AvoLead blog: Organizational Effectiveness

A forum for discussing topics related to organizational effectiveness including: culture, talent management, succession planning, high performance teams and Human Resource strategy.

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.


Two Highly Experienced Professionals Join the AvoLead Team

As AvoLead LLC continues to grow, we are excited to announce the addition of these two highly experienced professionals to our team.

Georgine Madden

With 30 years of experience in Organizational Development and Training and Development, Georgine has worked with diverse audiences spanning organizational levels and functions across a wide range of Fortune 1000 to entrepreneurial enterprises within a variety of business sectors. Based in Minneapolis, MN, Georgine will serve AvoLead clients as Trainer Facilitator, Executive Coach and Organizational Development Specialist. Learn more about Georgine here.

Jude Olson, PhD, ACC

Jude is an accredited, professional coach providing leadership and transition coaching to individuals, teams and organizations with a focus on building strengths for accelerated development. She serves on the faculty of University of Dallas and as coach for the Texas Christian University EMBA Program. Her internal corporate experience includes serving as Head Coach at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company. As a Senior Vice President and Regional Consulting Partner with Drake Beam Morin, Inc., she led the Fort Worth office where she marketed, managed and consulted on change projects within a variety of industries. Read Jude’s complete bio here.

Every AvoLead associate combines knowledge of individual and organizational effectiveness with considerable business experience to make a real difference in the “speed-to-success” of leaders and organizations around the globe.

CEOs Must Encourage Employees to Act Like Children

Carl Nordgren took time to share an interesting post with us yesterday. The article, posted by Chris Horton in Social Media Today, chronicles a new IBM study called Leading through Connections. Read the complete post here.

IBM had face-to-face conversations with 1700 CEOs from 64 countries. The company wanted to gain insight into how CEOs are responding to the complexity of increasingly interconnected organizations, markets, societies and governments.

The key finding: CEOs must encourage their employees to act like children.

Carl, Friend of AvoLead, Duke Professor, Creative Populist and author of the book, Welcome to the Creative Populist Revolution, reminded us that one of the 4 behaviors creative populism urges us to practice is being playful. The recent IBM study validates that well. The study also revealed that today’s CEOs are thinking more like entrepreneurs. Learn more about Carl and Creative Populism here.

What are your thoughts? We’d like to hear from you.

AvoLead Team Continues to Expand

We are thrilled to share news of three key members of the AvoLead LLC team. After the addition of five new members in February, AvoLead continues to attract top talent to its Board of Managers and consultant rosters.

Joanne McCree has joined the Board of Managers. In more than 20 years with IBM, she led in a corporation undergoing transformational change — cultural, strategic, product and business model. After creating her own executive coaching business in 2004, she joined AvoLead as a Senior Consultant last year. Learn more about Joanne here.

Chris Musselwhite also has joined the AvoLead Board of Managers. Involved in organizational and leadership development since 1972, Chris shares his wealth of experience in program development and delivery, in the creation of numerous learning simulations and assessment tools and as founder, president and CEO of Discovery Learning. Read more on Chris here.

Timothy Stephens has joined AvoLead as a Senior Consultant. Committed to developing high performance teams in the public health, science innovation and other arenas, Tim coaches leaders and teams to better understand their roles and shared goals. As part of the AvoLead LHCS Program, Tim works with first responders and other key medical and governmental personnel on leading in high consequence situations. Meet Tim here.

We proudly welcome these distinguished professionals. Their leadership talents and skills will be called upon regularly as AvoLead continues to help leaders and their organizations navigate the waters of transition and change.

AvoLead Team Grows in 2012

We are pleased to introduce five new members of the AvoLead LLC team. Each brings deep experience, incomparable credentials and a highly sought-after skill set to the growing AvoLead consultant roster.

Joseph D. Carella is a senior consultant with AvoLead. His focus is to improve the performance of organizations, teams and individual leaders. Meet Joe here.

Senior consultant, Anne E. Doster serves AvoLead clients as an organizational effectiveness consultant, facilitator and executive coach. Learn more about Anne here.

A senior consultant with AvoLead, Anna Pool shares her passion for individual and organizational effectiveness through a powerful range of coaching skills and expertise. Read more about Anna here.

Experienced in working with leaders of all levels, Frank H. (Josh) Stroup serves AvoLead clients as a consultant and leadership coach. Learn more about Josh here.

Suzanne Tofalo serves AvoLead clients as an instructional designer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in the design, development and delivery of leadership training and development courses in a wide variety of curricula. Meet Suzanne here.

AvoLead is proud to welcome each of these outstanding professionals. We look forward to utilizing their talents to the fullest as AvoLead continues to help leaders and their organizations navigate the waters of transition and change.