To be a more effective leader, learn the difference between accountable and responsible

What differentiates a good leader from a bad one? Some might argue that great leadership is all about vision, sound decision-making, and the ability to inspire others to be their very best. Indeed, all of those are qualities that we typically associate with great leaders. But what role do responsibility and accountability play in any leader's ability to be effective? And when it comes to responsibility vs. accountability, which is more important for leadership?

In this post, we'll define these two terms and examine the differences between accountability and responsibility. We'll also provide some tips you can use to improve your strengths in these areas and properly highlight them in your resume.

Responsibility vs. accountability: why the confusion?

When things go badly in the workplace, employees often respond with hackneyed excuses like, “it's not my job” or “it's not my fault!” Those common refrains are used to avoid both responsibility and accountability. Worse, those two concepts are often used interchangeably, as though they mean the same thing.

In fact, the two words represent very different ideas – though both are extremely important for good leadership. To better understand what each of these terms means, let's examine them separately, and then note their key differences.

What is responsibility?

Responsibility is a concept that focuses on tasks and duties. Responsibilities are assigned with the expectation that you will achieve certain results. For example, you may be responsible for doing certain tasks that are required to achieve a desired outcome. That outcome responsibility may even be assigned to multiple people, each of whom performs specific tasks in furtherance of a common goal.

To be responsible, you must have the ability to achieve whatever tasks and missions are set before you. Obviously, no one would ask a newly hired and completely inexperienced worker to handle a task that was well beyond their capabilities. After all, it would be impossibly unfair to blame that person if the task was not performed properly.

What is accountability?

Accountability can include responsibility, but it goes much further than just being responsible for certain tasks and duties. True accountability means that you not only accept responsibility and own it, but are answerable for the outcome of your actions. Moreover, your accountability is not to the task, but to other people: your team, your subordinates, your superiors, shareholders, clients, and so on.

Being accountable may sound as though you just get the blame whenever something goes wrong, but it can also mean that you receive credit when things go well. True accountability simply means that you're willing to answer for how your decisions and actions affect outcome, whether at work or in your personal life. When your decisions or actions produce positive outcomes, you should be ready to receive your due share of the praise. Alternatively, you must also be able to accept blame for bad decisions and actions that result in negative outcomes.

One classic historical example of this concept involved former President Harry S. Truman, who famously maintained a sign on his desk that acknowledged: “The Buck Stops Here.” In his farewell address to the nation, Truman referenced that sign and said, “The President - whoever he is - has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No-one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.”

Truman recognized that, as President, he was not only responsible for decision-making, but accountable for everything that occurred in his administration.

Responsible vs. accountable: the differences

So, what are the real differences between accountability and responsibility? When you consider what it means to have responsibility vs. accountability, what should come to mind? Below, we look at some key factors that can help you to differentiate between these two ideas.

  • Responsibility can be delegated; accountability needs to be accepted

  • Responsibility can be shared by multiple people; accountability tends to fall on one person's shoulders

  • It's possible to be responsible for something, while not being accountable for the result

  • Responsibility precedes accountability - in other words, people are responsible for duties and tasks while they are being completed, but true accountability only takes place after the fact

  • Often, the person who is ultimately accountable for an outcome is the same person who assigned responsibility for that outcome to others

As you can see, responsibility is a more fluid concept, and can involve a single person with assigned tasks or a group of people who are all equally responsible for getting things done. In almost every instance, however, accountability falls on just one person: the leader. That's why great leaders are not just defined by their responsibilities, which reflect only their assigned duties and tasks. They are also defined by their willingness to be accountable for the outcomes that their decisions and actions produce. 

It's also important to note that accountability is always a key feature in any positive company culture. If your workplace promotes a spirit of accountability, then the chances are that it enjoys a higher level of employee engagement, overall productivity, and shared team vision. Companies with this type of accountability-focused culture tend to have leaders who are themselves accountable to those around them.

Tips to help you be more accountable

Of course, it's one thing to note the important role that accountability can play in the leadership of any company. The real question most would-be leaders need to ask is something else entirely: how can you develop the character traits you need to be a more accountable leader or manager? Fortunately, this is not some mystery trait that only a few special people can develop. Instead, anyone can develop a spirit of accountability in their own personal and professional lives.

Just as importantly, good leaders can promote a greater sense of accountability throughout their workforce, making it part of their leadership model and company culture. To get started, though, you first need to focus on improving your own personal and professional accountability traits. The following tips can help.

Make your word your bond

When you agree to be held accountable for something, you're effectively giving your word that you'll do everything you can to produce the desired results. To fulfill that vow, you need to be able to hold yourself accountable by developing a habit of honoring your commitments.

Set clear expectations

As you develop your own accountability traits, make sure that others know what you expect from them. Set clear goals and explain how performance is measured. You should also try to define the expectations you have for your own leadership and how they can help you to be accountable for the team's results.

Set an example

Effective leadership requires personal accountability, but it also requires a culture that embraces the idea of being accountable. You should set an example for everyone in your workplace by demonstrating that you hold yourself to account for your failures and successes, as well as those of your team. That example can help to inspire others to take ownership of their work, leading to improved motivation and productivity that raises the performance and accountability bar for everyone in the company.

Empower your team members

One key aspect of accountability that many leaders neglect involves empowerment of those around you. When you help others to be their best, it makes it easier to produce the results you need. That will also make it easier for you to get in the habit of taking accountability, since there will be less likelihood of negative outcomes.

Let the proverbial buck stop at your desk

It can be tempting to want to hold others accountable, rather than looking at your own failures. If you want to become a more accountable person and leader, you should always begin any accountability search by looking in the mirror. What could you have done differently to improve the outcome? Did you miss opportunities to help your team achieve better results?

Resume tip: how to show an employer that you're accountable and responsible

You might also wonder what all of this means for your resume. How do you showcase your accountability to potential employers? It's easier than you might imagine. The key is to focus on the things you've been accountable for, rather than just listing your duties and responsibilities. For example, don't just write, “responsible for managing team training.” Instead, focus attention on accountability by highlighting what you achieved:

“Managed continuing sales team training for 60 employees, boosting team engagement, improving retention by 42%, and increasing sales revenue by 22% in one quarter.”

Using this technique of turning your duties and responsibilities into quantifiable achievements will highlight your accountability to hiring managers. When you do this for each of the bullet point examples you include under your job listings, you can turn the professional experience section of your resume into a showcase of accountability.

Responsibility vs. accountability: learn the difference to become a more effective leader!

The difference between responsibility vs. accountability may seem confusing at first glance, but it's quite easy to understand once you examine each concept. Everyone has responsibilities, of course, but true leaders accept accountability for how they handle those responsibilities. Understanding this simple truth can help you to become the type of leader whose career and personal goals are always within reach!

Does your resume successfully convey your willingness and ability to be accountable in your job role? Find out by getting your free resume review from our team of trusted experts today!

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