Accountability vs Responsibility: 5 Ways They Differ

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Have you ever worked on a team that operated like a well-oiled machine? Where everyone’s role was clearly defined, communication ran smoothly, and you didn’t have to constantly deal with problems because someone else dropped the ball?

Alternatively, have you worked on a team where everyone had a lot on their plate, but some tasks got left behind because people always thought someone else would do it or other things would come up so things just got forgotten? This was probably somewhere that you commonly heard the phrase, “That’s not my job.”

Although it’s only a few, I can think of some teams I’ve been on that fall into the first category. And, when I think back on these jobs, I have positive memories of strong employee morale, dedicated teamwork, and a sense of mutual trust. If you can think of a situation that you’ve been in that clearly aligns with this, you’ll be able to relate to the difference between accountability and responsibility.

The difference between the first and second scenario is that in the first, people are accountable for their work. In the second, while people have responsibilities and may even feel responsible for completing some jobs, they don’t have to report to anyone after the fact and often the poor outcomes of their work go unaddressed.

While the terms accountability and responsibility are frequently used interchangeably, these terms have very distinct meanings and have different roles in your personal and professional lives. It’s important to know the difference between accountability and responsibility if you want to be successful in your endeavors because accountability is linked to an increase in commitment to work and employee morale, which leads to higher performance.

Accountability is lacking in many workplaces– and the idea of being accountable is frequently perceived with a negative connotation, so in this article, we will look at a brief overview of responsibility and accountability, and then we will look at how the two differ. 

Let’s get started.

What is Responsibility?

Responsibility is task-oriented and can be divided up among several people. Every team member may be responsible for completing their portion of a project, and once the project has been completed, they either did their task or they didn’t.

Responsibility is divided among roles, and often defines job descriptions and policies or procedures that are in place to achieve an end result. If someone fails on their responsibility, it may have an impact on the success (or failure) of the final outcome, but it likely isn’t the determining factor. The people who are responsible in a situation aren’t necessarily the ones who are held accountable at the end of the day–they are the people who need to get to work and get the job done.

It’s not until you’ve committed to the successful completion of a project and you’re willing to accept responsibility for the outcome when accountability has taken place.

What is Accountability?

If you look up what it means to be accountable, you will often find negative words associated with this characteristic, such as “consequences” and “wrongdoing”. However, having accountability certainly isn’t a negative thing–especially if you work with integrity, clarity, and a sense of personal responsibility.

When you have accountability, it means you're willing to accept responsibility for your actions and outcomes– both positive and negative. This means you’re able to live up to your commitments and keep your promises, which can only take place after a result has occurred.  But genuine leaders are willing to take the risk to hold themselves accountable for outcomes even in uncertain times.

Being accountable is an empowering trait–it's not something that's consequential. Accountability must be accepted by someone for them to take ownership of the task, it's not something that can be delegated. However, once accountability is accepted, that person can delegate tasks and responsibilities to other people.

Seeing as it’s a personal trait, people aren’t accountable just once or twice in their lives. This is a personal characteristic that you possess (or you don't).  People who duck out on being held accountable for their work are the same as those who don't accept personal responsibility and are always looking for a chance to get out of the spotlight. By avoiding taking responsibility at every chance, they can avoid being blamed if something goes wrong– but are also missing the chance of accepting credit when things go right.

When responsibility and accountability are used interchangeably, it can lead to a culture of blame, disengagement, and poor performance because everyone ends up passing the buck off to someone else.

Let’s look at the differences between responsibility and accountability and then look at how you can create a culture of accountability.

Key Differences Between Responsibility and Accountability

  1. While several people can be responsible, only one person can be accountable to ensure things don’t fall through the cracks.
  2. Responsibility can happen before or during a task, accountability can only take place after the task is complete.
  3. Responsibility may be given, but accountability must be taken. Responsibility can be given in a situation where accountability is never accepted.
  4. An accountable person must ultimately answer for a result, while a responsible person is the one who actually completes the task.
  5. The amount of responsibility someone has is determined by the person who is accountable for the outcome.
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What Does this Difference Look Like in Real Life?

On a Resume

It’s easy to list your responsibilities on a resume, and most potential employers can predict what your responsibilities have been in the past by looking at your job titles. However, hiring managers are more impressed by seeing what you’ve been accountable for in the past instead of what you were tasked with doing. Your subsequent achievements from former responsibilities shows more about your skills and experience than listing your “to-do” list.

A resume highlighting accountability gives hiring managers an idea of how much value you can bring to an organization and how your performance in the past has made an impact. To create a resume that focuses on accountability, think of what you achieved from your responsibilities.

For example, instead of stating that you: Planned events to raise money, you may say: Organized and facilitated three annual charity events for over 300 people each, raising a total of $450,000.

Or, rather than saying: Led staff trainings, you may write: Conducted ongoing job compliance seminars for 100 employees spanning three locations to keep up with industry best practices, therefore reducing employee turnover rate by 75%.

These examples take your obvious responsibilities and turn them into tasks you accepted accountability for and succeeded.

Feedback

People who accept accountability for an outcome seek feedback from others and act upon the advice they get. They look for other people's perspectives to be able to answer their constant question of, “What else could I do?”

However, those who are simply responsible for a task typically just want to get it completed so they can check that box. They aren't interested in improving or developing their performance in any way because it won't impact them in the long-run. The only feedback that those with responsibility get is typically in the form of reviews, and they're likely to only get corrected when they do something wrong rather than be encouraged to continue when they're doing something right.

In Your Personal Life

When you take accountability for your personal life, you’re able to accept responsibility for your actions and your current situation in life. If you’ve gained 20 pounds over the past year, you won’t be blaming the coronavirus for your recent uptick on the scale, and if you haven’t left your miserable job to pursue something else, you’re going to reflect inward rather than blaming the economy for your personal situation.

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When you accept accountability for yourself, you recognize that change begins and ends with you. You can only improve your life through self-discipline, and if you want to see some type of change, you have to pursue it. You have to commit to success without waiting for other factors to fall into place. You have to learn how to take a step back to analyze your mindset and determine if your own thoughts may be holding you back.

When you hold yourself accountable, you don’t see yourself as a victim of your circumstances.  Instead, you own your actions and your outcomes. You commit to working every day to accomplish your goals.

How to Create Accountability

In order for accountability to be created, you need two or more people to be aware of a commitment so one person can be held accountable for the completion of the task and the other can be the one to ensure its completion.

Clarity is a critical factor in creating a culture of accountability.  If expectations are unclear, the difference between success and failure may be a blurry line, which creates accountability gaps. In the workplace, this may mean creating tasks using the SMART goal framework, which means that tasks are clearly defined and there is no ambiguity when it comes to who, what, when, where, and why the task is being completed. And, seeing as studies show that 50% of employees aren’t clear on exactly what their team expects from them, this is an important component to keep in mind for any leader.

To create a culture of accountability, people also have to be set up for success, because people aren't going to jump at the chance to own the results of something that they know is going to fail. If you’re in a leadership position, this means making sure your team has the knowledge and resources they need in order to get the job done well.

Here are some things you can do to build accountability on a personal level:

By keeping these things in mind, you can build personal accountability and avoid falling into the trap of blaming other people when something goes wrong in your life.

Final Thoughts on Accountability vs Responsibility

Once a team develops a culture of accountability, trust can be built and people can be counted upon to do the things they say they will do. Trust is a key component to success and is at the base of any winning team.

Accepting personal accountability can help you create significant and lasting changes in your life. And having an accountability partner can help boost your motivation and chances of success.

Accept accountability for your responsibilities and your actions so you can live the life you want without having to rely on or wait for other people to do their part.

Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.

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Accountability vs Responsibility: 5 Ways They Differ