Are the two words synonymous? Is there really a difference? As a leader, how can you put them into perspective to ensure what you plan to get accomplished really gets done?

The outcome of any team is dependent upon many variables. Consider a seven member team that has carefully defined roles and responsibilities to tackle an organizational task. As a leader, it is vital that you can effectively guide the team to a successful outcome. Distinguishing the nuance between the two words (accountability and responsibility) can help you better prepare and succeed.sitting_on_books_reading_custom_book_15399


Having recently studied a stack of CRAP (Columns, Reviews, Articles and Posts) regarding public officials being held responsible and accountable (or not), the two words often seemed to be used interchangeably. As a result, half of the stack was a bit confusing.


Stop 1: find a dictionary.
Here is Miriam-Webster boiled down:
•        Responsibility: the quality or state of being responsible as moral, legal, or mental accountability
•        Accountability: the quality or state of being accountable as an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility.

custom_life_balance_13780Huh? Use one term to help explain the other? Seriously?

Stop 2: use to find synonyms and antonyms.
This stop only added to confusion in the quest for clarity.

Stop 3: ask everyone’s favorite spy, Agent Google.
Here are six (out of scores of hits) showing a range of views.

•        A scholarly discourse by Thomas Bivins, who discusses both terms within the public relations profession. The 20 pages were interesting, but further muddied the water.
•        A practical blog like the Oz Principle suggesting that “responsibility may be bestowed, but accountability must be taken” – the Dalai Lama would love this!
•        A business oriented view by Travis Lindsay that suggests the two terms, “…while differentiated, often occupy the same place” – any sage consultant can use this to raise their fee.
•        An organizational perspective by Scott Eblin who defines the terms by using them as adjectives: “If you’re accountable, you answer for it. If you’re responsible, you do it” – okay, more action oriented, but can’t I do both?
•        Another perspective by Dennis Hooper suggesting a temporal distinction with accountability following responsibility – ah, so they should occur in order – another piece of the puzzle.
•        And finally, in a Monty Python (something completely different) angle, Anna Mar uses both terms in the already complex realm of project planning – ah, let us now enter the Matrix!

One lesson from the surfing safari was a common thread in the discussions: Leadership – both on the organizational and personal level.


The definitions, logic and explanations above all have great points, and I like Dennis Hooper’s best. So here is a simple framework to expand on his discussion. Think of the two terms on a continuum of “planning” to “execution.”

On a personal leadership level you can plan or pledge to be responsible in your role as a mate or a parent. Specifically, you make it your responsibility to increase your income so that you can afford that new car; or you make it your responsibility to assist your children with their fundraising for a school project. Upon executing those pledges (or not delivering), you then become accountable.

On an organizational leadership level, think of job descriptions (either for you or your team). A job description is really a plan for what you or your team members are responsible for. Written correctly, they establish roles and boundaries. Normally, at the end of a reporting period, you are held accountable for what you executed or delivered (or not). And, if you are a leader, you are also accountable for ensuring you hold your team members accountable.


1. Whatever you do, hold yourself accountable before you ask it of others. If you are an organizational leader, you are more visible than you probably imagine. Your followers will emulate your actions. Show them that you value accountability.
2. Be definitive in planning to be responsible. Write it down – in a job description – on a planner – on a sticky – wherever! Use measurable language, specifics and timelines. It will be easier to assess and determine you and your team or organization’s accountability. figure_insert_your_writing_300_clr_14473
3. Include others as you frame your responsibility box. Whether it is your mate, your children or your team, it is a great way to set goals and establish realistic objectives. If it is something personal, consider sharing it with a close friend, mentor or trusted agent.
4. Build periodic reviews into your schedule to assess accountability.  Be honest as to your progress. If you or your team didn’t fulfill the responsibilities, find out why. If you have to devote more resources or energy, do so – and if you are on a team, remember the “weakest link” analogy and act if necessary. If you are successful, rejoice, praise and raise the bar!
5. Consider letting go of old commitments. Sometimes we sign up to become responsible for too much. It’s easy to do. Times change and so do we. So it is important to recognize when we can no longer realistically commit.


The words responsibility and accountability are often used interchangeable, and in the end, it doesn’t hurt to use them that way. Most people will understand. However, as a leader, consider using a continuum from planning to execution to help you think through your roles and responsibilities and ensure that you can gauge accountability for yourself and your team.

There’s a big difference between responsibility and accountability. The most important thing a leader can do in ANY organization; public, private, or non-profit, is to hold responsible people accountable. Be accountable to yourself before you expect it from others. Duty makes the Difference! — Sam Crouse, Ph.D.  (March 16th, 2014, ABC News


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