Accountability vs. responsibility: Workplace edition

How these two attributes build strong teams, plus tips to incorporate them

May 5, 2022Yellow Squiggle

Many things contribute to team effectiveness, but two of the most important factors by far are accountability and responsibility.

To encourage and foster accountability and responsibility, you need to know how they differ. While they're both positive attributes and some people use the terms interchangeably, accountability and responsibility have different meanings — and different effects on a team's success.

Teams need to be held responsible for their project management initiatives and other important goals. They also need to be held accountable for them.

Comparing and contrasting accountability and responsibility will help us understand them more clearly, which is especially helpful for first-time managers. Once you note the key distinctions, it's easier to create a workplace environment that fosters both successfully. With a healthy, thriving environment, you can build a more effective team with greater potential. Below, we'll discuss the difference between accountability and responsibility, and how you can encourage both attributes within your team.

What is accountability in the workplace?

Individual team members have accountability after an event has already occurred — also sometimes referred to as "ownership." Accountability can be positive or negative. When an individual or team owns up to the outcome of a project's success or failure, they are accountable for it.

Accountability in the workplace hinges on desired outcomes of an action, not the specific tasks it took to reach it. Did it achieve what it was supposed to? You won't hear leaders use accountability to explain one task; you'll hear them use it to refer to outcomes, such as:

  • Marketing was accountable for turning 100 contacts into prospects
  • Customer success is accountable for losing five important clients

In both of these examples, the team "owned" the outcome. When you're accountable for something, your success or failure hinges on whether or not the outcome was a success or a failure.

What is responsibility in the workplace?

Responsibility happens on the front end in the active portion of a project or initiative. It can be divided among team members, with each person responsible for their specific task. While accountability is concerned with the outcome, responsibility focuses on the action or task itself.

Team members who show responsibility complete their assigned tasks on time and within guidelines. For example:

  • Bruce is responsible for writing our blogs.
  • Logging orders is Angela's responsibility.

A job description usually outlines a position's responsibilities. They are clear-cut, finite tasks and actions that an individual or entire team performs.

Accountability vs. responsibility: How are they different?

Looking at both accountability and responsibility in the workplace shows us that they have different attributes with distinct meanings. Here are some of the ways each one comes to life in the workplace.

Accountability

As mentioned earlier, accountability is results-focused, looking at the outcome of a project or initiative. Individuals have personal accountability, but accountability can also be shared across a team. Here are a few ways that an effective team can be more accountable in the workplace:

  • Accept criticism
  • Admit mistakes and errors
  • Be proactive about problems rather than reactive
  • Speak up when you see something wrong
  • Demonstrate transparency and share information with all team members/stakeholders who should be privy

Responsibility

We've covered that responsibility focuses on specific tasks and duties of a role or team. But how does a responsible team operate? Duties will vary widely between companies and industries, but the following are important responsibilities that apply across all businesses:

  • Show up to work on time (or log in on time if your team works remotely)
  • Compile and keep track of reports and KPIs
  • Complete tasks and assignments on the daily to-do list
  • Provide regular training on new software feature rollouts
  • Treat teammates with respect and adhere to the code of conduct

Benefits of accountability in the workplace

Accountability positively impacts the workplace in many ways. It increases employee engagement and empowers employees to make measurable contributions to the company's broad goals. Holding employees accountable can result in better customer service by creating more effective communications. There is less confusion and frustration due to vague, half-explained goals and expectations in workplaces that focus on accountability — and with 53% of employees willing to walk out of their jobs, it's more important than ever to keep morale high. So, what can accountability do for your workplace? Here are just a few of the benefits.

Enhances performance

It's hard to hit a goal when you don't fully understand it or your role. Being held accountable requires the team member to understand goals and outcomes clearly. Accountability keeps them focused on their main initiative — instead of unimportant stuff. Since there are only so many hours in the day, every minute a team member spends working toward the goal increases the likelihood of reaching it.

Encourages creativity and innovation

When there's no accountability, it's much easier to throw up your hands and declare, "It can't be done." Being held accountable for a desired outcome forces team members to think outside the box for solutions. Every challenge, obstacle, or potential delay is a reason to look for creative solutions to achieve the goal.

Increases your team’s commitment

Working toward a common goal is a powerful motivator. Accountability over the team's work forges greater teamwork, fosters trust, and helps strengthen teammate relationships. Lack of accountability does just the opposite — which is why fostering and increasing your team's accountability is important for managers.

Benefits of responsibility in the workplace

Being a responsible person means you do what you say when you say you will. In the workplace, taking responsibility for tasks and projects helps hone valuable skills and contribute to the team's success. Let's take a look at some of the benefits of responsibility in the workplace.

Increases confidence in work

Confident people are more assertive and creative in their contributions. Team building and positive feedback increase individual confidence. A sense of responsibility does, too. As a team member, understanding your role in the organization puts your daily plans into perspective. This knowledge helps increase team members' confidence that they are focusing on the right tasks and actions.

Leads to less wasted time

With clearly defined roles, each team member knows what they are assigned to do. Looking at social media, taking long breaks, and surfing the internet isn't as enticing when team members know what they need to do — and how long they have to complete it.

Helps individual team members build trust

If team members trust one another (and their manager), there will be greater job satisfaction and less turnover. When everyone has defined roles and responsibilities, there's less friction and finger-pointing, like "That was Bobby's job," or, "Kim said she would handle that."

How to build an accountable and responsible team

Leaders can increase team accountability and responsibility by doing what they should always do — leading by example. Leaders must show their responsibility and accountability and encourage team members to follow their lead. Here are five other aspects of building an accountable and responsible team.

1. Establish clear goals and expectations

According to a recent study by Culture Partners, 85% of participants report that they aren't sure of what their company's goals are. Inter-team dynamics, projects, focus, and goals change over time. Leaders need to be transparent about company changes and effectively communicate them with team members — including what is expected of them as individuals and as a team. Expectations should be clearly laid out and revisited often to keep the team focused. Encourage team members to hold each other accountable for their responsibilities, as they're working toward the same goal.

2. Set team members up for success

The first step toward helping your team take responsibility and hold each other accountable is authenticity. Establish trust by communicating authentically, and letting them witness your behavior. Second, team members need to understand what they should be doing. It's critical to set goals where team members understand their individual roles and the team's stake in the outcome. After all, it's hard to achieve success when you don't know what it looks like.

Every team needs resources and tools at their disposal to help them stay productive, informed, and on task. Communication, organization, goal-setting tools, and resources are critical in helping every team thrive and succeed.

3. Provide both positive and negative feedback

Building accountability and responsibility in individuals and teams stems from trust. To do this, managers need to communicate feedback — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Gallup reports that 47% of workers only receive feedback from their managers a few times a year or less. Team members need to hear acknowledgments of what they did well and constructive criticism about what they need to improve — without it, how will they ever get better? By providing positive and negative feedback, team members can take personal responsibility and commit to improving — and hold themselves accountable for doing so.

4. Build a high-performing company culture

Positive company culture is essential to attract and keep productive employees, maintain morale, foster employee loyalty, and reduce turnover. Responsibility helps build a high-performing culture by ensuring every team member understands their specific roles and management's expectations. Accountability helps team members feel ownership and a sense of belonging. It also allows individuals to feel that they offer a positive contribution to broader company goals. If every team's sense of responsibility and accountability is strong, this amplifies the performance culture.

Find out more about encouraging a positive performance culture in the workplace.

5. Treat all team members with respect

Toxic company cultures damage the team and company. Leadership must foster a culture of inclusion and respect, and this is an area where it's especially important to lead by example. When team members witness respectful behavior from managers, it catches on. Sharing ideas and understanding each other's responsibilities helps teams bond and become more effective.

Build an accountable and responsible team with Range

Accountability and responsibility may look the same on the surface, but they have different meanings and implications. Before you can build an effective team that possesses both attributes, you must understand how they differ, what they look like in the workplace, and the benefits of each. By setting clear goals and expectations, creating a way for team members to succeed, and offering positive and negative feedback, you build trust with your team that helps create the positive, effective environment you want.

Good communication is necessary to encourage responsibility and accountability, whether your team is remote or in the office. By leveraging communication tools, your asynchronous team can stay connected — providing status updates, acknowledging hiccups, owning up to mistakes, and celebrating successes. Range is a robust tool that helps your team stay in touch, encourages communication, and strengthens their connections. Get started with Range to start boosting your team’s accountability today!

Better teamwork, fewer meetings

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Accountability vs. responsibility: Workplace edition
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