Confusing Accountability with Responsibility can Spell Danger!

Don’t Confuse Accountability With Responsibility

Danger Will Robinson, Danger!

Confusing Accountability with Responsibility can Spell Danger!One symptom of a leader caving to her own ego is one who begins to confuse accountability with responsibility. Accountability is when you own the ultimate result – pass or fail. Responsibility is when you are the one to deliver the result. Too often, I’ve seen good managers cave to their ego and confuse these roles.

Examples of people who confuse the two:

1. The Cover Up: If a manager accepts credit for a success that the team delivered.

2. The Idea Man: If someone believes they deserve credit for the results, only because they had the idea.

3. The One Man Band: When one member of team takes the credit for the entire effort.

Servant leadership means taking accountability when an effort fails but passing along the credit when it succeeds. In contrast, toxic leaders tend to do the reverse. These individuals take credit for success and pass along blame following a failure.

To serve the team, pass along the credit for those responsible in success, even if you were accountable. Those who matter know you were accountable. When an effort fails, accountability remains with the leader and you must pull in that blame from those responsible. Still, you must hold those responsible to the lessons learned. But that is a private matter among the team – not an open forum for flogging.

When your next effort concludes, don’t cover up the results, be an idea man or act like a one man band. Instead, accept accountability for the blame or share the credit with those responsible for the success.

Question: Have you seen someone confuse accountability with responsibility? What was the impact to the team?

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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

2 thoughts on “Don’t Confuse Accountability With Responsibility”

  1. Andrew in Calgary

    I like the distinction you have drawn between accountability and responsibility.  I would like to add the concept of an “account”  and a “response” to the thinking process.  

    If you are accountable, then your account (be it a bank account, report card, reputation, performance evaluation, list of attaboys and ahh sh%ts, smiley faces and frowny faces, etc.) will be debited or credited accordingly.  In a team effort, team members who contribute to the success should also receive credit where it is due.  My own preference is for positive reinforcement to team members (and the leader) for success, and negative reinforcement only to the leader for failure.

    If you are responsible, you need to respond with an action of some kind.  

    Consider a public swimming pool,  with the facility owner and a lifeguard.  If someone is drowning, the lifeguard is responsible to dive in and save them.  If they drown,  both the lifeguard and owner will be accountable, and the owners bank account is probably larger.  Of course, the owner was responsible for hiring a qualified and competent life guard in the first place, and was responsible for periodically checking his on-the-job performance (and keeping records that this was done).

    So fulfilling your responsibilities should earn you some positive appreciation, and failing in your responsibilities may reflect badly on your “account”.  I see the accountability function as keeping a scoresheet, and responsibility requiring tangible results (for which you may receive a score).

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