When thinking about a defining accountability I was struck by not being able to come up with a succinct definition myself. I suspect I’m not alone in this. I suspect that defining accountability is a little like defining leadership. Like leadership, I hear ‘accountability’ used consistently, whether in business situations, media or casual conversation. It has crept into our lexicon and is widely and commonly used, becoming yet another word that has many interpretations and definitions and creating further fuzziness in our communications.
Accountability vs. Responsibility
Comparing personalizing how you are defining accountability to one’s personal definition of leadership isn’t really accurate – at all. While there are some commonly shared understandings of leadership, at it’s core, leadership is a very personal understanding, knowledge set and expression. Accountability, by its very nature, needs to have an explicit and shared definition.
To ensure that I was on the right track, I went to several dictionaries to understand what is the technical definition of accountability. Common to most definitions was the sense of accounting for one’s actions: to explain, to disclose, to be open, and to give reasons for these actions. Yes, this makes perfect sense. Accounting for one’s actions is what accountability is all about. Another key word emerged with most definitions as well, and is often conflated with accountability. Responsibility is the word many of us often use almost as a synonym when defining accountability. In fact, as I just looked up responsibility on Microsoft word’s thesaurus, I was given accountability as the first synonym! Sorry Microsoft, I wish to propose a distinction between accountability and responsibility.
Again, back to dictionaries to find that responsibility is commonly defined as a duty or obligation that one must perform, whether at one’s own instigation or by being assigned. Not infrequently was the notion of hierarchy referred to in that responsibility for a task that is given to an employee is retained as well by the supervisor. Sometimes there was reference to outcomes and or consequences for success or failure in the performance of that task. So now, let us tease out the significant differences to better understand when defining accountability.
Quite simply, one is called to be accountable for one’s responsibilities. The responsibilities come up front, and thereafter we must account for our actions on these given responsibilities.
Accountability Within Organizations
Defining accountability doesn’t just end with responsibilities. At times we are called to account for actions that held no responsibility. Or we account, either overtly to others or just to ourselves, for what we have done and the outcomes generated. In this way accountability becomes intricately linked with trust and integrity. At times we generate trust by doing what we say we will do, and our integrity remains intact when we openly account for what we have done. In this way, accountability is a very personal situation.
If we go back to responsibilities, when defining accountability it will take on not only a personal, but organizational quality. At heart, accountability rests with individuals who have certain responsibilities to perform or provide. In recent years, major corporations and government, in particular, have been called upon to be accountable. The public trust in the integrity of the individuals who run these organizations has flagged. These individuals are not seen as following through with their responsibilities, whether regarding the responsible use of the public purse, or the quality of product produced. Many of us, especially if we have experienced the mammoth amount of paperwork and byzantine systems to be followed to account for relatively insignificant amounts of money, might be excused for becoming a little cynical that politicians and corporate moguls might be looking for ways to off-load accountabilities. That goes to the essence of accountability and where it lies.
Transparency and Defining Accountability
Organizations, even government departments can display accountability with transparent policies and procedures on how to account for funds, actions or products, but at heart, it is each individual who lives up to his or her accountabilities. In this sense, and different from responsibilities, when you are defining accountability it really can’t be shared. Even group, team, or company accountability comes down to the individuals providing those accountabilities, while a supervisor or company CEO can take responsibility for a job that is done, or action taken by an employee.
To this end, ways of defining accountability for employees, especially any employees in any leadership capacity, is clearly critical.