Accountable and Accountability

Accountability and accountable are very popular words in business today. After a conversation with a colleague about his direct reports, I realized that he was using these words interchangeably and creating confusion in his team.

Accountable: adjective:

  • subject to giving an account, answerable; I held her accountable for the damage.
  • capable of being accounted for; explainable
  • required to be responsible for something

Accountability: noun:

  • the quality or state of being accountable; especially an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions; public officials lacking accountability

The adjective, accountable, is about answering for actions or decisions. It is a requirement, not a choice. It alludes to someone being in trouble, for being called-out for something and held responsible, e.g., “I will hold you accountable for these poor results.” In traditional command and control organizations, “Who is accountable for this?” is fashionable code for “Who is to blame?” All too often, the idea of holding people accountable leads to holding others accountable so we don’t have to fess-up to our own culpability.

The noun, accountability, is interesting because of one word in its definition. The word is willingness. When people are willing to do things, it implies that there is some aspect of desire involved, something about what they are doing that makes them think, “Sure, that sounds fine. I’m up for that.” They have interest in participating because they WANT to.

When we talk about a “willingness to accept responsibility” we gravitate toward the idea that, while it’s not always fun, it generally feels better to say, “well, this might be sort of awful, but I’ll work to make things a bit better than they are now – especially if I got us into this mess.”

When we hear that someone is willing to be accountable, we infer a certain level of optimism. We expect that the person who has taken or accepted accountability is willing to improve the circumstance at hand and that he or she sincerely wants to do so.

As you think about the importance of personal accountability in your organization, consider whether you are referring to being accountable or having accountability. They both have a use.

But if what you’re after is an environment where people actively demonstrate their interest in making things better and willingly accept responsibility for their actions and decisions, you may want to focus on creating a culture that encourages accountability rather than one that fixates on holding people accountable.


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