The difference between accountability and responsibility is subtle but important! While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they have very distinct meanings.
Let’s look at both of them before diving into specific aspects of each one!
What Is Accountability vs. Responsibility?
If you are in charge of the outcome of an event, you are accountable for it.
If you are working on an event and arranging the details, then you are responsible for it.
Here are some examples of the difference between responsibility and accountability:
|Ordering catering for a work event
|Overseeing the work event and making sure all the details come together.
|Designing graphics by the deadline
|Planning a marketing campaign, delegating tasks you aren’t able to do yourself, and putting everything together to benefit the client.
|Going to work and doing only what is asked of you
|Setting up a meeting with your boss to talk about the larger vision of your team and offering ideas for how your unique background can help your team achieve those goals.
Accountability is a component of good leadership. Good leaders are often accountable for the work of their entire team. They accept the repercussions regardless of a project’s outcome.
In the workplace, one person is typically accountable for how a campaign performs or an event turns out. They’re the “head” of the project, in other words. However, many people may contribute to the outcome. These other people are also responsible for a portion of the project.
For example, if you attend an event, you could say, “Wow, these decorations are really nice.” In response, one team member might respond, “Thanks! I made those.” This would mean they were responsible for the decorations.
On the other hand, as you leave the event, you might say, “This was a lovely evening. The speaker was great, and the schedules worked together wonderfully.” The person at the door might respond, “Thank you, I will be sure to pass your compliment on to my boss, who planned and orchestrated the evening.”
The boss, who planned and orchestrated the event, would be accountable for how it turned out—even though they did not personally do everything from preparing appetizers to making the decorations.
8 Key Differences Between Accountability and Responsibility
While accountability and responsibility can sometimes be used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings and implications.
Let’s look at 8 of the key distinctions.
Accountability = impact
On any given project, one person is typically accountable for the impact of the completed work. However, each individual who contributes to the project is responsible for their assigned duties.
If a client is unhappy with the final product, usually only the person accountable for the project is answerable to the client—even if they didn’t work on the product themselves.
Having someone accountable for a project’s impact can help diminish confusion and possible miscommunication. This person oversees all the work and checks in on teammates to ensure the tasks they are each responsible for are completed properly.
A lack of accountability can result in confusion and frustration among team members. When no one is accountable, it becomes easier for people to assume that someone else is handling various tasks. Typically if no one is accountable and no one delegates, tasks can easily fall through the cracks this way.
Here’s how bad and good accountability can look like:
- In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to a toxic workplace with a culture of blame. People may become insecure and need to figure out who to turn to as the leader on various projects. This, in turn, can result in a lack of clarity and a higher chance of people feeling frustrated.
- On the other hand, a workplace with good accountability has clearly defined roles. Typically only one person manages any given project. They may work collaboratively with others and oversee the delegation of tasks.
Within this structure, individuals are responsible for tasks entrusted to them. Once they finish those tasks, they can hand them off and not worry about the outcome or impact of the project as a whole.
Responsibility = tasks
Responsibility focuses on the tasks that one is entrusted with. This means responsible employees arrive on time, complete their tasks promptly, and communicate with other team members about their progress.
Task-oriented responsibility in your personal life could include filing your taxes on time, having insurance, or scheduling extra time for traffic when driving to your friend’s house for their birthday.
Accountability is ongoing
The accountable party is primarily responsible for a project—often even after it has been completed. They are also the point person who ensures all of the individuals responsible for tasks complete them in a timely manner.
Accountable people may try to take ownership of their mistakes and are often willing to grow and learn. For example, if an accountable person goes through a breakup, they may do their best to think introspectively and recognize their mistakes.
In this sense, accountability is an ongoing characteristic of an individual. It does not need to be assigned because the accountable person can recognize their imperfections and work on overcoming them.
Responsibility can be completed.
Responsibility is more tied to a specific task. You’re responsible for tasks assigned to you or that you agree to take on. In the workplace, responsibility is often based on tasks outlined in a job description.
For example, if your job states that you are expected to attend a weekly meeting, you would be responsible for arriving on time.
If you regularly fail to attend, you might face repercussions for not being there. In this instance, your boss might pull you aside and ask why you have not been attending the meeting.
Your boss is accountable for ensuring team participation, so they might talk to you if you’ve missed the weekly meetings.
Accountability is accepted
Self-accountable people are internally motivated and disciplined to achieve the goals they set for themselves. The Oz Principle, a bestselling book on accountability, defines it as a “personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results.”
At New Year‘s, a self-accountable person likely sets a goal for themselves and plans how they will achieve it.
They understand that achieving goals takes work and that they are solely responsible for reaching the goals they set for themselves.
Responsibility is assigned
Someone else can entrust you with tasks, making you responsible for them. They may ask you to meet a deadline or collaborate with another team member. However, at the end of the day, the person who assigned the task to you is accountable to others for the results.
Your partner, for example, might say, “You seem stressed. Why don’t you go rest while I prepare the house for our dinner party tonight?”
At this point, they’ve assumed accountability for completing the task of preparing the house for guests. They may, however, delegate some of these tasks. For example, if you have children, they might tell one of the children, “Please clean up your toys that are on the living room floor.”
The child is then responsible for accomplishing this task. However, if they do not, and guests come, the parent is still accountable for the Legos and stuffed animals on the living room floor.
Accountability is typically more of a characteristic than a task. Those who are characteristically accountable for their actions take ownership of their decisions.
They know they need to be self-motivated and work towards goals without someone else delegating or hanging over their shoulder. This enables them to be true leaders as they are typically more aware of their own capabilities and limitations.
You can improve your self-accountability in the following ways:
- Get an accountability buddy. Knowing that someone will check in and ask how your progress is going can help you stay motivated.
- Try If-Then planning. This is where you say, “If I’m still working at 6 pm, then I’ll remind myself of my commitment to work-life balance and spend 15 minutes wrapping up the most urgent tasks.” Making a plan ahead of time helps you handle the situation how you believe is best.
- Make a pre-commitment. Pre-commitments are things you can do now to make it easier for your future self to follow through on your goals. This could mean laying out your gym clothes the night before or putting your phone in a different room before bed.
- Be rather than do. Focus less on what you want to do and more on who you want to become. This helps prevent “all or nothing” thinking. For example, if you want to become someone with a healthy morning routine, this shift in mindset can help you get back on track if you snooze your alarm five times rather than jumping out of bed.
- “I get to….” Instead of thinking of your accountability to yourself as a “have to,” try to reframe it as things you “get to” do. For example, if you are trying to eat healthier, you could tell yourself that you “get to have a colorful plate full of variety.”
- Document your wins! There will be challenging days on your journey of self-improvement. It can be helpful to have reminders of all the wins you’ve had. Try to keep track of all the wins—both big and small. You can write them in a gratitude journal or just make a mental note.
Learn more about self-accountability by reading our article 7 Ways to Hold Yourself Accountable (& Be Disciplined).
People often use the word “responsibility” confusingly. People typically describe others who are self-motivated and accountable as “responsible” people. However, “accountable” would technically be the more accurate term in this instance.
Becoming more responsible
Becoming more responsible typically means that you know what is expected of you and are able and willing to follow those rules.
If you feel like you are struggling with responsibility, here are some ways to improve:
- Gain clarity. Talk with your employer and ask them to clarify any tasks you are unsure of. If you don’t know you’re responsible for a specific task, you won’t know you need to complete it. This can be especially good to bring up in a performance review.
- Review the rules. If you’re unsure what the right way to do something is, take a moment to look it up. You could be moving to a new state and not sure about traffic laws or simply unsure if you can microwave a specific type of Tupperware. Taking a moment to stop and look it up or read the directions can save you time and energy in the long run.
- Set up autopay or a reminder. Being responsible means learning to take care of and manage little logistics. Try setting up autopay for your phone bill, so you don’t have to worry about it every month. Or add a reminder on your calendar app to return your library books on time. Think of one thing you can automate and do it.
These things can help you become more disciplined in your responsibilities.
How to Highlight Accountability in a Job Application
Responsibilities are typically predictable based on the job title. This is why it is often less impressive to list the tasks you were responsible for.
When sharing what you were accountable for, you can share the outcomes of the tasks as your wins! In this way, it demonstrates the impact you’ve had in a role. For this reason, it is typically better to focus on accountability when writing a resume or CV.
Accountability also demonstrates your leadership ability and ability to challenge yourself and achieve goals.
Here is what the difference between responsibility and accountability could look like in a resume:
|Planned fundraising events
|Organized two fundraising galas that raised 40% of the organization’s annual budget.
|Trained new hires
|Re-imagined onboarding process; recognized by the boss as resulting in quicker acclimation to the team for new hires.
|Completed app design
|Oversaw app design with a dual focus on user interface and appealing graphics.
Final Thoughts: Impact vs. Tasks
Accountability requires you to take ownership of the results. It requires effective and clear leadership. If someone has strong self-accountability, they can typically set goals and work towards them.
Responsibility is more logistics related. You can develop your sense of responsibility by becoming more organized.
Here are the key distinctions between accountability and responsibility:
- Accountability has to do with impact, while responsibility is task-oriented. Accountability implies a level of leadership and ownership of your actions or project outcome. There is an opportunity to make an impact when one takes accountability for the outcomes and repercussions of their choices. Responsibility means more of an expectation that you will accomplish tasks at the agreed-upon quality and speed. It can mean anything from paying your taxes on time to completing your part of the group project.
- Accountability is ongoing while responsibility can be completed. Accountability refers largely to a personal characteristic. Accountable people typically are that way in all areas of life. This means it is an ongoing trait of individuals. It is a piece of who they are rather than something that they do. Responsibility relates more to checklists and tasks. This means you can finish the things you’re responsible for, and once they are checked off the to-do list, they are no longer your concern.
- Accountability is accepted while responsibility can be assigned: Self-accountability enables people to recognize their shortcomings and take the initiative to improve themselves. On the other hand, responsibility can be assigned to you by someone else. You are responsible for completing projects on time and may have to take accountability for not finishing them in the agreed-upon time frame.
For more ways to develop and grow as a person, check out our article, 10 Emotional Intelligence Traits to Master for Self-Growth.