The word ‘accountability’ is often thrown around and a lack of it is cited as a reason why things go awry. But do you really know what accountability actually is?
Most of us have experienced the word “accountability” as punitive – a “punishment” for not doing something. It is viewed as punishment because accountability typically lurks at the back end of the business process. Accountability shows up when something goes wrong, and people start to lay blame. They start pointing fingers.
One of the most common mistakes is to believe that this means that the person who is accountable, is the person who will be blamed if things go wrong. Too often people use the phrase “I take complete accountability” within the context that they are willing to accept the consequences of their poor decisions.
Accountability is not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong. It is not a confession. Accountability is about delivering on a commitment. It is a responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It is taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.
Accountability and responsibility are often used interchangeably, but these words have distinct meanings that separate them and their roles in the workplace.
Responsibility is task-oriented. Every person on a team may be responsible for a given task that is required to complete a project. Accountability is what happens after a situation has occurred. It is how you respond and take ownership over the results. Responsibility can therefore be shared (tasks can be shared). Responsibility focuses on defined roles, job descriptions, and processes that must be in place to achieve a goal.
If one had to split the word accountability into two parts you would see the following:
- Account – “A report or description of an event or experience” – Oxford dictionary; and
- Ability – “Possession of the means or skill to do something” – Oxford dictionary
Combined ‘accountability’ is literally the ability to report on events or experiences. This is therefore the responsibility to monitor what occurs during a project. The job of being accountable for something should be assigned to a single individual whose duty it is to monitor a specific task or process. If more than one person is accountable, then each person will assume that the other is monitoring and most cases this will lead to nobody monitoring.
A powerful tool to use for identifying those who are responsible and those accountable is a RACI matrix. The RACI Matrix enables you to identify who is responsible, accountable, consulted, or informed, for every task which needs to be done on a project. Below are descriptions of each stakeholder and the rules associated with each category.
- Responsible: These are the people or roles responsible for performing the task, that is, the actual people doing the work to complete the task. This should be limited in order to prevent role ambiguity.
- Accountable: Essentially, the accountable person must sign-off the work that the responsible person produces. Typically, the owner of the process will be the accountable person. There should only ever be one accountable person per task.
- Consulted: These may be subject matter exerts who need to be consulted. These are the people who will do the thinking.
- Informed: These are the people who are informed as to the status of the task or process.
The benefits of using a RACI matrix are to have a clear overview of all roles within the team and reduces the risk of accountability being absconded or evaded.
Cornett, I. (2018). The difference between responsibility and accountability in leadership. Retrieved from https://www.eaglesflight.com/blog/the-difference-between-responsibility-and-accountability-in-leadership.
Smith, M, & Erwin, J. (2005). Role and Responsibility Charting (RACI). Retrieved from https://pmicie.org/images/downloads/raci_r_web3_1.pdf.