The difference between responsibility vs accountability at work

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 30 September 2022

Published 29 September 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In the workplace, understanding the significance of responsibility and accountability and the differences between them is very important. These concepts are closely related and sometimes used interchangeably, but there are key differences you should be aware of. Although these terms generally relate more to managerial roles, they are still important in any workplace setting. In this article, we explain what responsibility and accountability are, the differences between them and give tips for developing both.

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Responsibility vs accountability – what do they mean?

Although these two terms are closely related and sometimes even confused for one other, there are distinct differences between responsibility vs accountability:

Responsibility

Responsibility relates to tasks and projects. Being responsible for something means that it's your duty to carry out the related tasks. More than one person can share a responsibility, such a team being collectively responsible for the implementation of a project or handling a situation. Responsibility is therefore often tied to a required outcome, such as the completion of a particular task or series of tasks. Responsibility is also self-managed, meaning that you choose to take on a responsibility and fulfil it, as it cannot be forced upon you.

Accountability

While responsibility refers to someone's duty to carry out a task to completion, accountability generally refers to what happens after something has happened. Accountability is therefore concerned with the consequences of someone's actions, rather than their initial duty to carry these actions out. Accountability is also more often confined to a single person. This is because accountability is about the ownership of consequences and the possibility for subsequent redress. If accountability was shared among a group of individuals, a 'blame game' could ensue.

Even if several individuals are responsible for the completion of a task, typically, only one of them is then accountable for its consequences. The accountable individual often has to recount what happened after an event has happened and can be questioned regarding their own duties. If there is a need to make amends for negative consequences, the accountable person is going to be asked to do so. This could be in the form of some restitution or disciplinary action.

Key differences

Responsibility relates to the completion of a task, whereas accountability relates to the subsequent examination of its success, processes and other consequences. A person can be both responsible and accountable, or only responsible or accountable. Generally, accountability is reserved for managers, team leaders and other leadership positions that are held responsible for the consequences of the work they're in charge of. They may also be responsible, but not necessarily. Individuals who perform supervisory roles, inspections or quality assurance work are also typically held accountable.

For example, an ongoing task that just needs to be repeated only involves accountability if someone stops doing it. If your responsibility is to water a plant, you're only going to be held accountable if you stop watering it. Otherwise, your responsibility is simply being carried out continuously. Another example would be a team leader who assigns and supervises tasks. They may not be responsible for the tasks being done, but they are going to be held accountable if the team doesn't finish a project by the deadline.

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Responsibility and accountability in the workplace

These two terms mean different things to various people. Responsibility affects everyone, whereas accountability becomes an increasingly important subject as you go up an organisation's hierarchy. In the workplace, this can involve the following:

The accountability of company leaders

Accountability ensures that company leaders perform their duties. As they're typically removed from the day-to-day work of producing a company's goods and services, they're instead tasked with ensuring the company's profitability, strategy implementation, reputation and satisfying shareholders. Any mistakes may involve hundreds of people, but only one person is held accountable. This is typically the case for a company's leadership.

For example, you've probably seen a news headline about a CEO of a company resigning due to their company failing in some respect. If that company's failure was issuing faulty goods, it's likely that the CEO wasn't on the production line and producing the goods themselves. They were not responsible for producing the goods. Rather, they were responsible for ensuring that others produced the goods according to regulations and quality assurance requirements. If the production line produces a faulty product, the CEO is held accountable. Other things for which leaders and managers are held accountable include:

  • ensuring profitability and market share

  • lowering and managing expenses

  • ensuring customer satisfaction

  • upholding the company's reputation

  • satisfying shareholders

  • maintaining a clear and ethical company culture

  • keeping employees happy and productive

  • meeting performance targets

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Collective responsibility of team members

Responsibility can be shared among a large group of individuals. This is because most tasks require a broad variety of skills and competencies, and collective effort ensures that things are done efficiently and to a high standard. On a construction site, for example, various people are involved in the works. All of them have particular duties to carry out, such as laying foundations, installing drainage and setting up scaffolding. Individually, each of these people is responsible for their allocated tasks. Collectively, they're responsible for the construction of an entire building.

This also entitles them to fair compensation for the successful completion of their responsibilities. Typically, this is in the form of a fee or salary, depending on the nature of their employment. As long as they complete their own tasks satisfactorily, they receive their compensation. Although they're all collectively responsible for the construction project, each receives their compensation based on the completion of their own specific tasks.

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The need for restitution

In any kind of work, there are going to be times when mistakes are made. Often, these mistakes are minor and easily addressable. However, some mistakes can adversely affect other people. If it's subsequently decided that a company's actions had negative consequences for uninvolved parties, those affected may be entitled to compensation. This could be company policy or as a consequence of legal action.

The example of a construction site is a good way to illustrate this. If a building is constructed, but is then subsequently found to be in breach of several building regulations, it's difficult to identify who was responsible. The civil engineer, the skilled tradespeople, the architects or a combination of all parties could be responsible. It would be impractical to hold everyone involved in the building's construction accountable, and it would therefore fall to the project manager. The project manager could be expected to address the problem or even resign. This is partly why managers are paid highly, as they're often held accountable for errors.

Tips for developing managerial responsibility and accountability

If you're in a managerial position or aspire to be in one, there are things you can do to help you develop personal responsibility and accountability:

  • Understand the various perspectives of your team: Understanding the work you're in charge of and the team that's carrying it out are very important for taking action. Seek regular feedback from those whom you supervise and consider their thoughts when planning ahead.

  • Communicate with your team: In addition to understanding your team, it's equally important to make yourself understood clearly with open and regular communication. Effective communication like this reduces the chances of a misunderstanding, thereby ensuring that tasks are completed properly.

  • Be honest: Companies tend to look for trustworthy individuals when considering managers and other leadership positions. If you're consistently open and honest, employers are more likely to believe you're capable of being held accountable and handling greater responsibility.

  • Be accountable for those you manage: If you're in charge of a team of individuals and one of them underperforms or fails in some regard, it's important that you take accountability as the team leader. It's your duty to ensure that the team is working effectively and to take action to prevent any mistakes or shortcomings.

  • Be consistent: One of the best ways to develop both responsibility and accountability is to ensure you always do what you said you were going to do. Generally, it's safer to promise less and deliver more, but you must also demonstrate that you can take control of a situation to meet your stated objectives, even under unfavourable circumstances.

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