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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