taking ownership (responsibility) or measuring results (accountability), it’s best if you urge your employees to take ownership. Team members who do not take ownership will try to beat the system.

A high turn-over or non-compliance is often experienced if the workplace’s culture promotes accountability as a means of punishment rather than learning and course-correcting.

Great leaders use accountability appropriately and recognize the fine line between motivating and measuring the performance.

Responsibility (ownership) must precede accountability (measurement). Leaders who choose otherwise will end up using accountability to force responsibility, which in most cases does not work.

By using accountability as a means of punishment and a scare tactic, your employees may choose to distort the numbers and cheat to beat the system.

Tips for leaders to develop accountability and responsibility in the workplace

Leadership accountability and responsibility are key to developing a positive culture in an organization.

As a manager, you need to start with yourself. Holding yourself accountable can shift mindsets and thought processes.

In an organization, it is possible to have responsibility but still lack accountability. However, a lack of accountability is mostly unintentional. Underlying issues such as unrealistic goals, unclear roles or expectations, and weak strategies all contribute to a lack of accountability across the organization.

The following are tips that can help you as a leader increase work accountability and responsibility.

Be the role model

When you’re accountable for your team’s actions, you will set an example of the behaviors you want to see within your team.

Hire the right people

Hiring the right people will get you the right results. They are the employees who know how to align themselves with the company’s goals.

Accountability isn’t just the manager’s duty. Everyone is involved in the organizational accountability. Every employee matters

Trust is key

Using accountability as a scare tactic you will harbor a culture of blame, where employees are not going to be straightforward and may hide information you can use against them. Listen to and understand people’s concerns and ideas to build trust.

Consistent communication

Your team should be constantly reminded about the company’s culture. This includes consistent communication about the values, teamwork protocols, ethics, and clear expectations.

Be objective

When measuring the performance of the team, you need to provide clear metrics, based on results and facts and not on individual views and power struggles.

Provide continuous feedback

A strong leader gives continuous feedback to the employees and emphasizes accountability in performance reviews.

As a leader, you should create a safe space for your team members to share information and discuss any obstacles. A safe space will help improve the performance and skills because team members are able to discuss the issues they face without any blames.

Clearly explain expectations

If the employee does not have a clear explanation of expectations, you cannot hold them accountable. As a leader, you need to not only give direction but also seek feedback on your message from the employee to guarantee their understanding.

Without clear directions, people will do what they think is right. Leaders and employees need to have the same understanding of the goals supporting the focus of the organization.

Hold standup meetings

Such sessions give you the opportunity to ask people about their performance and if they need support. They are also a good chance to praise and encourage your team members.

Don’t force accountability

When you continuously support your team members, they will hold themselves accountable. Though you should make it clear that mistakes have consequences, you should be careful not to use accountability as a means of punishment.

Roadblocks to accountability and responsibility

But what can hinder your pursuit to achieving accountability or responsibility? 

Not practicing self-awareness

Stressful work issues can easily make you point fingers and blame others. But you need to consider if you are contributing to the problem and ask if there is anything you could have done differently.

Of course, you should not need to complete someone else's work for the project to succeed, but it is best if you consider whether there are gaps in the communication or process.
Self-awareness is a great leadership skill that may help you recognize any areas you can enhance.

Harvard Business Review recommends considering the following before approaching the other person:

  • Have I communicated my expectations clearly?
  • Did I ask if support was needed?
  • Have I dedicated enough time to brainstorming and reviewing the processes?

Unsafe environment

A hostile environment can easily make room for finger-pointing and lack of accountability and responsibility.

In performance reviews, avoid starting with critical feedback or using judgmental language such as “you should have…” or “that’s unacceptable.” Assuming positive intent is always better. Your goal should be to create a safe environment and listen to your team members.

Understanding the needs and motivations of your team members will help you avoid making assumptions about them. You may discover that they are unclear on organizational goals or need more feedback to do their best work. These things are not an excuse for a lack of initiative, but knowing what is really going on can help you move forward.

Unrealistic expectations

You may set up your peers, direct reports, or even your managers for failure if you have unrealistic expectations. When devising a plan, it’s best if you make sure it is doable. If not, try to make another plan.

Try to ask the other person if they are willing to try new strategies to solve the problem and ask them if you can work together on a plan to move forward.

Your plans might be smaller in scope than you expected. Baby steps are effective and increase employee responsibility.

Tools to improve accountability and responsibility

As a leader, you can increase workplace accountability and responsibility using the right productive tools and processes.

Using the tools recommended below, you can define your own responsibilities and have clearly defined responsibilities for everyone.

Agile and easy-to-use tools for effective communication and tracking progress

We have mentioned earlier that consistent communication and continuous feedback are important to measure and track progress and increase employee responsibility and work accountability.

Effective and transparent communication is not only about creating a safe space for honest dialogue and providing consistent and constant communication, but you also need to leverage technology, master meetings, and make use of mobile communications and cloud-based collaboration.

You need to consider keeping remote employees in the loop, making all documents easily accessible, and breaking down communication silos.

Choosing agile and easy-to-use tools that enhance communication is a step forward to improving accountability and responsibility in the workplace.

Some helpful tools include the following:

All-in-one meeting management software

Having one place for teams to run efficient meetings, create collaborative agendas, record decisions, and assign tasks can boost effective meetings. Effective meetings in which decisions are recorded and tasks are assigned to be followed up can allow everyone in the organization to be held accountable and responsible.

Accountability vs responsibility -  effective meetingsScreenshot from Running and following up on meetings from one place


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List-making applications for project plans

Using easily accessible checklists can help teams stay organized. You also need to create project plans to outline future goals. You can use an application like Trello, which is a collaboration tool that organizes your projects into boards.

Messaging apps

Easy-to-use messaging apps are a necessity now to keep remote employees in the loop and enhance engagement. You can use Slack, which is a messaging app for business that connects people to the information they need and bring people together to work as one unified team.

RACI matrix

RACI is an acronym that stands for “Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed.” It describes the required action for each to complete tasks or deliverables for a project or business process. It defines and clarifies the roles and responsibilities in cross-functional or departmental projects and processes.

RACI helps distinguish between a role and individually identified people. This reduces confusion on expectations and increases project efficiency and improves deliverables.
Here is how you can delegate your project using RACI:

  • Responsible: Person who is completing the assigned task on time
  • Accountable: Person who is taking accountability for delivering the task and making decisions and taking actions
  • Consulted: Person who is subject-matter expert and will be communicated with regarding the decision-making process and advising
  • Informed: Person who will be updated on decisions and actions and notify the team of daily progress

Here is a simple example: If Ahmed needs to develop a software feature that will be integrated with another software feature, developed by Yasmine. And in your organization, you have Yaseen as the project manager and Amira as the marketing product manager. Then, your RACI will look as follows:

  • Responsible: Ahmed
  • Accountable: Yaseen
  • Consulted: Yasmine (will be consulted as her feature will integrate with Ahmed’s)
  • Informed: Amira (must be updated on when the deliverables are ready)

SMART goals

SMART goals can help you increase employee responsibility and workplace accountability. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

By engaging your team members in the process of goal settings, they can have clear expectations and hold themselves accountable and responsible.

If you need to know more about how to set SMART goals and what leadership skills you can enhance using SMART goal framework, check out our article about SMART goals. Here are some of the advantages of setting SMART goals.

  • Providing clarity, managers and team members are aligned, and everyone knows their part
  • Helping managers choose relevant, company-wide objectives
  • Offering a structured way to set goals
  • Helping retain the whole team’s focus on the desired result
  • Saving time that could be wasted on activities that are not SMART goal-oriented
  • Helping the team stay motivated

To sum up, though accountability and responsibility are often used interchangeably, there are key differences between the two. Knowing the difference between accountability and responsibility and which comes first will help leaders develop a positive culture.

As a manager, starting with yourself and holding yourself accountable can shift mindsets and thought processes. Being a role model, setting clear expectations, and promoting a safe environment all contribute to leadership accountability.

Moreover, you need to use the right tools to hold effective meetings to set clear expectations and easily delegate tasks, keep remote employees in the loop, make all documents easily accessible, and break down communication silos. meeting management platform


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