Accountable or Responsible?

Today I tried to figure out what the difference is between the words responsible and accountable. I honestly didn’t know.

The words are often used interchangeably. And in my native language (Dutch) they even translate to the same word: “verantwoordelijk“. This made the use of these words even more puzzling to me, as in this case:

“We boost performance through group accountability for results and shared responsibility for team effectiveness.”Declaration of InterDependence

When are you responsible? And when are you accountable?
I feel responsible for writing these blog posts. But am I also accountable for what I write?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary confirms that the words are often used as synonyms, but it also gives some clues on their subtle differences:

“responsible” implies holding a specific office, duty, or trust;
“accountable” suggests imminence of retribution for unfilled trust or violated obligation.

Aha! So being responsible means being trusted with something? And being accountable means being punished when you fail?
Hm, sounds reasonable, but not quite right…

On Wikipedia there is a description of the RACI matrix. It defines which people are Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed in a project, for a set of tasks or deliverables. It implies that those who are responsible (R) are not also accountable (A). And the one who is accountable (A) must sign off the work of the one who is responsible (R).

Aha! So being responsible means doing all the work? And being accountable means being supervised by someone else?

Well, sounds interesting, but still not exactly what I hoped to find…

Fortunately, there is Christopher Avery’s explanation. It is the most illuminating of all articles that I could find on this confusing topic. Christopher refers to a quote that expresses the fundamental difference in a clear and simple way:

“So I TAKE responsibility and I am HELD accountable.”

I take responsibility for writing this blog post, and I could be held accountable for copyright infringement (if I didn’t include the link to Wikipedia under the previous image).

Responsibility is something that you take yourself. Accountability is what others require of you. Or, as Christopher Avery says: “If you have a manager and aren’t clear about what you are held accountable for, you might want to take responsibility for finding out.”

As I explained in my previous blog post on leaders versus rulers, I believe both rulers and leaders are needed in any organization. Rulers deal with accountability. They identify the people to be held accountable for results. It is a hierarchical issue: those held accountable can identify their own subordinates, and hold them accountable for partial results. But leaders deal with responsibility. They create a culture where people willingly take responsibility for stuff they may not even be held accountable for.

As a manager, you get to choose your roles. First of all, you are the ruler. You make the laws. You hold people accountable for results, and if they agree to those rules they automatically take responsibility for following them.

But that’s not all!

Make love, not war. Make leaders, not rules.

It is often better to make leaders than to make rules. You can try to be a leader yourself, or you can allow others to be leaders. Your leaders inspire people to take responsibility for things that you, as a ruler, never thought or cared about, but without the threat of retribution that follows with accountability. Instead, with responsibility comes the reward of job satisfaction.

And when you have cross-functional teams delivering software projects, the best situation would be to hold the entire team accountable for what they deliver, while the leaders in the team inspire the team to take responsibility for that and any other stuff that you as a manager didn’t think of.

So… this was yet another blog post for which I claim full responsibility, including any errors in quotations, for which the respective authors may hold me accountable…

(picture from ZaMoose, Creative Commons 2.0)

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  • Mark Roddy

    One other point to make is that accountability does not guarentee the creation responsibility, in the same way that policies (say test coverage percentage) do not guarentee the desired results of the policies (quality tests). In some situations it could actually be counter productive to your goals.
    Though you could also look at any ‘policy’ as mechinism for accountability. And by stating that supervisors are accountable while their staff should be responsible I think you’re indirectly making the same argument.

  • Mike Ramm

    Hi Jurgen,
    I have a little different understanding of the meaning of these words. I am not a native English speaker and in my language (Bulgarian) we also have only one word – “отговорен”.
    What I knew until I read your post was that accountability is really what other people want from you but said positively it means that they know your qualities and they rely on you for them, i.e. they count on you for the things you are good at.
    The responsibility is more “official” duty. You are responsible for your mistakes and wrong decisions. Said in other words, if the upper management needs someone to blame – this will be the “responsible” person.
    Maybe I have a wrong understanding – I would appreciate further comments from native English speakers.

  • luke

    I think Jurgen has it right, but even so native English speakers will say things like “I take accountability for…” or “I’m holding you responsible for…”
    No hard & fast rules on that one. Organisations with a culture of poor, but verbose communications style will use ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ in the same sentece, applied to the same subject.

  • Glen Alleman

    From the US Army Handbook on the Topic of RACI
    Responsibility – The person who is assigned to do the work
    Accountability – The person who makes the final decision and has the ultimate ownership
    Consulted – The person who must be consulted before a decision or action is taken
    Informed – The person who must be informed that a decision or action has been taken

  • Glen Alleman

    Actually you’ve got it backwards
    Leaders are accountable – they are the ones who have led the followers into the situation be it good or bad.
    Managers are responsible – they are the ones who followed the leader.
    You can only be accountable AND responsible if you do not delegate any work.
    Your notion of team accountability has many troubling outcomes, too many to speak of here, but well documented in the literature on “teaming” and “teams.”

  • Glen Alleman

    You hit it right.
    In our ERP and defense project management practice, we start by identifying who’s accountable and let that person take it from there – the basis of self organizing is to have clearly identified accountability.
    When the group is accountable – no one is accountable. This is the basis of poor management, poor government, and poor project leadership. It sounds very egalitarian, but in fact doesn’t scale well beyond a group of close and intimate friends.

  • Eli Lopian

    We use responsibility for future actions and accountability for past actions.
    Using this definition helps us fix our mistakes.

  • Rutger

    Ofcourse in Dutch there is also “aansprakelijkheid”, which translates well to accountability and “verantwoordelijkheid” translates better to responsibility.
    I don’t think there is any true semantic difference between the two words. But then it should be odd that the words translate in such a way.
    Eli Lopian’s definition is the only correct one in my view, but in use the words have become completely interchangable.

  • Julian Daniel Jimenez Krause

    In the German project management framework (V-Modell-XT), for each activity there is exactly one responsible (“Verantwortlicher”), and there might be one or more contributors. Nothing else.
    Meaning that in the German language we also do not distinguish between Responsible and Accountable (both translated to “Verantwortlich”). The Verantwortlicher can, upon agreement, delegate implementation responsibility to any other role(s); but he/she is ultimately accountable for the accomplishment of this task.
    I am right now writing a document about IT Governance, and I will use the German approach (i.e. exactly one Verantwortlicher per task; zero or many Contributors) instead of the RACI’s.

  • Sesha

    I want to go with Glen line of thinking…
    i am glad to find this blog..

  • Dani

    Nice discussion.
    I am also more with Glen´s line.

  • Chris Chou

    Thanks for clarifying that out!
    I was doing research on RACI matrix but i couldn’t figure out the difference between R and A!
    Now i kinda do! Thanks!

  • Dirk HK

    @ Julian Daniel Jimenez Krause
    I’m not exactly with you, even though I had the same impression when I tried to translate the WIKIPEDIA definitions into German. On second thoughts, I’d say that ACCOUNTABLE means VERANTWORTLICH (“answerable”) in the sense of “one neck to break if things go wrong”, whereas “RESPONSIBLE” shoult translate into “ZUSTÄNDIG”, in the sense of “she/he needs to make things happen.
    I would readily admit that this distinction carries with it a model of organisation which is not to everybody’s liking (Original post: “Well, sounds interesting, but still not exactly what I hoped to find…”), not even, for that matter, to mine 😉

  • Gerard van Reekum

    I’m native in Dutch and as an organization scientist quite familiar with the use (and abuse) of these terms. I disagree with the author that responsible and accountable translate into the same Dutch word. Responsible = ‘verantwoordelijk’, accountable = ‘aansprakelijk’. Both are related with being authorized = ‘bevoegd’. The idea is that one can delegate a task only with all three specified. You cannot be responsible without authority, but being authorized implies assuming accountability (in Dutch ‘rekenschap’ or ‘verantwoording’).
    I am well aware that corporate politics produce a lot of confusion, often deliberately. Perhaps it is a bit naive to think that such confusion can be reduced by the proper use of language (read 1984, brave new world, and the likes).

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Gerard, thanks for your input. Much appreciated.
    But I have to disappoint you. The dictionaries and translators disagree on the translations. For example, Google Translate says that “aansprakelijk” = “liable” and “verantwoordelijk” = “accountable”. I checked other dictionaries too. Usually they allow multiple translations as equally valid.

  • Hans van Veen

    interesting, thanks!

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