Accountability vs Responsibility

Accountability and responsibility are two words we throw around, often as if they are interchangeable.  We ask for them, nay, expect them from those we operate with at work, at home, and in our communities.  The key to achieving common ground here is the same as with anything else – communication; except we seldom surround our expectation of responsibility and/or accountability with the required depth of discussion and agreement.  Consequently, when we mention either, they are equated more with a feeling of unmet expectations and pressure than a willingness to stand for their positive representation.

There are several subtle differences between accountability and responsibility that vary according to the scenario.  These nuances can be confusing without discussion as even the dictionary lumps the two together.  Confusion causes cloudiness, which causes frustration; when what accountability and responsibility cry out for is clarity.  Let’s unpack it a little.

Accountability is a factual answerability for the outcome of an action or set of actions and is assigned to one person.  Assigning accountability to more than one person is a recipe for deflection – the definition of lack of accountability.  Accountability is attached to a defined task, set of steps or outcome, and ends with its completion.

Responsibility is linked to a sense of duty, and extends over and above a defined project, task, or outcome.  It has more of an overarching feeling to it, a sense of playing a part in a bigger picture and caring about how your part in that picture affects the whole and/or the longer-term outcome.  It has to do with doing your job well, every time, all the time, for the good of everyone involved.

As mentioned, these nuances are subtle, and they show themselves differently in different scenarios – but they present a prime opportunity for communication that deepens understanding, fosters a feeling of “team”, and ensures everyone is on the same page, thus preventing or limiting frustration.

In aviation, the achievement of each flight is a multi-layered strategy that involves many different players, each with different skill sets.  There are Load Masters who work with the configuration and loading of cargo.  There are Flight Crew and Cabin Crew, each focused on their own part of the process.  There are those who refuel aircraft and those who provide catering.  There are those who prepare and dispatch vital information about weather, traffic, and other influences.  Each person in this chain is responsible for doing their part according to their skillset and for completing their tasks to the highest standard.  i.e. tasks are delegated to a whole team of people qualified to focus on their roles. 

Regardless of how many roles are delegated though, only one person can be held accountable for the final outcome of any flight, and that position falls to the pilot in command of the flight (the captain).

If the wrong amount of fuel is loaded, or someone drives a forklift into the side of the aircraft, the accountability for the end result lies with the captain of the aircraft.  If the navigation figures are off, or someone presents with a medical emergency on board, the ultimate responsibility for how these things are handled lies squarely on the shoulders of the captain of the aircraft.  This is a considerable weight to carry and is no mean feat in terms of leadership.

Often, it is significantly easier to throw our team members under the bus if one of them fails to deliver on their responsibilities.  It requires considerable moral courage to step up to the plate and accept accountability for the whole team’s actions.  This is a role not only defined and written into our aviation law, but one of honour that promotes and encourages a sense of trust and responsibility within each team when the odd occasion requires that a leader cover their team.

To be clear, this is not about glossing over the mistakes of others.  Each error in aviation is intricately “debriefed”, examined and discussed with those responsible so that we can learn to do it better next time.  This culture is imperative to our success, and its practise on a daily basis keeps communication open and egos out of the way as we all maintain perspective on our part in the achievement of the bigger goals.

Another subtle difference between accountability and responsibility is how the factual vs feeling nature shows up.

Often, in business, we go on about needing accountability from our team members, yet we’ve not had the conversations necessary to give those team members clarity on exactly what steps will be measured, what the desired outcomes look like, and what snags might come up that prevent the ideal outcome.  Consequently, the focus is not on the facts and rather on the ability of the person as an individual to achieve a goal.  This puts us into defensive mode, and we start to look at accountability as a threat to and judgement of our individual performance record as opposed to a feedback system that details our progression as part of a team who can make allowances for, collaborate with, and help each other.

Leaders ask for accountability without being clear enough about the facts, leaving those held accountable in a position of uncertainty.  Without adequate communication within a team, members don’t feel the required level of responsibility for their part in the bigger picture, and they try to dodge blame rather than stepping up to fill the gap.

Both accountability and responsibility require demonstration on a consistent basis.  There is never any shortage of opportunity for any of us to demonstrate both daily.  Demonstrating our willingness to stand for our part in things – to be accountable for each step toward the ultimate outcome of what we take on, and investing in the longer-term big picture because we feel a responsibility towards building something good (even when that means standing for the mistakes of others rather than assigning blame) – is to show the moral courage that inspires others to step forward themselves and take up that same mantle.

Step up.  Communicate.  Discuss.  Share.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

by Christen Killick

August 2nd, 2021

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.