Accountability is high up on the list of essential features of being professional in the workplace. Yet, many people confuse it with responsibility. The words and intent are often used interchangeably or in the same breath. Knowing the difference, and how accountability and responsibility work together, can help you convince an employer you have what it takes to succeed. So, let’s explore further.

Many people still work in environments that are mainly hierarchical in structure and culture. Tasks are passed down or distributed from managers to the level below. Sometimes people reach up to take responsibility for a task. Their motivation may be to seek a new challenge for personal development or to take the load off busy colleagues. Inherent in taking responsibility is how you choose to respond when responsibility is given to you or your attitude in seeking it.

Being accountable differs in that the buck stops with the person giving you the task if they delegate to you. You empower yourself when you have the confidence and ability to reach up to take responsibility for something. You are prepared to be accountable for decisions. In the workplace, this will often be within clear boundaries set by your boss who may also provide you with the authority to act, information to which you might not have access and resources.

IKEA warehouseHere’s an example from my personal experience. I went to buy a new mattress for a bed at IKEA. Having found the one I wanted, a sales assistant in the beds section looked it up on the computer and its availability was confirmed. I simply had to find the relevant aisle in the warehouse, take it away and pay for it. When I got to the right aisle, the mattress was not there.

I explained the situation to a member of staff. He checked the computer again and apologised for the problem in a relaxed, reassuring manner. Without consulting anyone else, he then offered me a more expensive mattress instead which I accepted. When I asked him how he was able to do that, he explained that he had the authority to make decisions up to a specified amount and it was entirely up to him to decide how to handle this particular situation.

His primary motivation was to make me, the customer, happy. So he took responsibility for resolving the problem. He had the information and resources to make a decision. He also had the authority to make that decision within clear boundaries. He was accountable for the decision which he freely took.

Some of us thrive on being given responsibility, others shy away and leave it to others because they are fearful or unwilling to act. Taking responsibility is a mix of having a positive attitude, being assertive and being business and customer aware, as well as playing to your personal strengths and preferences.Jpeg17

  • When have you been responsible for a task or project, but not accountable? What challenges did it present? How did you deal with them?
  • When have you been accountable for something, but not responsible for doing it? What challenges did it present? How did you deal with them?
  • When have you been both responsible and accountable? How did that feel? What impact did you have?
  • What do the examples you give demonstrate about you to an employer? How would they benefit if they employed you?

Think of MARIA and she will remind you.