Accountability and Responsibility Defined

When disappointed by his inability to draft the players he wanted, legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells once commented: “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for the groceries.” 

Like Parcells, none of us wants to be held accountable unless we control the process and ingredients critical for success. At the heart of this issue is the difference between the ideas of accountability and responsibility. Distinguishing between these two concepts, which people often use interchangeably, can actually help leaders increase accountability in their teams and organizations. 

Accountability is about outcomes. We “hold” others accountable by insisting that they attain an outcome deemed important. As such, we can hold others accountable to such things as achieving results, improving effectiveness and efficiencies, reaching milestones, and ensuring standards of quality. 

In contrast, responsibility is about action and doing. People can be responsible for actions, steps, tasks, processes and assignments. We are responsible for cutting the grass; we are accountable to create a beautiful lawn. Responsible actions are what make outcomes and results possible. 

When leaders clarify the actions and tasks that are essential to success, as well as who is responsible for them, they can then hold the team or themselves accountable for the result. By clearly identifying who is responsible for what, leaders are better able to insist that others focus on and achieve outcomes. 

Holding others accountable without first clarifying responsibilities is much like insisting on baking the perfect cake without identifying the recipe, ingredients or the baker. Or, as Parcells suggests, without selecting the groceries.