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Accountability vs. Responsibility: Striking the Balance for Success - HRDQ

Accountability vs. Responsibility: Striking the Balance for Success

Accountability and responsibility are words often used interchangeably, but they differ in several important ways. For example, one of your employees might be responsible for completing a specific project while they are also accountable for ensuring it is done correctly and on time.

Both accountability and responsibility apply to both leaders and team members. However, leaders certainly have to make sure that they are providing the necessary tools, training, and support to their team to ensure that they can fulfill their responsibilities. At the end of the day, if teams don't have what they need to succeed, it's the leaders that are accountable.

Your organization will suffer when your employees don't have enough responsibilities or feel the need to be accountable for their actions. On the other hand, too many responsibilities or the wrong balance between accountability and psychological safety can also wreak havoc on a company.

In this post, we'll look at what each of these terms really means and how you can strike the perfect balance to help your company continue on a path to success.

Recommended Assessment
Accountability Experience
  • Minimize conflict while enhancing results
  • Remove gaps between expectation & delivery
  • Increase employee engagement
Learn more

What Does It Mean to Be Responsible?

Responsibility means owning and taking charge of a specific assignment or task. Responsibility refers to the obligations and duties an individual is assigned or chooses to take on their own shoulders.

Responsible Team Members

Interestingly, responsibility is often associated with fault, guilt, or blame. When someone is responsible for something, it means that they are the ones that dropped the ball when it didn't get completed on time or carried out properly. For this reason, many people have a negative relationship with the word "responsibility."

What Does It Mean to Be Accountable?

Being accountable means taking ownership of the outcomes of a task or an assignment.

Team Member Taking Accountability

Accountability entails recognizing and acknowledging one's responsibility in a given task and answering for the outcomes of their decisions, actions, and errors.

Accountability Vs. Responsibility

Though accountability and responsibility sound very similar, they are distinctly different in several ways.

One way to look at it is that you are responsible for tasks or things while you are accountable to others.

Team Member Responsible for Tasks

For example, taking on responsibility means performing a specific task or action. You're taking ownership of something that needs to be done. If you're being accountable, you are willing to answer other people's questions about why you performed the task the way you did or regarding mistakes you made.

The roles that responsibility and accountability each have in the workplace are decidedly different from one another, and it's essential to understand the distinction to then understand how best to strike a balance between the two.

The Primary Focus

One way to understand the difference between accountability and responsibility is that the latter is task-focused while the former is results-focused.

Team Discussing Responsibilities

Responsibility relates to the role that a specific person plays in the completion of a task. In contrast, accountability relates to how an individual owns up to the outcome of their task.

The Method of Acquisition

A person might be given responsibility or choose to take on a responsibility of their own volition. For example, a manager might assign employees a project they are responsible for without the worker explicitly volunteering. On the other hand, an individual might propose a project to their manager that they are willing to spearhead and take responsibility for, or they might volunteer for a task their manager offers to the entire team.

Manager Assigning Project Responsibilities

Accountability, though, is something that requires personal choice and action. A person can be responsible for a task– i.e., they were obligated to perform specific actions– without taking accountability for the outcome.

When we think about someone not taking accountability, we typically think of it negatively, but it can go both ways. For instance, a person responsible for a task that doesn't get completed might not take accountability by blaming a long list of external circumstances for why it didn't get done. On the flip side, an employee that does a great job following through with a task that they were responsible for that generated excellent results might not be willing to take accountability for a job well done, instead chalking it up to luck or other factors that don't result from their ownership of the project.

Where and When It Takes Place

Both responsibility and accountability are time-sensitive phenomena. Responsibility is something that can happen before a task, during a task, and after a task. Being responsible, therefore, can be applied to one situation or viewed as an ongoing obligation.

Team Member Submitting a Project

Accountability can only occur after a project has been finished or a deadline has passed. For example, if an employee doesn't get a report in by a stated deadline, the time for them to be accountable for their failure is either after the due date has passed or once it becomes clear that they aren't meeting the stated due date.

Balancing Responsibility and Accountability

If responsibility and accountability have been considered synonymous in your workplace for some time now, you're certainly not alone. However, understanding the essential distinction– that responsibility is task-focused while accountability is outcome-focused– can help you define responsibilities in your organization, ensure that people are held accountable, and find a way to balance the two.

Manager Balancing Responsibility and Accountability

As a manager, it can be easier said than done to determine who should be held accountable after a task is complete. For example, if an employee fails to perform a specific task that was put into their responsibility, it can be tempting to blame them and ask them to answer for their actions.

At the same time, that manager might wonder whether they had outfitted the employee with the tools and resources they needed to adequately complete the task within the given time. They might wonder if they had the support and coaching required to reasonably perform the task or even question whether the task itself was unreasonable given the employee's skills, training, and knowledge.

Are you worried that you're not as effective as you could be as a leader? Look at our list of fifteen signs of ineffective leadership, complete with solutions.

Clarity Is Key

One of the most essential aspects of balancing responsibility and accountability is ensuring who is responsible for what is absolutely 100% clear.

Manager Clearly Assigning Responsibilities

If no one knows who is supposed to be responsible for a particular task or project, you can be sure that not only will it not get done on time or properly, but that no one will take accountability when things go awry.

The Balance Between Psychological Safety and Accountability

Another crucial step in striking the right balance is understanding the concept of the relationship between psychological safety and accountability.

In a workplace with high psychological safety, employees know they can be themselves and take risks without facing punishment. This can help people thrive, but only when there is the right balance of accountability. 

This model displays how high levels of psychological safety and accountability lead to high-performance outcomes, while low levels of psychological safety and low levels of accountability result in apathy.

Workplace With High Psychological Safety

In workplaces with high psychological safety and low accountability, everyone gets a little too comfortable, while the opposite (low psychological safety and high accountability) leads to employee anxiety.

  • Apathy zone (low psychological safety and low accountability): The apathy zone is the most unhealthy place to be on the map charting psychological safety and accountability. Employee conflict thrives, and individuals don't feel comfortable taking risks or proposing ideas. They also aren't held accountable for their actions, so they slump into apathy.
  • Comfort zone/Abatement zone (high psychological safety and low accountability): In the comfort zone, employees are allowed to express themselves however they please and take risks without any threat of punishment, but they aren't expected to be accountable for their actions. While the culture might be slightly healthier than in the apathy zone, poor performance thrives because no one takes ownership when risky ideas go awry.
  • Anxiety zone (low psychological safety and high accountability): Of course, you also can't expect to have a workplace where employees don't feel they can fully express themselves and take risks but are also expected to be held fully accountable for their actions. In companies that operate in this zone, employees can experience anxiety that impacts their productivity, morale, and satisfaction because they are frequently criticized and don't receive the support they need to thrive.
  • Learning zone/Achievement zone (high psychological safety and high accountability): Finally, we find ourselves in the most appealing realm– the learning and achievement zone. This zone is where employees find themselves in an environment of high psychological safety while also having expectations of accountability. 

Delegating, Micromanaging, and Taking Too Much On Your Shoulders

Passing responsibilities to employees is an essential step for any manager, but it's easier said than done. It can be tempting for managers to try and take on more responsibility than is reasonable, which both holds back their team and takes them away from other essential tasks that only they can perform.

On the other hand, managers that delegate tasks can sometimes watch closely over the shoulders of their employees, correcting every mistake and micromanaging every step of the way. This is hardly any better than failing to delegate tasks, as employees typically don't take kindly to micromanaging, and it still pulls a manager away from their most vital obligations.

Manager Micromanaging Tasks

The goal, then, is to start handing out tasks to employees that are, at first, simple enough for them to handle. They should be given all the resources, tools, and support needed to perform the task in the stated time frame. Managers should be available for employees' questions or concerns and provide the necessary training ahead of time.

At the same time, with everything they need to get the job done, employees will also be held accountable for the outcome of the work. This doesn't necessarily need to be a negative thing at all– it goes for being accountable for a job well done just as much as it goes for taking ownership of mistakes.

The more space employees have to make mistakes and learn, the more they feel comfortable taking accountability when something doesn't go quite right. Many people fear taking accountability because they fear greater repercussions, but if they know that they have reasonable managers willing to give them the space to learn, they will be much more likely to own up to the outcomes of what they were responsible for.

To increase your delegation skills as a manager, take a look at our Delegation for Growth Customizable Course.

Understanding the Snowball Effect of Responsibility

If a manager finds themselves in a situation where they don't feel they can pass any tasks off to their employees without maintaining responsibility, they must start small and work their way up. Responsibility breeds responsibility, and employees can be given increasingly challenging tasks with greater responsibility as they continue to perform projects and take accountability for the outcomes.

Manager Delegating Tasks

Over time, managers will find they can delegate many more tasks than previously because they can trust their employees to fulfill their responsibilities and own up to any mistakes or victories after the fact.

Developing Accountability and Responsibility as a Manager

When you want to encourage accountability and responsibility in the workplace, one of the most important things you can do is lead by example. If a manager isn't willing to answer for the mistakes they've made or be open about why they've made the decisions they've made, there's a high likelihood that employees won't feel the need to do so either.

Trust is also essential to building a culture of responsibility and accountability. Without trust, things can quickly devolve into an environment where blame, secrecy, and anxiety are constantly present. At the end of the day, people have to find it within themselves to truly take responsibility and accountability for their actions. That can emerge from the culture, but it starts with leadership.

A Team Manager

If you want your team to develop more positive relationships, increase their personal productivity, and feel a sense of accomplishment, consider sending them through accountability training. As they develop the skills they need to hold themselves and others accountable in a way that encourages improved results and minimizes conflict, you'll be able to see real results in your team's day-to-day interactions and operations.

Do you have any questions about accountability, responsibility, their differences, or anything else we discussed in this article? If so, be sure to leave us a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We always make it a point to reply to our readers' comments and questions, and we'd be more than happy to help you out however we can!

Recommended Assessment
Accountability Experience
  • Minimize conflict while enhancing results
  • Remove gaps between expectation & delivery
  • Increase employee engagement
Learn more
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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.