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From the author of Responsible Versus Accountable

Responsible Versus Accountable

Managers delegate work to employees who are then responsible for carrying out that work. But then the inevitable question is, “Who is accountable for the results?”

I once tried to figure out what the difference is between the words responsible and accountable. I honestly didn’t know. The words are often used interchangeably. And in my native language (Dutch), they even translate to the same word, verantwoordelijk. This made the use of these words even more puzzling to me, as in this case:

When are you responsible? And when are you accountable? I feel responsible for writing this document. But am I also accountable for what I write? The Wikipedia entry on delegation doesn’t seem to make things any clearer:

    Delegation is the assignment of authority and responsibility to another person to carry out specific activities. However the person who delegated the work remains accountable for the outcome of the delegated work.

Does that mean accountability only remains with the manager? That doesn’t make sense, because this would imply that, in the end, only the shareholders could be held accountable for what happens in a business.

Fortunately, there is a great explanation by Christopher Avery. He refers to a quote that expresses the fundamental difference in a clear and simple way:

    I TAKE responsibility and I am HELD accountable.

I take responsibility for writing this document, and I could be held accountable for copyright infringements. (There aren’t any, I think.) Apparently, responsibility is something that can be assigned to you, but that you can also take:

    If you have a manager and aren’t clear about what you are held accountable for, you might want to take responsibility for finding out.

Therefore, if you are the manager of a software team, you can assign responsibilities, and team members can also take responsibilities themselves. But you are not responsible for work and decisions that you delegated to the team.

However, with accountability it is different. The line of authorization makes sure that all people involved are held accountable, from those responsible for carrying out the work to the shareholders who handed out the authorizations, and everyone in between (Figure 6).

Figure 6 Responsible (*) versus accountable (!)

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