Responsibility, Accountability, Dependability
Updated: Dec 10, 2022
In the workplace, understanding the significance of responsibility and accountability and the differences between them is very important. These concepts are closely related and sometimes used interchangeably, but there are key differences you should be aware of.
Responsibility relates to tasks and projects. Being responsible for something means that it's your duty to carry out the related tasks. More than one person can share a responsibility, such a team being collectively responsible for the implementation of a project or handling a situation.
While responsibility refers to someone's duty to carry out a task to completion, accountability generally refers to what happens after a task or set of tasks have been completed or an event has concluded. Accountability refers to the outcome or effect. Accountability is therefore concerned with the consequences of someone's actions, rather than their initial duty to carry these actions out. Accountability is also more often confined to a single person. This is because accountability is about the ownership of consequences.
Although the word is sometimes associated with liability or blame (and in some legal systems and regulations this remains the case for some roles), the original meaning, and how it ought to be interpreted in a modern organisation is that the person accountable for a particular outcome is expected to account for the outcome: specifically to explain the outcome and the events, causes and contributors to it.
Typically an individual is responsible for their own actions, or those of their team, and accountable to their supervisor (or some other supervisory authority within or outside the firm) for the outcomes attributable to the their own responsibilities and those of their subordinates or team-members.
In general in a high-performing team, everyone takes individual responsibility for tasks assigned to them or tasks they take upon themselves, and feel able to account for the outcomes of those responsibilities. Supervisors then feel able to depend upon their team taking responsibility, and being able to explain the outcomes, without needing explicit accountingfor the outcomes, though the accountability remains even if not checked upon. It takes time to build the trust essential for this sense of dependability to develop.
A culture of dependability is preferable since it reflects a high level of trust and by implication a level of autonomy, which is an essential component of happiness in the workplace. It also banishes the (usually false) implications of potential blame associated with accountability.
One of the challenges in establishing a culture of Dependability is that it requires extremely high levels of Responsibility and Accountability. The trust required in team members takes a long time to establish, and is easily eroded by even a few examples of failure to complete duties (i.e. of responsibility) or an inability to explain outcomes (failure of accountability). Building a culture of Dependability is therefore powerful motivator for focussing on Operational Excellence (i.e. doing the same thing, time and again, without failure) and in turn ensuring high quality, repeatable processes, designed around the principle of "making the right thing to do the easiest choice to make" to help the team build up this sense of trust, and therefore dependability.