Do you consider yourself Accountable, Responsible or both?

Source: AnnMarie Mangion¸ PKF Malta

A substantial amount of people are not aware of the difference between these two terms thus leading to wrong self-classification. Here’s something to help you clarify this distinction.

It’s best to start by pointing out that these two words are used interchangeably in various circumstances¸ however they are not exactly identical.

Vincent E. Barry defined the term ‘responsibility’¸ when used in business affairs¸ as referring to “a sphere of duty or obligation assigned to a person by the nature of that person’s position¸ function¸ or work.”  Responsibility could therefore be viewed as a bundle of obligations associated with a job or function.

‘Accountability’ simply means to be called to account¸ give reasons or explanations for an action. It is the obligation of an individual to report formally with regards to work done to discharge any responsibility… in other words¸ you are answerable to others for what you do.

On the other hand responsibility means that it’s on you to complete a task faithfully. It’s up to you to be accountable for the task you are responsible for. It’s important to note that responsibility can be¸ and is often shared. The reason is that you can be one of many¸ to be delivering the result.  Accountability is different since you’re the only one to own the ultimate result.

A much clearer example is when an employee is responsible for certain tasks in his/her job¸ and s/he is accountable to his/her supervisor. On the other hand a person who owns his own business is responsible for many tasks¸ but is not accountable to anyone else.

We can now clearly state that whenever responsibility is defined¸ it appears to be in relation to accountability.  The simplest formula is that a person can be held accountable if:

  • The person is functionally and/or morally responsible for an action¸
  • Some harm occurred due to that action¸ and
  • The responsible person had no legitimate excuse for the action.

The conclusion is that it can be said that accountability is a higher-level activity than responsibility in the sense that a person has to be responsible in order to be accountable. However it’s important to note that this is not always the case.