Accountability vs responsibility. What do these words mean, and why should you care? How do they relate to helping you be successful? How do they relate to creating an organizational system where people work together to realize the goals of an organization? 

No matter what your role is – team lead, coach, contributor, manager, or transformation change agent – it’s vital to understand the difference between accountability vs responsibility.

Accountability vs Responsibility

Before we get into the definitions, it’s important to understand that words have power. The intention behind the word has more impact than the word itself. We’re going to unpack the words accountability vs. responsibility, yet from the perspective of the intention behind the words. 

Man and Woman Reviewing Documents

Accountability: Holding to Account

There are two approaches to accountability: Unhealthy and Healthy.

The unhealthy pattern is about holding people to account. “I’m going to hold my employees accountable to make sure that they are doing their job.” Accountability comes from this context of not trusting people and checking up on them. Of saying, “I’m going to hold you accountable for this.” It’s almost a threat, and it can create fear and destroy our sense of psychological safety. This is where the idea of accountability originally comes from.

Accountability can also be approached in a very healthy way, where it’s used as a personal activity. “I hold myself accountable for completing this job well, for serving this organization.” Holding oneself to account is a very powerful individual or leadership activity. The power comes from the mindset and how one is showing, engaged and motivated. 

Leading Beyond Change

There’s nothing wrong with the word accountability. When it’s used for someone holding somebody else accountable, it can be a form of control. When we use it for ourselves, it can actually be a very powerful approach. 

Responsibility: Showing Up Like an Adult

Responsibility essentially means showing up like an adult. It’s about taking responsibility for who we are, what we say, how we show up, and how we interact with others. You can say this is also the definition of an evolved mindset and consciousness. Responsibility is an individual characteristic. You can show up responsibly and observe whether others are showing up responsibly, but it’s not something you can enforce.

Coworkers Discussing Business Documents

True responsibility is a very large undertaking. Most human beings do not show up responsibly. Most of us had teachers and parents where the opposite was modeled: not taking responsibility – the patterns that were modeled are what we have inherently learned. We have not been asked to take responsibility, the whole notion of responsibility points to a gap in our society, education within relationships, and our workplaces.

We’ve coined a revised definition for what Teal is: a very high-performance organization where everyone acts like an adult. It’s a very, very different environment than we have in the traditional workplace or the traditional home environment. 

Are Your People Showing Up Responsibly?

When people are not showing up responsibly, they often:

  • Avoid work
  • Avoid conversations
  • Avoid asking for help. This happens when people need help, yet it’s not safe to ask for help or some just pretend they know and they BS their way through it (cover up). 
  • Don’t reflect on how they’re showing up as a team member and contributor
  • Don’t take responsibility for their behavior. Oftentimes people have emotional reactions – we get frustrated, we get annoyed, we have a poor reaction to an email. Taking responsibility means taking ownership of that. Most people don’t go back and clean up the relationship – after saying something inappropriate, they just let it go.
  • Don’t take initiative. Seeing problems and challenges around but not coming up with ideas to remedy them.
Woman Talking at a Business Meeting

Showing up responsibly is about taking the initiative to be a co-creator of an amazing workplace or family system. The most important thing is just about showing up. Forrest Gump says, “Showing up is 90% of life.” It’s just showing up and taking responsibility for how we’re conducting ourselves. Are we open, engaged, motivated, passionate, or are we just putting in the time?

Healthy Use of Responsibility and Accountability

Let’s talk about the healthy use of accountability and responsibility. If I hold myself accountable, I will show up more responsibly. The two go together, at an individual level. 

At an organization level, managers tend to hold people accountable, which creates all sorts of problems. True leaders focus on responsibility. They create leaders around them and unlock organizational potential through human potential. They see what’s happening with a person’s level of responsibility and if there’s a gap, it’s not about faulting the individual. It’s about, “Well, how can I show up differently as a leader? How can I create an environment to help this person be more responsible?” 

If someone’s not showing up responsibly, we don’t want to beat them up about it. We want to say, “Wait a second, my job as a leader is to build other leaders around me. How can I help this person grow and evolve? How can I help this person be successful?” 

Man looking at laptop

People are not taught this in business school. They’re taught how to use the carrot and the stick and motivate people, this is a form of manipulation. Business school teaches business as usual, not how to help people grow. And how do we help those around us grow? We can only really inspire people to grow when we evolve ourselves.

How to Create Responsible Staff

The most effective way to create responsible people around you is for you to demonstrate responsibility. Hold yourself to better account for how you’re showing up, for your actions, and how you treat people. That will signal that showing up responsibly is something of value. And because you’re showing up more responsibly, all your relationships will improve, which means your ability to influence other people around you will increase.

It will also create a space where you can have a conversation. You can say, ” I’m consciously taking responsibility for my impact. Would you consider taking responsibility for your impact?” It creates a space to invite someone on that same journey that we’re on – of growing our level of responsibility. Thus, the most powerful way to create a shift of the people around you is to focus on holding yourself accountable and showing up in a very responsible way. Walking your talk is the most powerful way to transmit a teaching.

Business Staff Meeting About Accountability vs Responsibility

Can someone be accountable but not responsible?

The answer is yes. Holding yourself to account means you’re committed to evolving your behavior over time. As your behavior evolves, you can become increasingly responsible. However, as normal human beings, we’ll have errors in our responsibility. We won’t show up fully as an adult at all times. We make errors and mistakes because being human is messy. Responsibility is an ongoing evolutionary journey. 

Accountability is a starting place. It is important to hold ourselves to account and to have strong motivation. External fear in an environment can motivate higher levels of responsibility yet in a non-lasting, non-durable way. There is a habit of people only showing up better while the boss is looking. A permanent shift towards higher levels of responsibility comes from an internal choice to evolve, to hold oneself accountable for one’s behavior.

An Invitation to Evolutionary Leadership

We’re inviting a fundamental rethink of accountability and responsibility. Ultimately, the difference between accountability vs responsibility points to two things: number one, that we understand it’s normal to show up as imperfect human beings. And number two, to highlight the question of, are we ready to evolve how we show up?

Leading Beyond Change

Our definition for Evolutionary Leadership is that we are ready to evolve ourselves as a human being. It is the most important task, to be conscious of our impact at all times. In our view, it is necessary for showing up responsibly. We invite you to join our movement as Evolutionary Leaders.

Are you ready?