Accountability vs Responsibility: the root of (in)effectiveness

Consciously clarifying the relationship between a Manager and Direct Report accelerates the completion of work and ultimately the achievement of strategy.

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“You are responsible for X” means something very different from “You are accountable for X”.

“Responsibility” is a one-way personal sense of obligation that wells up internally and is self-justified. In responsibility, “giving” is perceived by the “giver” as its own reward. The relationship between a donor and a beneficiary, a volunteer and a recipient, or a devotee and a charismatic leader are based on responsibility. Being “responsible” for X means “feeling” obliged to X.

“Accountability”, on the other hand, is a two-directional, mutually agreed upon construct whose terms are externally imposed and explicitly defined. In accountability, “work” is based on consequence: the giving or withholding of reward. Being “accountable” for X means “being” obliged to X.

This should be the foundation of Manager-Direct Report relationships at all levels in all organizations. The problem is, this is not so.

Many, perhaps most, organizations today function within a system of responsibility, not accountability. The limitation of doing so is that the internalized nature of responsibility means that motivation and the nature, volume, quality and strategic value of employees’ work rests with them – employees are doing what they believe to be important to whatever direction, degree or duration they feel is right.

Looking around, we can see that it is, in fact, possible to get work done in a system of responsibility. However, its effectiveness is wildly erratic and its output is fraught with inefficiencies, misalignment and potentially abuse.

Without accountability, employees attempting to secure resources in order to do their work must, to the limit of their personal ability, appeal to their colleagues’ sense of responsibility through charm, barter, bribery, “bending the knee” or even threats. As a result, unpredictably, some work will get done and some will not, irrespective of its strategic value. “Bright knights” emerge – those employees with an overly keen sense of responsibility who charge around the organization helping where they are inclined, but whose work strays outside the parameters of their role and may not even be aligned to strategy. Inversely, “dark knights” appear – those employees whose sense of responsibility is primarily to themselves or their team who, embracing the lack of accountability, incidentally or deliberately impede or undermine the work of others with the intent of empowering themselves at the cost of organizational success.

Furthermore, engagement is not sustainable in a culture of responsibility. Those employees with a greater sense of responsibility are valued more than those with less, which may work for a time, but ultimately results in burnout or disaffection and talent loss. Additionally, since the degree of an employee’s sense of responsibility is internal in nature, the organization cannot rely on the constancy of these “heroes”, let alone the strategic alignment of their work.

Within a system of accountability, on the other hand, expectations between a Manager and a Direct Report are made explicit – and are bound by consequence – through role clarity. Both roles are provided clear accountabilities and authorities between themselves, and between themselves and peers. All employees understand for what it is they are held accountable, and what authorities they have to complete their accountabilities. All accountabilities are directly connected to the successful completion of strategy, further ensuring the organizational relevance of the work.

It is important to note, though, that responsibility has its place in a system of accountability. It is the brightest evidence of engagement by an employee with a truly effective manager. In a system of accountability, however, capturing the benefits of responsibility occurs after clarifying accountability. In accountability, responsibility is not the basis of the hierarchy, it is an added value proffered at the discretion and to the degree of the giver.

There is enormous potential within organizations today to accelerate the completion of work. By shifting the execution from an employee’s personally defined sense of responsibility to the clarity of accountability, the achievement of strategy is, in turn, accelerated.

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