Accountability vs Responsibility: 9 Differences Easy Explained (2021)

8 min read

These two terms, responsibility and accountability are often used interchangeably, yet have very distinct meanings. It’s important for you to understand the differences in order to assess what fits where. 

While responsibility can be shared, accountability is personal and individual. Follow this list for 9 differences, easily explained.

Let’s dive right into it.

1. Responsibility Can Be Shared

The key difference between responsibility and accountability is that with responsibility you can work with a team of people to divide tasks.

On the other hand, accountability is something that can be held specifically to one person depending on their skill set, role, or strengths.

2. Responsibility Is Task-Oriented

Responsibility is defined as task focused and/or behavioral in nature.

Being held to account is when one person takes claim over the responsibility of certain tasks after a situation has occurred. Even during the most uncertain times, true leaders keep themselves accountable for the results of their team.

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3. Responsibility Focuses On Defined Roles

Job descriptions in the workplace, processes, and roles must be in place to achieve responsibility for a goal.

On the contrary, to be held to account is defined as being committed to the successful completion of tasks assigned to you or your team and being accountable for everything that happens as a result of the actions taken by that one person.

4. Held Accountable By Others

We accept responsibility ourselves, yet, we are held accountable by someone else.

Accountability means we are liable or answerable for our actions to someone or some

authority.

5. Give An Explanation

One key way to think about being accountable is literally. When we are held accountable, if something happens to go wrong, there is one person who must give an explanation of what happened.

It is how you respond and own the results.

6. How You Respond

Responsibility refers to your ability to respond. Whether it’s a specific task or a role, if you don’t have the ability to respond, you will be held accountable.

We can not make someone responsible for something; we can only hold them accountable when things go wrong.

Accountability vs Responsibility
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

7. Taking Claim Over A Responsibility

Responsibilities dictate an employee’s basic daily duties in the workplace, which they are expected to perform with the best of their ability.

Accountability is taking claim over a responsibility and is the commitment to successfully complete tasks.

8. Responsibility Becomes Duty

Responsibility takes a negative turn when it becomes a duty – an obligation or moral commitment expected of them. This is when it’s coercion and not willingly accepted by a person.

Then this one person is still held accountable for the end result by the authority that coerced them in the beginning.

9. Household Chores

Some examples in daily life of responsibility vs. accountability are like when you feel responsible for doing household chores without being accountable if you live alone. 

There’s no one to answer to but yourself, so you’ll be responsible, but won’t face consequences from an authority. 

However, a parent could make their child responsible for the laundry getting done. If it doesn’t get finished, the child would have to explain (give an explanation of) why the task hadn’t been completed to their parent (the authority) and could face potential consequences. 

What Is Accountability And Responsibility In The Workplace?

To be an effective and influential leader in the workplace one must be accountable. It is defined as being the one person to ensure responsibilities are achieved as expected.

Leaders must clearly understand what’s required with responsibility vs. accountability before making commitments. Here’s why:

1. Mental Shift

Leaders are required to be willing to give up a followers’ mentality and focus their efforts in a productive way to ensure that they achieve results and success.

2. Trust

Being held answerable is one way for leadership to build trust in the workplace. People trust leaders who aren’t quick to blame others if the results don’t go as planned, but who instead take accountability for their role accepting the consequences.

3. Future Goals

An organization can jeopardize its current and future goals when there’s a lack of focus on being held answerable to the members while in leadership. This can lead to encountering a variety of losses.

The company may also incur expenses because they had to hire someone else to do the job, provide the service or had to use additional resources in order to deliver the final product or project.

4. Customer Service

Lack of accountability diminishes the level and quality of customer service. It’s also key in impacting how customers are treated, which can lead to negative reviews, dissatisfied customers, and shaken customer relationships.

5. Employee Engagement

Some leaders were taught or have adapted to playing the blame game instead of answering 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.

What Does It Mean To Be Responsible And Accountable?

In the workplace, we are assigned specific responsibilities that we are accountable for. If we’re told or ordered to do something, we don’t always feel genuinely responsible or wholeheartedly committed.

Here is the difference between accountability and responsibility in our work. For example, if a medical practitioner acts unprofessionally, we would want them to be held accountable by the appropriate professional body.

Yet, wouldn’t you rather they felt an intrinsic responsibility more strongly than their fear of being held accountable?

In some cases, someone can both have responsibility for something, and also be held to account for it.

Consider this example, an office employee is responsible for keeping the storage room stocked with computer paper. They’re aware that this is their job, and will continue to bring more paper to the room before it runs out.

As this is an ongoing task, they are merely responsible for it – they will not be held accountable until the task is completed. In this example, that could be if the employee fails to stock the room and has to face consequences for the results.

Accountability Vs Responsibility In Relationships

Taking accountability and responsibility for your actions is an important part of healthy relationships.

  1. Doing so is an empowering reminder that you have control over the role you play in your relationship.
  1. To hold yourself accountable means to own your feelings, and taking responsibility for your contribution to the relationship — good and bad.

If both members of the relationship are accountable, as examples, one would work at changing their conduct, and the other would work at managing their feelings better.

Furthermore, it means having the strength of character to attempt to fix what you did, either by asking for help or applying the discipline to change the behavior.

  1. Lack of accountability is when you apologise, but don’t change your behavior. Acknowledging how you may have hurt your partner, and what more you need to bring into the relationship is step one.
  1. The most important thing is to make the changes. Saying one thing, and doing another, is the biggest deal-breaker; it’s hypocrisy!

It compromises trust and reliability, and can make the other partner feel insecure.

One of the most challenging things in a relationship is to find the balance between ‘me’ and ‘we’. But, if ‘me’ wins over ‘we’ more often, it might be time to re-evaluate things.

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Accountability And Responsibility In Management

It is in motivating and inspiring your team that you will notice your employees taking personal responsibility for their tasks.

A couple of examples are, when a government agency accuses one party of negligence and another stakeholder pointing their finger at an independent contracting company that was hired to complete a specific project that went completely wrong.

In these situations, it’s common to ask these two questions: Who was responsible? And who should be held accountable?

In order to inspire your team to take responsibility, you must lead by example and hold yourself responsible for motivating and inspiring them.

Here are some tips for managers to understand responsibility vs. accountability and develop these traits:

1. Act On Feedback

Feedback helps you improve company procedures and interactions. Lead by example, driving suggestions into action, based on the feedback you ask for and receive from your group.

Demonstrate both responsibility and accountability for your actions and project outcomes. In doing so, you are going to encourage and influence your employees to do the same.

2. Understand Other Perspectives

Make an effort to understand other peoples’ perspectives. This effort means understanding the responsibilities of your group, to then determine the fairness of your expectations and ways to keep them accountable for their work.

3. Effective Communication

As a leader, you know situations continuously change and evolve. Ensure your specific task is engaging in ongoing communication among your team.

This gives them valuable resources to have the latest updates and to understand how these changing parts may impact their ability to deliver results on a project or service.

Accountability Vs Responsibility Vs Ownership

The easiest way to put these categories, responsibility, accountability, and ownership together as a process is to create a strategic plan among members of your team for the best results.

That will establish generalized goals for the management system, and assign responsible people (who have the authority and are accountable) to implement the actions needed to achieve your goals.

1. Ownership

Taking ownership means individuals and teams taking accountability for the quality and success of both the output and outcomes of their work or behavior. Both of these are important, however they don’t mean perfection.

It means knowing why you are doing the work (the outcome) and making sure that what you produce (the output) is fit-for-purpose. We are speaking of the state of mind where you feel fully in charge and do not give any excuses (or blame anyone else) for what needs to be done.

It also means understanding, learning, and challenging rather than mindlessly following instructions.

2. Accountability

Accountability is one person to be held to account for the fulfillment of your duties and responsibilities. It requires answers and entails consequences. 

The difference between accountability vs. ownership or responsibility, is that it’s not the same feeling as the other two. Rather it’s a process that is usually external.

Someone holds you accountable, although a sense of claiming the outcomes of your actions means that you will also hold yourself accountable as well.

3. Responsibility

Between the two is responsibility. The strong internal feeling driving your willingness to perform your duties with total ownership.

Responsibility isn’t unidirectional, though. Give individuals and teams the authority, autonomy, and accountability for an outcome.

Organizations and leaders must be transparent about the strategic decisions that are being made. For an individual or team to be held accountable for their decisions, they require the appropriate information so as to not make a predictably incorrect decision.

In healthy cultures of business agility, individuals have a strong sense of holding claim and responsibility for their work. No one is waiting for someone else to do something.

For such an environment to thrive, accountability must be alive and well or else people that are taking ownership and those that aren’t, end up being treated equally.

Similarly, think of accountability as creating personal growth rather than creating anxiety in society as a whole.

If either case is not true, organizations will find themselves losing their best performers.

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What Is The Difference Between Responsibility And Accountability?

Although the two terms responsibility and accountability are often used interchangeably by people, the following points are noteworthy as to the difference between accountability and responsibility:

  1. The state of having the duty, to do whatever it takes to complete the task assigned, is known as responsibility. The condition, wherein a person is expected to take claim over one’s actions or decisions, is called accountability.
  1. Responsibility refers to the obligation to perform the delegated task. On the other hand, to be accountable, is to answer for the consequence of the delegated task.
  1. Responsibility is assigned to one person or a team, whereas accountability is accepted.
  1. The origin of responsibility is the assigned authority. On the contrary, to be held to account arises from responsibility.
  1. Responsibility is delegated but not completely, there’s no such thing like delegation of accountability.
  1. The conduct of a person is not necessarily measured with responsibility. Unlike accountability, wherein the person’s performance is measured.
  1. Responsibility is something, wherein a person is held responsible before or after a task. In contrast to, accountability where a person can only be accountable after the task is performed or not performed satisfactorily.

In an ideal world, it would be nice to see no one have accountability forced upon them. With force, this accountability is reluctantly accepted.

If things go wrong, they’ll be inclined to cover up or make excuses for their failure to avoid the attendant blame.

We can take responsibility for things we care about, our behaviors and choices. We also, then make ourselves accountable to someone or some authority. Maybe that authority is ourselves.

That way, when things go wrong, there is no blame, only acceptance of failure.
Consider the differences explained in this article and apply them to your life. If you’ve found them to be helpful ✅ , consider forwarding this article to people you feel could gain value, as well.

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