October 2011


Is it important to clarify the difference between accountability and responsibility? My clients are discovering a powerful distinction between the two, and in doing so, finding new opportunities to achieve better results!

Responsibility or Accountability... Is your Team Clear?

The differentiation between responsibility and accountability is very apparent when people “drop the ball” or “miss the deadline” on an important project. When you hear statements like - “No one told me,” or “I was waiting for your piece,” or “It’s not my fault,” or “It couldn’t be helped,” or the always-favorite - “It’s not my job!”, you can be sure that the responsibilities were not clearly defined. Many of my clients have gone to great lengths to create charts and graphs with lines of project tasks and timelines to prevent those negative outcomes. Unfortunately, that’s usually not enough.

Defining responsibilities is definitely the first step, but encouraging people to take personal accountability is what’s truly needed.When people take accountability for results, not just doing their jobs, they take ownership for making sure nothing gets dropped. I’ve seen so many companies try to solve this dilemma by re-defining responsibilities, re-designing the org charts, and re-structuring the way work is done… only to discover that changing the seats and the tasks doesn’t change how their teams think or perform the work.

Accountability carries a stronger personal investment in the ownership of the outcomes. When an employee feels a sense of ownership to the results, they are much more likely to achieve results that often exceed expectations. It’s a logical concept easy to understand – but not so easy to bring about successfully. The leaders I am coaching exhibit a great degree of personal accountability and responsibility. Their dilemma is infusing that same commitment within their teams. They are unintentionally taking it all upon themselves, and hoping their teams will “get it” by osmosis, which rarely works well.

The leaders become the ones fully responsible and accountable. It’s a default role built through many years of managing details and coming up with the solutions to everyone’s problems. The result is a dangerous cycle of behavior that builds dependency not accountability.

So what does work well? How can a leader begin to build a strong sense of urgency and ownership (accountability) to the work and the results?

Here are some simple steps that have helped my clients build accountability with their teams:

  • Clearly define "what" your expectations are. And allow plenty of latitude around "how" the goals get met.

  • Ask for possible solutions when problems arise. Don’t be quick to solve the problems. Let the teams create the options. (And expect to feel some anxiety at first around this one if you’re currently the “go to” problem solver.)

  • Get out of the way when you see positive results. You can always step in for guidance when and if needed along the way.

  • Listen, and ask good questions that focus on their thinking process, not just about the task or project details. Ask how they approached a particular issue or problem. Debrief the project by focusing on the process they used and how it might be enhanced or changed for future improvement.
  • Celebrate the successes along the way. Let them know what you appreciate about their approach to the project or problems, the process to the results – in addition to the outcomes.

As my clients implement these steps, they are realizing better results, more engaged teams, and more time for their own strategic thinking and planning. A win for all!

Accountability breeds response-ability. - Stephen R. Covey


Struggling with leadership effectiveness or business change?


If you’re looking to enhance your leadership effectiveness and would like some help to get the results you’re looking to achieve, I’d love to talk with you. I help leaders to successfully navigate the challenges of making change to achieve the results they want. Visit my website www.terrihughes.com for details, free resources and to schedule a complimentary consultation to discuss your needs.

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