Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other. - Ronald Reagan
Nearly every manager uses the term accountability to describe their existing work system. They pride themselves on running “a tight ship” where their subordinates are held accountable to produce a set of specified outputs. While use of the term is widespread, clarity around its definition is not so widespread.
Lets talk about what actually happens in most companies. First of all, some managers never properly communicate desired outputs at the start of the performance period at all. In the worst cases, these outputs are actually filled in by the subordinate during the "rating" period. In other situations, the manager doesn’t pay any attention to outputs until he/she is required to complete the rating scheme. It is the rare situation where the manager actually sits down with the subordinate in advance and discusses the full nature of the work requirements associated with his or her role. This is not an assumption on our part, this is what we hear from clients in our interviews. Quite simply, during our organizational project work we ask managers and subordinates alike “what are your primary tasks that you are accountable to perform?”. Rarely do we get much agreement between the two parties.
And many times the subordinate states that he/she is accountable for very broad focused objectives. They often use the term “I am responsible” for dealing with customer satisfaction issues (as opposed to I am accountable to address and/or resolve customer complaints within 24 hours and notify the customer of the result of my effort). Responsibility should not be confused with accountability. It is a much softer concept. The big difference lies in the fact that responsibility means taking personal ownership of an activity or task in a given situation. Because of the personal nature of responsibility, there is no corresponding authority component to influence others to take action. Responsibility does not involve “the boss” since it is a matter between the individual and his or her conscience. Thus, failure to focus on accountability versus responsibility contributes to the lack of rigor in a given managerial work system. Unfortunately, this outcome is far too prevalent in most companies. The net effect of a failure to distinguish between the two concepts is that work doesn’t get done on-time and too standard and that individuals desirous of doing so can “skate” by as substandard performers without any adverse impact. We discuss this topic in much more detail in our book, below is an excerpt from Chapt 6.
Let’s begin with a definition of “accountability” and distinguish it from “responsibility.”
We don’t define them as one and the same when it comes to the workplace even though they are often used interchangeably.
ACCOUNTABILITIES - those aspects of a role that dictate the things that the occupant is required to do by virtue of being in the role.
Accountabilities normally describe the work that is to be performed by a role incumbent.
There are two different types of tasks. The first type comprises those tasks which are directly assigned by one’s manager. The second type of task comprises those which are triggered as a result of a “general responsibility” that has been assigned by one’s manager. A “general responsibility” is an instruction which applies indefinitely (unless amended) and specifies conditions, which, whenever they arise, require a person to take appropriate action within prescribed limits, e.g., answer a request for information, respond to a customer request, etc. Distinguishing between the two different types of tasks is important because the task assigning process is different for each. Both types require the manager to set context, but the manager must set a specific context for each and every single task that he/she assigns, but need not do so for each of the tasks generated by a general responsibility, only for the general responsibility itself. Clearly bounded general responsibilities release initiative and creativity because the boundaries are clear. Unclear boundaries and lack of adequate limits always stifle initiative because people do not know how far they are free to push new ideas.