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The Difference Between Responsibility and Accountability in Leadership

Think back to a time when seemingly small decisions impacted thousands of people. Situations have ended with decreased profits, major transitions, and employee downsizing. You may have a government agency accusing one party of negligence and another stakeholder pointing their finger at independent contractors that were hired to complete a specific task that went completely wrong. In these situations, it’s common to ask these two questions: Who was responsible? And who should be held accountable?

Accountability and responsibility are often used interchangeably, but these words have distinct meanings that separate them and their roles in the workplace. It is imperative that leaders understand the difference between accountability and responsibility if they want to move their organizations forward.

The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility

Accountability and responsibility can’t be lumped into the same bucket. Although these two terms have some similarities, a few distinct characteristics separate them in the workplace. Responsibility can be shared. You can work with a team of people to divide responsibilities. On the other hand, accountability is something that can be specific to an individual depending on their skill set, role, or strengths. Responsibility is task-oriented. Every person on a team may be responsible for a given task that is required to complete a massive project. Accountability is what happens after a situation has occurred. It is how you respond and take ownership over the results. Even during the most uncertain times, true leaders hold themselves accountable for the results. Responsibility focuses on defined roles, job descriptions, and processes that must be in place to achieve a goal. On the contrary, accountability is committed to the successful completion of tasks assigned to you and being willing to take responsibility for everything that happens as a result of the actions that were taken.  

What Is Accountability in the Workplace? Accountability is one requirement of an effective and influential leader in the workplace. It is defined as taking ownership to ensure responsibilities are achieved as expected. This means that leaders must clearly understand expectations before making commitments.   Accountability requires a mental shift in the workplace; leaders have to be willing to give up a followers’ mentality and focus their efforts in a productive way to ensure that they achieve results. Accountability is one way to build trust in the workplace. People trust leaders who aren’t quick to blame others if things don’t go as planned, but who instead take accountability for their role in the consequences. Companies benefit from leaders who are accountable because they are able to quickly identify problems and come up with possible solutions. When leaders are accountable, it inspires other leaders to exude the same traits. It’s important to demonstrate examples of behaviors that employees should follow, as this can prove to be an asset to any company because it can increase productivity. Consequences of Leaders Who Lack Accountability   Leadership accountability is crucial to workplace success. Without it, an organization can jeopardize its current and future goals. When leaders don’t deliver as expected, the company may encounter a variety of losses. The company may also incur expenses because they had to hire someone else to do the job or had to use additional resources in order to deliver the final product. Another inevitable consequence is that companies put their customer service on the line. Leaders who are not accountable for their actions, and in turn their consequences, can significantly impact the customer experience. Lack of accountability diminishes the level and quality of customer service. It also impacts how customers are treated, which can lead to negative reviews, dissatisfied customers, and shaken customer relationships. Employee engagement can also drop. Some leaders were taught or have adapted to playing the blame game instead of taking ownership for their mistakes.

When leaders don’t take responsibility for their actions, and how they affect others, their employees will take cues from this. Whether their engagement is affected by the blame game or from a lack of a model leader, it will inevitably affect employees’ performance.



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