iStock_000010827673XSmallOn the cusp of 2013, I find myself reflecting on how important language is and messaging is in our organizations.

Here’s an example. A recent Twitter conversation was prompted by my “What’s Your Leadership Legacy?” post & podcast.

Our dialog raised the question of responsibility versus accountability when leading others.

This follower’s bold statement was, “Leadership should not be about accountability! Authentic leadership is about responsibility!” Strong statements – and valid questions to examine.

I’ve learned a lot over thirteen years of coaching senior leaders to proactively manage their desired organizational culture. My learning continues today. My experiences lead me to believe that responsibility and accountability are different concepts – different in theory and in practice.

And, both responsibility and accountability help ensure that performance promises AND values promises are kept.

Personal Responsibility

I believe that responsibility is personal. Responsibility lies with individuals, both individual leaders and individual contributors.

In high performing, values-aligned organizations, responsible individuals consistently apply their skills & commitment to deliver agreed-to goals and tasks on time, on budget, and exceeding quality requirements. In these organizations, individuals also embrace their responsibility to meet goal standards while demonstrating their company’s espoused values.

In too many organizations, though, these standards are not consistently met by every individual, be they leader or follower.

There might be many contributing factors to missed standards – overwhelming workload, poor skills for new expectations, lousy systems, competing priorities, team conflicts, lousy bosses, etc. Any of these can erode one’s ability to meet performance standards.

The fact remains that in some organizations, many more performance commitments are made than missed. Despite experiencing some of the same conditions that trip up lesser organizations, high performing, values-aligned organizations consistently meet performance and values standards.

Is this successful circumstance entirely driven by personal responsibility? That possibility must be considered.

Accountability Is Required to Ensure Promises are Kept

I believe that accountability primarily comes into play when individual responsibility falls short of agreed-to performance and values standards.

Leaders, by definition, are responsible for clarifying their team’s purpose, vision, strategy, values, and goals. They are, therefore, responsible to ensure every commitment made – for performance and for values – is met, day in and day out.

The only way leaders can ensure promises are kept is to follow up and check in with team members to see if progress is on track.

If progress is being made according to plan, the leader can praise and encourage, and move on to another topic – or move on to conversations with another team member.

If, however, progress is not on track, the leader must be consistent in monitoring activity, addressing gaps, and coaching team members back to standard.

This process is accountability in action. Leaders demonstrate responsibility to do what they say they will do while holding team members accountable – helping them do what they said they will do.

Join in the conversation about this post/podcast in the comments section below. What are your thoughts about the “responsibility versus accountability” question?

What is it like to live in your organization’s culture? Complete my new Performance-Values Assessment. Results and analysis are described on my blog site’s research page.

This new research can help you refine your organization’s corporate culture. Contact me to discuss conducting the Performance-Values Assessment in your organization.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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