Accountability vs. Responsibility?

It’s guest post Monday! This post is written by Gordon Tredgold who writes at Leadership Principles. He studied Mathematics at Manchester University. Worked in IT for over 20 year, specialist in Transformational Leadership, Operational Performance Improvement, Organisational Development, and Program and Change Management. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. If you would like to have a post featured on my site then click here.

A dear friend asked me to comment on the difference between accountability and responsibility.

Given we both work for a German firm, it’s an interesting question.

In German
the word for Accountable is Verantwortlich and the word for Responsible is Verantwortlich.

So you can see our problem.

In English its not much better, if you check on line, quite often, the definitions are interchangeable.

For me the difference is clear and I always try to communicate my definition to the entire organization, so it’s clear to them what I expect.

Responsible means that you are involved, possibly performing a clearly defined task, and your performance could determine a successful outcome.

Accountable means that its up to you to ensure that there will be a successful outcome.

Even though you might not actually be performing any of the tasks involved.

Let’s look at soccer as an example.

The players are responsible, for the passing, tackling, attacking, defending and scoring of the goals that will determine who wins the game.

The manager is accountable for result.

If the team loses he is the one who will need to explain why to his bosses, and will possibly suffer the consequences after a string of poor results.

Many people say that’s its unfair, as the manager doesn’t kick a single ball.

However, it is the manager who selected the players, trained the players, decided the tactics, provided the motivation and game plan, was able to make the changes to players and tactics as the match unfolds.

We can delegate responsibility for tasks, but we cannot delegate accountability.

If we start to try delegate accountability, this is usually as a result of a failure, at which point we are looking for someone to blame for that failure.

As Leaders it’s always our job to ensure success.

Question: What are your thoughts about accountability and responsibility?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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68 thoughts on “Accountability vs. Responsibility?

  1. Hi Gordon – leaders are responsible and accountable to their team, projects, success etc. like it or not. They are initially given much responsibility in their work and they can delegate that responsibility, like you say. But they’re also responsible for how things turn out. So, yes leaders are accountable ultimately for the success or failure of a project. I pose the question who are they ultimately accountable too? Sometimes, someone may be a good boss to their employees but fail to shareholders. A winning coach but failing to be kind to the players.

    Who are people accountable to is a question we must take into account. Can you succeed in being accountable to one group and fail in accountability to someone else at the very same time?

    • Vishnu, great question. I fully agree with you. As a practitioner of servant leadership, i serve both the team as they perform the task, and i serve the stake holders by looking to deliver the result.

      I think managers who fail to serve their team, or are not nice to them, will only have limited success. It might work once or twice but over time their teams will stop to put in the required effort, or go the extra mile.

      Leaders who master both will be the most successful.

  2. I use the words interchangeably myself. If there’s a difference between the two, it’s too subtle for my eyes. I agree that the manager/coach/leader is responsible for his team though. I’ve seen too many supervisors who prefer to blame their team when something goes wrong rather than accept any responsibility themselves. True leadership requires holding yourself just as, if not more, accountable than anyone else in the room.


  3. “We can delegate responsibility for tasks, but we cannot delegate accountability.”

    Powerful statement, and so true. Not only can we delegate responsibility, in most cases, we probably should delegate responsibility of certain tasks to others. However, we are still accountable for the outcome, and need to manage the people we delegate tasks to in such a way.

  4. Great illustration that helped bring it down to easy to understand terms. We should hold each accountable to what’s within their care – regardless of position, role, or delegation item. Helping each person understand what that means will be key to an item’s success or failure.

  5. Homerun of a post. I also think it points to the fact that we need to have, as Jim Collins says, “The right people on the bus.” If we have those around us that will be accountable it makes it a better fit with those that are willing to take their accountability. Excellent thoughts.

    • Floyd, Jim Collins is one of my favourite authors and i fully agree with that phrase. I also think that as a leader i am accountable, but my job is a lot easier if the people work for me feel accountable, and its something i look for.

  6. Great! Even I was little shadowed in between Accountability and responsibility. But now i know the difference its all thanks to you.

    It’s like, I’m accountable for my peoples action and responsible for my own.

    The price of being great leader is responsibility. We should always take responsibility for our own action.

  7. I agree completely. Solid leaders delegate effectively and if something goes wrong, it’s on them to absorb any flack from a client or boss, and fly top cover for their team while diagnosing the problem so it doesn’t happen again.

  8. I often say this in a different way– there is a difference between taking the blame and taking responsibility. We think good leaders take the fall for their team, right? Your success is my success, and the opposite, too. But great leaders take responsibility for fixing the problems, preventing repeated mistakes, and ensuring the long-term success of the team and organization.

  9. This is a really powerful sentence, “We can delegate responsibility for tasks, but we cannot delegate accountability.”
    I think many in our society like to shrug off both responsibility and accountability. But someone is always responsible and someone is always accountable.

    Great post, I like the analogy you used, very helpful.

  10. At the end of the day, if we’re the leader we’re the ones responsible. It’s a sign of a weak leader if you try and push responsibility on the person you delegated to. Real leaders want the ball when there’s 6 seconds left on the clock and the team is down.

    • I totally agree with you Kimanzi, taking ownership and responsibility for personal and team outcomes is essential. Thank you for adding to the discussion.

    • Kimanzi, you can delegate responsibility. I can give the task of paining the house to the local construction company, but my wife will hold me accountable. I picked the firm, i inspected it at completion, i sign it off. If its not what she wanted then its my bad

  11. Gordon, I’d never thought about the differences before. I see the difference now and I totally agree! It looks like the only way a leader can “delegate” both responsibility and accountability is in the case of a hand over – when they leave the scene entirely :) great post. It’s got me thinking.

    • He wrote a great post, right?:) He expanded my thoughts. I totally agree with you, when they no longer are in charge they no longer have the responsibility. Thank you for reading and adding to the discussion.

    • Good point Ngina, and i have seen many leaders try and do both, but often to get out of accountability, but thats not leading.

  12. In my work we often create something called a RACI as part of Lean methodologies – this establishes who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. A systematic approach such as this makes expectations very clear. You are right – there is a HUGE difference between being responsible for getting something done and accountable for getting it done.

  13. I would have to say that accountability means acting in a manner that keeps you in line with what your goals are. So you have boundaries that you don’t go out of. Responsibility to me means you need to be accountable for your actions. If these don’t go hand in hand I am not sure what does. Great post.

    • Sorry Lincoln i disagree. What you saying is Accountable mean x, and responsible means your accountable.
      This is exactly the problem people get themselves into. Accountability and Responsibility are two different things. For sure they are in the same grey area, but they are different. For sure they can go hand in hand i agree with that.

      • Its ok to disagree as you may know I’m sure. Example as a Business owner you have to be accountable for certain things to happen if you want your company to be successful in the course of daily action, and either you can have someone hold you accountable for those things to happen or they just don’t happen, so Accountability is important. Now Responsibility is what needs to get done. You know you have a task that needs to be completed, and its your “Responsibility” to get it done. I think those are two different things but blended at the same time.

  14. Hi Gordon,

    I loved your guest post and thanks Dan having Gordon over at your blog.

    Gordon, I think you explained the difference between accountability and responsibility, beautifully. I really appreciated the simple football example you used.

    It got me thinking of my previous jobs and made it much clearer in my mind about those times when I was responsible and my managers were accountable.

    Thank you.

  15. Very interesting that the Germans use the same word for responsibility and accountability. To me, this illustrates the interconnectedness of the two concepts. Both are necessary for the other to happen as it should. This interconnectedness seems well illustrated in 1 Corinthians 12 where the church is describes as one body with many parts. Responsibilty and accountability are necessary for the body to function as it should. Haven’t really studied this idea out, but this is what I initially thought of as I considered how the two concepts need each other.

  16. I agree with Justin on this,
    A great leader takes responsibility for fixing the problems, preventing repeated mistakes, and ensuring the long-term success of the team and organization. That’s what makes a great leader. Its not just about bearing the name, but representing it too.

    You’ve shared a great post here Gordon.

  17. Gordon,

    As I sat here reading this I was thinking to myself the comment I was going to write to disagree with you. Not just because I wanted to disagree but because as you were explaining, the fine line between the two terms was still vague. Until you said this:

    “We can delegate responsibility for tasks, but we cannot delegate accountability.”

    That is phenomenal! In January I had a meeting with the managers at my firm and I told them that our term for 2013 is accountability. The sentence you gave above is excellent. This was priceless for me. Thank you.

  18. I’ve always thought of responsibility of what I should do and accountability as someone making sure I live up to my responsibilities. Accountability is not utilized often enough as it’s a powerful force for doing the right things.

  19. I live by the accountability along with results. As a leader, and manager, I am accountable for all the results that my team produces. So I need to be at my sharpest to ensure that my team is both responsible to do the work they have direct responsibility over, and to be accountable for the results that will be achieved. As leaders we do not have about accountability. When the team fails we are accountable, when the team succeeds we are are accountable, but also we give the credit to the team we don’t take it for ourselves.

  20. Wow Justin I can see the dilemma when in German the two words are the same. I think the soccer example you gave explains the English definitions very well.

    • Hi Sue, this is a problem in German, but in English where we have 2 different words confusion still abounds. I find the football analogy makes it clear and use it all the time