When we talk about accountability in general terms, most of us have some idea of what it means. We feel accountable to our family members, to our managers at work, in some respects, even to friends. But from the context of the organization, what is accountability and how is it any different from responsibility?

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Ironically, the large majority of organizations almost appear to work at making accountability more diffused and confusingSemiformal bodies such as champions, steering groups, committees, councils and the like are established because individuals do not know who is accountable for making a decision. And there are always employees who don’t know even who their accountable manager is because of matrix management, functional management, or the over enthusiastic implementation of self-managed teams, where people are asked to “take ownership” of their own work. So what role does accountability play in the organization?

The Research on Accountability is Vague At Best

The management research literature on accountability in the organization is limited at best. Currently, there are only a handful of researchers publishing articles on managerial accountability in the organization. In those papers, the definitions of accountability vary significantly. How can we understand accountability if we don’t even have a standard definition? To advance knowledge in any field, there needs to be standard, precise and accepted definitions of the terms and concepts to be used. Concrete definitions are critical for understanding how we relate to one another and necessary for receiving consistent results from similar situations.

Imagine trying to cook and new recipe if there was no standard definition for cup, teaspoon, or ounce. Imagine trying to build a skyscraper without common definitions for force, weight, or length. Management sciences are every bit as complex as any other body of science, and yet researchers are forced to define their own terms.

A Working Definition of Accountability

In an effort to help clarify an ambiguous term, Effective Managers™ uses the following definition of accountability that has been derived in part from dictionary definition, in part from respective researchers such as Elliott Jacques, and in part through personal experience. Accountability is:

  • “An obligation for which one can be held to account for one’s results and one’s actions by a specified other.”

There are three components to this definition, and each of them is important. First, there is an obligation by the individual. Second, there is accountability for results as well as actions, i.e. how one achieved the results. And third, there is the important concept of a “specified other”. This is critical, conveying the idea that accountability cannot exist solely within oneself: that is responsibility.

Accountability Versus Responsibility

Say you are traveling by car down a dirt road and a tree is blocking the roadway. You may feel the need to pull over and move it to help any vehicles behind you. You may feel it’s your responsibility because of your social values. However, while you may feel responsible, you are not accountable for removing the tree, as that is the job assigned to the road crew paid to maintain that particular strip of road.

In the work setting, if a coworker is having difficulty understanding how to use Power Point and you are familiar with how it works, you might decide to help them out. You are not accountable for making sure everyone in your department understands how to use this particular tool – that is the job of the IT help desk. But even though it’s not part of your job description, taking five minutes to share your knowledge is in the best interest of the organization and you may feel responsible for helping out a colleague.

In an employment situation, accountability must describe the relationship between the manager and the direct report. A manager delegates work in a variety of ways and a direct report completes work in a variety of ways. In this manner, it is the manager who can call to account the direct report for that work – is it the right quality, the right quantity, completed in the right time frame, completed within assigned resources. The direct report is accountable for doing the work to the satisfaction of the manager.

“Felt” Versus “Real” Accountabilities: The Importance of Being Clear

There is an additional concept that is important and must be taken into account. There are other forces at work that I refer to as “felt accountabilities”. Unless a manager is perfectly clear with a direct report, these “felt accountabilities” will get in the way of the manager’s effectiveness. What is the source of these “felt accountabilities”? Functional managers in other parts of the organization, customers, colleagues, even the direct report’s own employees are felt by the direct report.

All of these factors are critically important aspects of work life, but they do not result in real accountabilities. In work life, an employee can be held accountable only by their direct manager. In reality, these “felt accountabilities” should be part of the context that is set by the manager with that managers subordinate managers. If this context is set clearly, then I, as a manager, understand how to take into account the customer experience, requests from a functional manager, colleagues in other parts of the organization, and so on.

Managers do need to take these things into consideration in the work that they do. However, when managers start to feel as though they are accountable to customers or peers in other parts of the organization, for example, they can become distracted and pulled away from the real accountability that have been delegated to them.

Accountabilities must be clearly specified when setting the context of the work so that the right consideration can be given to all the different aspects of work. Part of that context needs to establish the other aspects of organizational life that must be taken into account in doing that work.