The Responsibility and Accountability Conundrum

The Responsibility and Accountability Conundrum

A recent article I attempted to differentiate between responsibility and accountability.  In thinking about and talking to people about ways that people generally think about responsibility and accountability I understand some of what is behind this tendency to use the words interchangeably, or a preference to use one word in place of the other.  The way we think, or probably more accurately the way we feel about a word will have an impact on how we react when it is used.

The media, especially during the lead up to elections, broadcast and even seem to highlight the accountability or lack thereof of the sitting government.  I know I have an emotional reaction, of the sort of stomach-twisting nature, when I hear about government’s accountability.  My cynical side, which is almost automatically switched on when I hear reports on government accountability, jumps to the end point of the government’s approach to accountability where it becomes all about shoving off the blame onto someone/party else or a justification/excuse for actions.  I am very sceptical when I hear reporting, any release by the government about their accountabilities – that they are being accountable for their actions.

I don’t think I’m alone in this type of reaction.  And yet, I still have a great deal of respect for and confidence in the word accountability and the state of accounting for one’s actions.  Other people may not have that reaction and take an almost opposite reaction where they no longer have confidence in, or any sort of positive reaction to the word accountability.

Responsibility and Accountability: Reactions

Somehow responsibility seems to generate a different reaction.  After some reflection, this is not so surprising to me.  Responsibility is the up front aspect of accountability.  Responsibility is what we agree to do, or are assigned to do.  We have responsibilities, personally these may be to others like family members or professionally, to bosses, colleagues or the people who report to us.  There’s some leeway with responsibility, it’s future-oriented and doesn’t necessarily have an end-point. However, with accountability, there is that sense of ‘being called to account’, being rated, judged, scored.  These can be very intimidating outcomes and a sense that one might be judged as not measuring up, can seriously affect one’s self-esteem.  According to recent research into neuroscience, this can lead to a strong fight or flight reaction.  Thus it makes sense that people prefer the word responsibility over the word accountability.


Some people will take this a step further and say that if you do not absolutely fulfill goals and/or accountabilities, you are not accountable.  Full stop.  And, if you are not accountable, then not only do you not measure up, your personal integrity may be called into question – again a very threatening situation.  This is an extremely unfortunate misapplication of the definition of accountability.  Being accountable for one’s actions does not need to mean that all goals and/or responsibilities are completely fulfilled.  It means to account for your actions.  There could be no end of reasons for not completing a goal or fulfilling a responsibility that you have little or not control over.  Even if you have full control and just failed to complete, accounting for your actions doesn’t need to mean that you are an unaccountable person.

Of course, it would be preferable to have let your manager know in advance that your goals or responsibilities won’t be met, reasons for this and, better still, some supports or resources needed to complete the work.  It still doesn’t make you an unaccountable person not to have met goals or accountabilities. In fact, because human beings are not perfected beings, it is reasonable to expect that sometimes some accountabilities will not be accomplished for a variety of reasons.  Where accountability also may come into play is in the ‘accounting for one’s actions’ – owning the outcomes and making the commitment to fulfill the accountabilities.

Responsibility and Accountability: Staying Positive

Where does this leave us in the responsibility and accountability conundrum?  There is a need to overcome the negative public perception to the word accountability. In the meantime, we might bring those two words together in meaning, using responsibility to mean both. Work on creating a positive sense of accountability bringing clarity of role and expectations and fostering a sense of independence and interdependence in employees.

As employees or some employees become confident in accounting for their actions, open up a group discussion where both the terms responsibility and accountability can be explored. This will create greater understanding and acceptance of the word and ultimately begin to drive more responsible and accountable employees.

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