Leadership 101 - What does ‘Accountability’ really mean?


We often throw around words like responsibly, accountability, and answerability; however, many do not really know what these words mean therefore use them in the wrong context. 


First of all, responsibility refers to performing a task, while accountability refers to the result. As an example, the First Officer of a ship may be responsible to steer the craft in the right direction, but the Captain who is sleeping in her quarters is still accountable when the ship is ran aground. It is said you can delegate responsibility, but cannot delegate accountability.  In the above example as the Captain cannot be awake on the bridge for days on end, it stands to reason she passed on responsibility to the First Officer but did not have the luxury of absolving herself of accountability. 


Then there is the term answerability, which means you must be prepared to answer why something happened as it did, but often no real accountability exists.


All this said, neither accountability nor answerability have meaning unless there are consequences for the result, the degree of which can either strengthen or water down the desire to achieve a positive outcome.


Then there is the concept of consequences of decisions; in some cases they are minimal, in others they are moderate, and in a few, lives are on the line.


How do you define accountability in your organization and does it include clearly established consequences for undesired outcomes?


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