Help Desk

Beyond accountability

Dr Mike Ashby discusses how responsibility is a far more powerful concept than accountability in your business. 

One of the disciplines of execution (according to Franklin Covey) is the “cadence of accountability”. This the idea that you establish a process for regular reporting and accounting for progress against undertakings.

As a culture we’re very attached to accountability. We like the idea that the buck stops with someone, and that person will step up to deliver on their commitment. If they fail they’ll accept the consequences.

I think accountability has significant limits in effective leadership and is actually something of a dead end street. It has connotations of being answerable or liable for performance, especially if things go wrong. I don’t have a problem with those aspects, but I think good leaders try to go beyond mere accountability. Good leaders create a culture of responsibility, which includes accountability.

Bob Semple, Minister of Works in the first Labour Government, refused to resign in 1943 over some engineering failures, saying he was “responsible but not to blame”. Today he’d probably say he was accountable but not responsible – it was his people that did the job, but he wasn’t the one who did the work.

Actually, that was a pretty reasonable proposition: should he lose his job because staff 23 layers down didn’t do theirs? What difference would it make to the department’s performance in the future? Perhaps it would be better at making sure things did not go wrong, but would it be better at making things go great?

In your business and among your team, responsibility is a far more powerful concept than accountability. Consider the differences:

  • Accountability is imposed from outside: you’re called to account to others for your actions or results. Responsibility is something you take on yourself, it’s generated internally.
  • Accountability is often exercised after the fact. People are called to account when something’s happened, usually bad. When did you last hear of someone being held to account or taking accountability for success? Responsibility is something you wear from the moment you accept it. The concept is closer to stewardship and management whereas accountability leads towards risk mitigation and possibly away from innovation.
  • Furthermore, the focus of accountability is the result, whereas responsibility is more about process. As we know, good outcomes are the result of good processes. If you only start paying close attention when you get the result, it’s too late to have much influence on that particular outcome. Paying close attention to process, on the other hand, enables you to influence the result well in advance.
  • When people take responsibility for an area, they are exercising a higher degree of ownership than when they accept accountability. To me, accountability is closer to oversight, something you carry out at a high level and in a detached kind of way.

Which brings me to the heart of the difference. A culture of accountability can lead to people ensuring that they comply with the directions they’re given. Accountability is passive – making sure things are done properly. Responsibility is much more personal and active, it involves commitment rather than compliance.

Think about the language – we “make” people accountable, but “give” them responsibility. It’s like the old saying about bacon and eggs – the chicken was involved, the pig was committed!

Responsibility is much broader and has a higher purpose than accountability – if I’m responsible for a product launch,

I’m going to do everything to ensure it goes as well as possible. If I feel accountable for it, I’m going to make sure it doesn’t go wrong.

If I’m accountable for customer service, my definition of success will be zero complaints. If I’m responsible, my goal will be 100 percent customer satisfaction.
The whole context for accountability has become essentially negative. It’s become about the person we look to blame if things go wrong.

Like any fear-based message it has its uses, especially in areas where risk management is a critical factor. But there’re many areas in our business where other things are much more important – creativity, energy, enthusiasm, customer service, innovation.

Language matters. Talk to your people about what they are responsible for and what that means. Yes, there are results that they’re expected to achieve, and they are accountable if the expectations aren’t met. But over and above that, your discussion should be about the opportunity to grow in responsibility.  

Publishing Information
Magazine Issue: NZBusiness October 2015 Page Number: 42