Accountable and Responsible


Jurgen is debating the difference between Accountable and Responsible.  It is great to see that we are thinking about the same things. There must be a reason for this.

I think that the debate is important because there are many times when a discussion with an employee ends with: “Yup, I didn’t reach my goals, I am sorry, I take full responsibility”.

So what does that mean? Where exactly are you taking the responsibility to? Is there a place where you keep all you unmet responsibilities? What would happen if your child ran onto the road and was hit by a car? Would you still just say “I take full responsibility”?

That is why at Typemock we use these two words as follows (I found the same definition in wiki answers)

  • Responsibility can only be used for future actions, that is why we have a 200% responsibility rule.
  • Accountability is used after the fact, and there is a debt to be paid.

So we don’t allow “taking full responsibility” for past actions, if you didn’t reach your goals, you are accountable, you have to pay.
You can pay by taking responsibility and find a way to fix the mistake (note this is a future action), or by paying you dues in salary or bonuses (and if you are not up to the job, leave it for someone who is)

So you take responsibility of your child and make sure he never runs onto the road, if he does, you are accountable. You can now take responsibility and rush to the nearest hospital, you now must pay the price.

This is why we all take 200% responsibility and everyone is accountable for his own commitments (see how integrity management works). Managers are also accountable their teams commitments and goals.

  1. I love this post.

    But there is a serious problem with it. I know what the problem is, because I make these points all the time to people and get the same feedback.

    Part of that you’re doing here in this post is trying to clarify the English language. You’re setting the record straight. And people hate that; they hate being corrected.

    People misuse the English language every day. And like anything else that you do repetitively, if you do it enough you become good at it. People become very adept at abusing the English language. And they hate to be corrected on it.

    I don’t know what it is about us humans – why we are this way – but we do not accept criticism very well.

    Anyway, what I really wanted to do was answer the question about taking responsibility:

    “So what does that mean? Where exactly are you taking the responsibility to? Is there a place where you keep all you unmet responsibilities?”

    I know you know this, but people say, “I take full responsibility” because to them the alternative is deflecting the blame. When a mistake occurs and a person knows they are the reason for that mistake then they have one of two reactions: (1) lie or (b) own up to the mistake. Saying, “I take full responsibility”, even if it is grammatically incorrect, at least shows the person is willing to acknowledge that they were the reason the mistake occurred. For me, that is the most important thing. It speaks to the character of the person. I have no use for liars. But a person who is willing to admit their mistakes is at least on the right path.

    Now, what you’re talking about is what happens after they admit their mistake. Accountability. That’s a great thing to champion and I applaud you for it, for this post, and for making the effort to explain it.

    But in my experience, just finding people who can admit their own mistakes is a much bigger hurdle than getting them to accept accountability and take corrective action.

    P.S. I have no idea if you’ve ever seen the HBO miniseries “From The Earth To The Moon”. If so, you have seen the 4th episode, called “Spider”. There is a great scene in that episode about an engineer who screws up some calculations that cause a major malfunction in the lunar excursion module. Check it out if you haven’t seen it. Wonderful show.

  2. Hey Chris,
    I am not trying to correct the English, as you said, it doesn’t really help.
    What we do, is define these words for use within Typemock. Just as we use Integrity as the process of committing to controllable actions, we define responsibility and accountability.
    Using Integrity it is nearly impossible to *not* admit to your responsibilities, as they are what *you* committed to and what is *under* your control. So there is no room for excuses.
    As this is the case I found that no one lies or finds excuses (those who do are not welcome at Typemock), but we do own up to our mistakes.

    In my quest to create a star team, owning up is only the first step, that is why it is important to raise the bar of everyone and find a way to fix our mistakes. The first steps is explaining about accountability and allowing the employee to commit to actions that will fix the mistakes (and take responsibility).
    The feeling of managing to raise the bar and solving/fixing our mistakes is *amazing*

    I hope that doing this enough times will train us to solve the problems before “owning up”, so that I will hear.

    “I didn’t manage to reach my goals so I am going to do a.b.c to solve it”

  3. Thanks for this blog. imho the important thing is to have the conversation ! As long as the people in a particular domain understand what is meant by a particular term, then that is all that matters. With all language there is ultimately no right or wrong use. I see from other related blogs that some languages do not really distinguish between the two terms – believe me whan I say that most native English speakers cannot tell you the difference ! As Wittgenstein said – the meaning of a word is in its use.

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