Accountability & Responsibility

By Jim Selman


Communication during the pandemic, mostly on Zoom and largely focused on projects or tasks, has left little time for attending to relationship or the mood and culture of an organization.

One of my favorite clients and I were talking yesterday about the ‘post-pandemic restart’ and how to rejuvenate the lively team spirit that had been present before everyone began working remotely. When I asked “Who is accountable for the restart?”, it became immediately clear that the idea of ‘accountability’ was confusing for my client and, by extension, those in her organization.

Generally, the term ‘accountability’ is used interchangeably with ‘responsibility’. While my client understood my definitions of both terms, she clearly did not ‘see’ the distinctions. That reminded me that this tends to be the case in most organizations, and prompted us to dive into a discussion of responsibility and accountability and how fundamental they are and can be for any organization, especially in the context of a post-pandemic commitment to restart and re-inspire teams with the purpose and possibility that their organization is for stakeholders.

Distinguishing Accountability

CEOs can—and should—delegate accountabilities. By definition, the CEO will have all the accountabilities no one else is accountable for.

Accountability literally means “count-on-ability”.  It is NOT a way of being or a job description. It is an organizational distinction in which someone is assigned (or volunteers) to take care of some area of work on behalf of the whole organization. Accountability, therefore, exists by mutual agreement and commitment.

When someone with the authority to delegate a portion of work to be done does so, she is saying, “I am counting on you to take care of this area of our work.”  When a person accepts that accountability, they are saying two things: “You can count on me to see this gets done—and I’ll communicate to you and the organization if there are any breakdowns along the way to this accomplishment.” This often involves the accountable person mobilizing or working with others to accomplish their accountability. It is important that, while others may participate in an area of accountability, only one individual has primary accountability for that work being done.

Wherever there is a recurring or persistent problem in an organization, the first question to ask is, “Who is accountable?” In most cases, the answer will be “no one”, “everyone” or “we don’t know”. Clarifying accountability can produce miraculous results almost immediately because it allows for several things:

  • Everyone knows who can be counted on for what.
  • Each accountable person is empowered—even expected—to declare breakdowns when something is blocking or threatening the fulfillment of commitments.
  • It opens clear pathways for others who are not accountable to support those who are accountable by sharing their observations and relevant information.

You are not accountable for everything. But you can be responsible for anything you can declare you are responsible for.

Distinguishing Responsibility

Historically, responsibility has been associated with causality…with who did or did not do something or who will or will not do something. The word itself normally evokes the idea of who’s to blame for something or, in the case of a positive outcome, who should have the credit.  This often leads people to avoid or deny responsibility and revert to a host of self-centered behaviors (such as being defensive, gossiping, providing elaborate excuses, blaming, and, sometimes, outright undermining of others). Individuals who are not responsible generally end up reacting to or resisting their circumstances and other team members.

Responsibility literally means “response-ability”. It is not about who causes something or who caused something. And it cannot be imposed. It is a choice, a commitment, and the truth of who you are in the matter.

Responsibility is a way of being, a way of relating. You can only BE responsible. You cannot DO responsible.

“I am responsible” is a declaration of who you are committed to BE in a given situation or context. You are a victim of anything for which you are not being responsible. When you are being responsible, you experience that you are larger than the situation or circumstance. You no longer need to react or resist. You have choice in how you relate to everything and everyone. You are free to act. You can accept. Or you can create something new. You can make requests or offers.

Responsibility is the key to personal and organizational power.

Always be responsible for more than you are accountable for.

The Distinctions in Action

When people in an organization don’t get the difference between responsibility and accountability, they relate to the rest of the organization through the filter of their job description. This reinforces an “it’s not my job” mindset, a mechanistic model of organization, and a culture of irresponsibility that defeats collaboration, teamwork and innovation. This, in turn, leads to vertical patterns of communication (silos), increasingly complex and often ineffective systems to facilitate coordination, and a generally low tolerance for risk.

Organizations benefit enormously when these terms are distinct and the difference between them is clear. First and foremost, when people understand and embody responsibility, they have a choice in how they relate to whatever they are responsible for. Being responsible means they are declaring they are larger than the situations in which they find themselves, that they ‘own’ them, and that they are free to choose whatever action seems appropriate in the moment.

Ideally, everyone on a team will choose to be responsible for the whole team. When this happens, it changes how people relate and how they listen to each other. It naturally pulls for mutual support. It encourages open and honest communication in the context of a mutual commitment to care about each other as human beings. Positive moods, mutual trust, and candid feedback are additional by-products of having a team in which each member is responsible for the whole.


© 2022 Jim Selman