Accountability vs. Responsibility: A View of Two Opposite Leadership Techniques

by Roy H. Adams, Jr., Ph.D.

As I sat in the business unit off-site meeting of the company I was working for, something became very clear to me. The company had recently received the results of the employee survey. The views of the employees about the company’s leadership were not positive. The leadership recognized something had to be done about the employees’ opinions expressed in the survey. The leadership could not ignore what was revealed in the survey, but the leaders appeared to be reading the wrong message in the survey results.

General Bruce C. Clarke, an Army officer who served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, is recognized as one of the Army’s foremost thinkers on leadership development. One poignant observation he expressed about problems in military units was the following:  “When things go wrong in your command, start searching for the reason in increasingly larger concentric circles around your own desk.” Many leaders today do not understand this truth and the leaders in this organization did not start at their own desk.

The leaders of the organization determined they needed to create a program on leadership and push it down to every employee via the organization’s internal email system. This program presented ideas about leadership and what each person should do to improve the leadership climate within their units. It did not address the problems expressed in the survey because the leaders did not recognize that they themselves were the cause of the problems. The senior organization leaders believed the employees were expressing how they viewed the lower level leadership within the organization. What the leaders failed to understand was that the lower level leadership reflected the leadership that was above them.

As this program was rolled out, the employees started hearing the word “accountability” being used by the leaders. In the off-site meeting I attended, several Vice Presidents stated they were going to hold individuals accountable. The organizational leaders believed the leadership climate would improve with the establishment of the leadership program and by telling the employees they were going to start holding individuals accountable. What the employees heard from the leaders instead was, “When something goes wrong we are going to find the guilty individuals and punish them.”

Dennis Hooper, in his 2013 article, “The Difference between “Responsibility” and “Accountability”,” printed in the Savannah Business Journal, described the difference between accountability and responsibility. He stated accountability is “narrow in focus and more explicitly defined” and responsibility is “broader in focus and is used in advance of an obligation.”

Another view of the two terms is responsibility is collaborative in nature because the leader assigning the task usually acknowledges their part in the responsibility. However, accountability is singular in nature as the leader assigning the task usually insists the subordinate is the only accountable person. As Hooper stated, accountability is guided by external motivation and is “subject to the guidance and limitations defined by someone else.” Responsibility allows the individual to take ownership of an obligation and the motivation is driven by an internal desire to be successful. Initiative by the individual is an inherent part of responsibility while accountability stifles initiative because the accountable person “feels they must check with or gain approval from someone else.”

When someone takes responsibility for a task, job, or obligation it is done with the intention of successfully accomplishing the job. They do not believe they are in the situation alone and know that the one giving them the responsibility is also invested in the job’s completion. This encourages collaboration with other individuals, and then the sharing of ideas about how to accomplish the job is usually part of the work effort. Leaders should see this as the positive leadership approach.

When a leader tells a subordinate that they are accountable for this task, job, or obligation the subordinate immediately tries to understand the specific requirements and guidelines and usually starts a checklist of required tasks to accomplish the job. They know they will be OK if they ensure everything on the checklist is accomplished. This takes away all initiative and workers are reluctant to collaborate with each other because something might go wrong and they will be held accountable for what went wrong. The best way for the accountable worker to be successful is to make sure they control everything in the job.

Telling a subordinate that you will hold them accountable is a negative approach to leadership. Henry Whitlow, President and CEO of the Hudson Strategic Group, asserted the leader is also establishing the principle of blame and setting up a procedure to absolve the leader of any responsibility. If the leader can blame someone else, then the leader is relieved of all responsibility, to include identifying what they could have done to help the subordinate successfully accomplish the job.

Can you really separate accountability from responsibility? Probably not, but leaders need to understand what subordinates receive from the approach the leader takes. If the leader states subordinates will be held accountable, then expect them to view their obligation with a checklist approach. As they accomplish a task, they will check it off and let the leader know what has been accomplished. When a leader states subordinates are responsible for a job, then the leader will witness the initiative of the subordinate as the subordinate takes ownership of the job.

A responsible person is always accountable. A leader who approaches their subordinates from the view of giving them responsibility will experience much success in their organizations. This does not mean that things will always go the way the leader expects. I have never seen a leader give a subordinate responsibility while expecting them to fail. However, when failure happens, it is best to remember another of General Clarke’s quotes: “A leader must be able to underwrite the honest mistakes of their subordinates if they wish to develop their initiative and experience.” In doing this the leader will demonstrate that the person who is really accountable is the leader.

Roy H. Adams, Jr., Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and Business Development and Client Engagement Director with AvoLead LLC. Read more about Roy here.

 

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.