Almost every businessperson will, from time to time, be gently teased by friends or family for using “corporate speak.” It’s true that we use a distinct dialect in our work and, while it might not always feature the most colourful or emotive language, there’s a good reason. Managing a team that’s carrying out a complex task is difficult and there’s endless opportunity for confusion and conflict. As a leader, you need a comprehensive dictionary of clearly-defined terms to ensure effective communication and performance.

For example, consider the words “accountability” and “responsibility.” They’re often used interchangeably, but  recognising the differences between the two concepts can help you to clearly define the roles of each team member.

accountability VS responsibility2



There are two key differences between accountability and responsibility, which I’ll look at in turn.

1.Responsibility can be shared, accountability can’t.

Groups can and often should work together on tasks, but there needs to be one individual who is ultimately accountable. This individual will have “yes or no” authority and/or the power of veto. In many cases, managers assume that they should always be assigned that role, but often they’re simply not best-placed. You can’t oversee and fully understand every part of the project and in some cases that means you’re less likely to make the right call. In those situations, it’s important to move accountability down to the person with the appropriate mix of understanding and authority.

At the outset you need to identify the accountable individual to the entire team and, subsequently, provide the necessary support to that person.




2. Responsibility is given, accountability is taken.

Most managers are aware that it’s their role to assign responsibilities to different team members. In other words, we understand the need for clearly-defined tasks. However, few are trained in promoting accountability. The result is the “everyone thought that somebody would but nobody did” phenomenon. We have all been in situations where something goes wrong and no one is willing to take the rap. If that occurs, the buck generally gets passed to the project manager, so encouraging accountability among team members will protect you as well as your project.




Assignment of accountability and responsibility using tailored charts is useful but enhancing accountability is a more holistic process. It requires consistent communication, clear instruction and being available to offer extensive advice if necessary. This ensures that your accountable team member feels supported and trusted. In that situation, they’re more likely to come forward and admit mistakes or failures, rather than trying to shirk blame.

It’s also important that managers respond reasonably and proportionately to breakdowns. If a colleague has been yelled or fired at for a minor failure, I’m a lot less likely to come clean in the same situation. If possible, respond constructively when things go wrong and give everyone the opportunity to learn from the mistake.

However, no matter how closely we try to define them, responsibility and accountability are hazy concepts and you’re likely to have a few missteps. It might take some time, but eventually you will hammer out effective accountability and responsibility processes.

Until next time,


Julia Carter

Julia Carter