If leaders could grasp the distinctions between these two fundamental concepts, I would surmise they would stop under- or over-delegating. They would work less, attempt to control less, and be accused far less of micro-management.
Accountability in its most basic form means you are answerable to something. CEOs must answer for the mistakes their company makes even if they personally had nothing to do with committing the error. Division directors are accountable for the productivity of their departments, and managers must answer for policy violations committed by their staff. The key action is that they must speak, answer, describe or explain the incident or event. Accountability implies awareness and knowledge.
Responsibility is different. When someone is responsible for something, they carry a ‘duty’, or they must ‘deal’ with something or control something. Responsibility implies that the hands are doing something. A CFO may be accountable for an organization’s financials, but that doesn’t mean they are responsible for paying every bill. An executive may be accountable for the marketing plan of a large division, but it doesn’t mean they are responsible for creating every talking point that is crafted in a communications plan.
Often when things go bad, leaders will assume accountability by trying to be responsible for everything. They dip low into operations and oversee micro-level activities. They begin to take back projects and stay up late working on details that are someone else’s responsibility. It becomes this vicious mind game: If I want it done right, I must do it myself.
If a leader wants to roll up their sleeves and start doing data entry, that leader needs realize they are assuming responsibility for something that doesn’t belong to them. Accountability is not easy – it carries little control and is often performed from the side versus in a low hover. Accountability often means taking the hit and still offering support, encouragement, forgiveness and coaching. It requires clear communication, grounded expectations and a willingness to let others do the work that inherently belongs with their role.
Where are you responsible and where are you accountable as a leader?