Responsible vs. Accountable

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

A former manager of mine once said, “A lack of accountability is not necessarily a bad thing.” And in a command and control environment, he was absolutely right. The last thing you want to be in that culture is accountable. However, accountability is what people need to drive higher levels of personal satisfaction and organizations need to drive higher levels of success.

To improve accountability, an organization must rise above mediocrity and nurture elevated behaviors of courage, compassion and creativity, in order to gain the resilience, agility and performance that organizations need in a global, ever-changing economy.

However, to get into a sane conversation about accountability we need to head off the people who will say things like;

“When you strip away the decision-making authority from responsibility, it becomes accountability.”

My response is, when you strip decision making authority from responsibility, it becomes chaos, disengagement and micromanagement.

Or how about this one;

“You can delegate responsibility but you can’t delegate accountability”

Nonsense! If you delegate responsibility, you have delegated accountability, but that doesn’t mean you’re not accountable too. If the person to whom I delegate fails, odds are, I will also fail. This is where we get into problems with micromanagement. It seems there are only two options; blindly trust that people will be successful and let them do their job; or micromanage and make all the decisions and set all the priorities to ensure they don’t fail. Sadly, they still do. There is a third option, clearly and collaboratively define what is to be done by who and when, then hold them accountable for the work they do.

To really understand accountability and to get value from it, we must be open to a new way of defining it.

The dictionary defines accountable as;


1 : LIABLE <accountable for the burglary>

2 : obliged to accept responsibility

Interestingly, accountable uses the term responsible in its definition, that then makes it a synonym. A synonym is a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language. So, let’s look at the definition of responsible;


1 a : liable to be called on to answer

  b : liable to be called to account as the primary cause, motive, or agent

  c : liable to legal review or in case of fault to penalties

2 : marked by or involving accountability

Alternatively, responsible uses accountability to define it, and both words use liable in their definition. Accountability and responsibility imply potential liability…being charged in a court of law for neglect or malpractice and going to jail. And that is another reason that accountability is so important and so elusive.

The only difference between responsible and accountable is from a legal perspective; anything can be responsible, only people can be accountable. For example, a failure of a structural member can be responsible for the collapse of a building, but it cannot be accountable. Only the architect, engineer or constructor can be accountable for it.

So please stop misusing RACI charts thinking that one person can be accountable while another is responsible. They can’t! One person can be Responsible and that one person is Accountable to their customers and stakeholders. Use the A to identify your customers and stakeholders not to define whose throat will be choked if things go wrong.

Too many of the definitions and focus on accountability is on the negative consequences of ownership…the liability after the damage is done. I look at accountability on the front end. I don’t care whose throat needs to be choked if things go wrong because I don’t let things get to the point of going wrong.

I care about whether people are really understanding the needs, expectations and concerns of their customers and stakeholders before they start their work. I care that they are committed to meeting those needs and expectations and I care that they are living up to their commitments and ensuring things don’t go wrong.

I define accountability in a much more powerful way;


1 : Meeting or exceeding customer & stakeholder needs & expectations

2 : Doing whatever it takes to meet your commitments

So lets stop with the academic exercise of the differences between accountability and responsibility. They essentially mean the same thing, with Responsibility defining the work at hand and Accountability the needs and expectations of my customers and stakeholders as that work is carried out. They are two sides of the same coin.

If you want to get more value out of your RACI chart, call me today.

Leave a Reply

More Articles

Peter Myers

Warning #1: The Age of the Disengaged

Zombie Office Worker Recent studies have shown that three quarters of the Canadian workforce are considered either “Disengaged” or “Actively Disengaged”. Isn’t that brutal? How can any

Read More »