Responsibility Versus Accountability – What’s The Difference?

Responsibility vs. Accountability – What’s The Difference?

Contributed by Kristen McAlister

Responsibility versus Accountability – What’s The Difference? This is usually the first question asked when I start talking about processes and procedures with companies. Initially, when a company is starting up, it doesn’t matter as much. As the owner and first one or two employees, you are both responsible and accountable for everything. But at what point does the difference between these become important to you and why?

As your company and the team grows, more and more of what you have traditionally been responsible for now falls to others. One of three things will start to happen. First, you will end up with a list three pages long because it contains everything you need to do, plus checking up on what everyone else should be doing. This includes stepping in sometimes and just doing it because it was missed. Second, things seem to be falling through the cracks, not getting done or mistakes being made. Third, everyone knows what they should be doing, how they should be doing it and since they are taking ownership of it they are even improving on it. Let’s focus on how to get from the first and second to the third.

Here’s a few client examples of what the first and second look like inside a company:

  • The company doubled their business the last two years. The CEO should be focusing on priorities to help the company to continue to grow. Instead, he focuses his time following up on things that he is neither responsible nor accountable for to the point the employees feel the need to still run everything by him.
  • One of the maintenance trucks wasn’t turned on weekly during the slow season – the responsibility traditionally fell to the person assigned to the vehicle but since they had a reduced crew for the off-season, no one was assigned to that task? It costs the company $850 for a new battery and transmission.

To get to the third scenario and get you sleeping more peacefully at night, the first step is ensuring there are clear roles & responsibilities in place. Part of that process is determining who is responsible vs. who is accountable for what tasks, processes, areas of the company. Here are some basic guidelines for the nuances between them.

Responsibility versus Accountability


  1. You are the one actually performing the task/process
  2. You are the one to document the SOP (“How to”)
  3. You are responsible for speaking up if you need resources or training
  4. You are responsible for training others on your responsibilities so you have back-up and have your replacement so you can take on a promotion, critical projects, etc.


  1. You ensure the person responsible knows they are responsible for the task/process. It is surprising how often this does not happen…
  2. You ensure they have all resources needed for success. This includes training, tools/materials, success metrics, feedback on their progress and goal attainment.
  3. Identifying the back-ups. Who can be cross-trained to back this individual up in the event it is needed.

Yes there is some overlap. Great, that is the plan. In the end you end up with:

  1. Clarity on everyone’s roles and what they are responsible for and accountable for in the company
  2. Built in succession planning
  3. Training, Cross-training
  4. SOP, Policies & Procedures, etc.
  5. Leadership
  6. A lot less on your plate, cost savings and peace of mind

As a CEO, owner or executive it is easy to say, but it’s my company/division, I am accountable for everything. Ultimately, yes – but if you take primary accountability for everything you are taking away the opportunity for others to learn how to manage and become leaders. If it is important enough for you to want to be kept in the loop, have them put it on a weekly report or copy you upon resolution. If your name isn’t in the responsibility or accountability column, try taking a step back. This is provided you have the right leaders in place who understand what it is to be accountable and how to best support others. We’ll leave that for another article, another time.

One word of caution with the above. Though you are giving everyone a great guide book, be careful not to give them the new phrase, “I’m not responsible for that.” As simple as it seems, you may need to make it clear the new response is, “I’m not sure Mary is responsible for that, would you like me to check with her for you?”

Set clear expectations, communicate them, repeat them, repeat them, repeat them. You’ll be surprised how much easier initiatives will be once this is in place.

Learn how we can help your business grow profitably today.