Are You Accountable or Responsible? September 28 2011

Are you accountable or responsible? What’s the difference and why does it matter?

The first time I heard this distinction was years ago in one of my first coaching engagements. I was interviewing colleagues of my client and a senior executive said, “He needs to be more accountable and less responsible.” That made a lot of sense to me and the distinction ended up being one of the nine leadership pick up and let go distinctions in my book, The Next Level. The idea is that to grow and be effective as a leader, you have to pick up accountability for many results and let go of responsibility for a few results.

Since the book came out, I’ve had a lot of conversations with leaders about the difference between being accountable and responsible. The most recent one was yesterday in a wrap up session for our group coaching program, Next Level Leadership™.  As we talked through the progress the participants have made over the past seven months, one of them said he was still struggling with getting a handle on the difference between the two.

I probably gave the most succinct and clear answer I’ve ever given to what the difference is between accountability and responsibility. It worked for the leaders in the room yesterday. I hope it will be helpful to you.

If you’re accountable, you answer for it. If you’re responsible, you do it. I think that’s the essence of the difference. Here’s why I think it matters.

As I’ve written here before, most leaders have a history of being the “go-to person.” As the go to person, the get stuff done, get noticed and end up in bigger roles. It’s a great thing until it isn’t anymore. It ceases to be great when the scope of responsibilities is so great that you can no longer rely on the go to person approach to get it all done. That’s when you have to make the shift from being the go to person to being the person who creates a team of go to people. One of the ways you do that is to pick up accountability for many results and let go of responsibility for a few results.

To answer for it instead of doing it, you have to have the systems and processes in place that enable you to be accountable for the results instead of acting as if you’re personally responsible for the results. It’s the only way that you can create the bandwidth to do the things that only you can in your specific leadership role. It’s also one of the primary ways that you develop the capacity and capabilities of your team.

So, what say you? Are you accountable or responsible? How do you determine which answer is appropriate? Are there ever times when the answer is both? What have you learned so far on this journey?

4 Responses to “Are You Accountable or Responsible?”

  1. Scott, I appreciate the distinction between the two terms. Often I say responsible when I mean accountable.

  2. Gayle Ely says:

    Scott-I have learned so far on this journey that in some ways it is easier to be accountable for things that I have never been responsible for. When I am feeling outside my comfort zone, I have found myself wanting to return to being responsible for something I was good at rather than taking the position of accountability. It feels good to return to the comfort zone. However, it would be detrimental to my relationship with the person currently responsible for the result if I were to take the responsibility from them for my own comfort.

  3. Sandra Goodyear says:

    Scott; As a certified Six Sigma black belt, I recognize the distinction from project role and responsibilities when establishing project milestones and eventual process control.

  4. Debbie says:

    Great post- I love your book, and keep it handy-
    Yesterday- I was about to take responsibility for something I was accountable for – I actually did- and then stopped myself, went back to the person that works for me, and said, – 'it's yours- you own it- it has to be you'- and they agreed and understood-it was growth for me .

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