Understanding accountability and responsibility

While accountability and responsibility are often used interchangeably, there are strict differences between the two concepts. Photo taken from inc.com -
While accountability and responsibility are often used interchangeably, there are strict differences between the two concepts. Photo taken from inc.com -


Many people, including some experienced HR professionals and other institutional leaders, use the linear organisational structure and hierarchical layers of accountability and responsibility interchangeably. Although this may be understandable in quite a number of situations, as a general rule, there are strict differences between these two concepts.

Let me therefore clarify the major differences. Responsibility is generally the ongoing obligation to complete an assigned task. Key performance indicators or standards of performance might be attached to such responsibility. This responsibility may be the established duty of even more than one person.

On the other hand accountability is actually the duty to report on, and account for events, tasks and experiences. Usually such accountability is for specific tasks, processes, services etc, and is assigned to just one person like a department head.

Another view of this difference may be highlighted by acknowledging that responsibility exists when there is a direct duty to complete the task at hand, while accountability is what happens after a situation occurs. In other words, accountability follows responsibility.

One of the best ways to illustrate and point out some of these differences is to look at it through a project management lens. In project management there is a model called RACI. This means responsibility, accountability, consent, informed. This is a chart that will normally be developed, and usually directed to the project staff to define specific roles. Although this chart clearly lays out the reporting relationships within the project team, it also distinguishes between who is responsible for what, and who is accountable for related processes and the results thereof.

The RACI is a good model and will no doubt help in the formation of a structured organisational culture and bring clarity to role responsibility. The model sets out very clearly and provides instructive guidelines on who needs to be consulted, must be informed, which person is responsible for physically completing the task, etc. While there is always a level of individual accountability to each task in a project, in the end it may not be the same person who is ultimately responsible and accountable for the completed project’s success or failure. Managers delegate but will still be held accountable as they have the oversight authority. The general staff, however, are responsible for personal performance and specific duties.

In essence, accountability is the empowering of employees, while responsibility is the obligation to act. Managers must keep track of individual obligations and ensure that there is a formal process for which assessment tools will be used to appraise performance, both those who are responsible and others who may be accountable.

Many times, a company is blamed for employee’s conduct even though it never sanctioned such conduct, nor was previously informed of the employee’s intended action. As a matter of fact, this is often viewed as irrelevant. So, it is ultimately held accountable by the staff or public, for something it was unaware of. As an example, did Ramsaran Dairy Products commit a determined strategic move to have an employee make a racist post on social media? Although the answer is clearly no, the company’s brand was severely impacted because as an entity, accountability was attached to it particularly given as to who the employee was.

The responsibility and accountability gaps occur when employees:

• Do not have the necessary capacity to carry out a job function. They are simply untrained, or sometimes even unaware, that they are responsible for a role.

• When employees do not fully understand and/or do not carry out the full extent of a function. So, for example when a problem is made known, a worker may take time to thoroughly investigate it. However, they may offer or initiate few or no solutions to not only fully resolve it but to fully eradicate it. So said problem continues to manifest itself from time to time.

• There are those functions that staff members may fill from time to time, however, no one can seem to pin point the person responsible. This ball gets passed around as time goes on until a critical breaking point occurs.

• Sometimes where goals are concerned, there can be an inefficient measurement of milestones and step by step progression. Where there is a reluctance to address employee shortcomings then this will ultimately put a strain on either the team’s ability to complete tasks consistent with the desired quality and outcome or even within the established deadline.

Recently, after a rather exhaustive discussion, I was able to explain to an institutional leader in the financial services sector why his attempts to amend and modernise the job description of one of his senior executives was being met with stiff resistance. The answer really lay in a simple re-application of appropriate linguistics in role definitions.

The way the leader amended the offending clauses in the job description confused the areas of responsibility and failed to adequately distinguish these from executive’s accountability for outcomes. It took me less than ten minutes to correct the document and about one and a half hours to convince the leader that that was the problem.

This misunderstanding of roles can lead to confusion in responsibility and accountability and can only be addressed by a continued updating and assessment of job functions. As time moves on, this like everything else becomes outdated and should be properly addressed to ensure a continued and smooth workflow.


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