Accountability: What is It and Where Does It Come From?

Accountability is an afterthought for many organizations. It is an element of corporate life that hides in the background until a deadline is missed, an angry client complains to the company, or something similarly frustrating occurs.

When these sorts of things happen, we suddenly find ourselves thinking: “Who is going to answer for this?”

You might have a clear idea about who’s at fault, but that doesn’t mean that person will agree. He may not even agree that there’s a problem. If he does, there’s a good chance the buck will be passed to someone or something else—some flaw in the system that prevented them from completing the task as requested.

In either case, we’re looking at a fundamental lack of accountability.

Accountability Starts with Appreciating Obligation

Accountability does not exist in a vacuum. It’s closely related to obligation and responsibility. Understanding these terms clearly is the first step toward increasing your organization’s culture of accountability.

Obligation structures our relationship to both accountability and responsibility. It refers to a feeling of duty, of being compelled to meet necessary conditions for satisfaction to occur (for the parties involved).

For our purposes, satisfaction refers specifically to customer satisfaction, which is itself linked to our own satisfaction with our staff’s performance: Did they do the bare minimum? Go above and beyond, or completely drop the ball? These are all ways of asking, “Do they understand that their work matters?”

It is essential for them to grasp this point in order to take the next step towards accountability—taking responsibility.

Responsibility and Accountability: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Responsibility and accountability are related, but they are not exactly the same.

Often, the person accountable for something is not the same as the person who is responsible for it. For instance, a manager is accountable for his team’s performance, but the team is responsible to perform.

It doesn’t end there.

The manager is responsible for the accountability of his team, but the VP is accountable to her superior if the manager fumbles his responsibilities. This dynamic continues up the corporate ladder, with responsibility and accountability changing places each time we ascend closer to the top.

As we can see, the terms responsibility and accountability start to bleed together. But it is important to understand what each term represents in this context.

Responsibility refers to the duties someone is obligated to complete to satisfy the business and its clients.

Accountability refers to the willingness to accept and answer for the effects of our actions—good or bad. Ultimately, it is an acknowledgement that responsibility exists.

But how do we get our employees to accept responsibility and demonstrate accountability?

It all starts with a conversation.

Communication Is the Backbone of Responsibility and Accountability

In order to meet expectations, we have to know what they are.

It’s easy to say to an employee, “You’re responsible for writing a weekly progress report,” and leave it at that. Yet this vagueness leaves a lot of unanswered questions: How long should it be? Bullet points or formal sentences? What should I focus on?

When employees don’t fully understand what their responsibilities are, it’s hard to get them to be accountable for them.

Nobody likes getting negative feedback.

It’s a very human reaction to try to put distance between yourself and your shortcomings—especially if you feel set up for failure because expectations were not clearly defined.

Communication is the key to getting your staff to demonstrate accountability. By explaining why work must be completed a certain way, you level the playing field around accountability by defining terms that both parties can agree to.

But don’t assume that once is enough.

Life is change: projects evolve, priorities shift, emergencies happen. These things need to be considered alongside our expectations, which is why they need to be communicated (and readjusted, if necessary) on a regular basis.

This doesn’t mean you should micromanage your employees (trust is just as important as communication). But do check in with them regularly.

By ensuring that managers and employees understand each other, it is easier for both groups to grasp why certain things can or cannot occur.

When this mutual understanding is reached, the employee is empowered to do her best work, and the manager gets greater insight into how to get the most from his team.

The end result, then, is that both are more likely to demonstrate accountability because they are both invested in each other’s needs.

We are pleased to bring you this first blog in a series about accountability. We hear from business owners that they are disappointed in their employees' performance. Give us a call to discuss how we might help improve accountability in your business.

About our guest author: Logan M. Rohde, PhD
Logan finished his doctorate at University of Western Ontario in English in 2018 and has since moved into freelance writing for business leaders.