Accountability and Responsibility

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Recently I began a speech admitting that “I am a logomaniac.” Besides being taken to task for not providing a dictionary definition of the word, many folks in the audience admitted to having a bit of that mania themselves. Some, of course, more than others. Interestingly enough, several folks went a long time thinking that I was admitting to being crazy about company or product logos. No, the Greek word “Logos” translates to “word” or “Speech” in English. As a mild logomaniac, I have a slight tendency to obsess over words.

For example, I get annoyed when people “misuse” the word “comprises.” I don’t accept the slack new meaning of the word as being used the same as “composed.” I prefer the original usage of the word. An example is: “The whole comprises the parts.” Alternatively, “The whole is composed of the parts.” But, something is NOT “comprised of.” Not in my blog anyway!

Another fit of logomania hits me when we use “trust” when we really mean “reliable.” For example, when John claims, “You can trust Martin. If he says he’ll do it, he will do it.” In my opinion, John is really saying that “You can rely on Martin.” I know, nitpicking, isn’t it? But words are important to those of us who are in leadership positions and trying to improve communications, elaborate a vision and build or change a culture. That is why it is sometimes important to define the words you use so that communications are more easily received and understood. In the case of trust, I most often am using that word in the context of human relations and/or networking. So trust is very specific and important to that context. By my definition, trust between sentient beings is defined as “I get that you authentically have my best interest at heart not just your own.” I may trust you fully, but also know I can’t necessarily rely on you. Or I may know that you are not competent in a certain task even though you truly have my best interest at heart. Trust doesn’t translate to competence or reliability when we’re speaking about human relations. Not in my blog anyway!

That brings me to a recent conversation about accountability and responsibility. We (myself included) often use these two words interchangeably. Usually, that is just fine. However, should we be so casual in our business environment? If we are building a high performing team, then perhaps we should be more precise in our language.

A recent speaker made the statement that “I (meaning himself) am 100% accountable for our communication. You (the other person) are 100% accountable for our communication. It’s not a 50-50 deal.” In other words, the speaker was holding himself accountable for the communication, and he was holding his partner in that conversation fully accountable as well.

A gentleman by the name of Thomas Dodds put it this way on a blog post comment: “So I TAKE responsibility and I am HELD accountable.” I would agree with that.

Another gentleman, Christopher Avery, put it this way:

“I prefer to use the word Accountability to refer to making, keeping, and managing agreements and expectations. And I prefer to use the word Responsibility for the feeling of ownership.

Here’s a fun way to see the difference:
If you have a manager and aren’t clear about what you are held accountable for, you might want to take responsibility for finding out.”

I believe that much of the conversation about leadership, motivation and employee engagement is really about this concept of the difference between simply being held accountable by someone and truly feeling responsible for the outcome. An engaged employee TAKES responsibility for her results. A properly trained employee delivers results. An enlightened leader knows how to HOLD herself and her employees accountable and inspire them to TAKE responsibility.

I believe these distinctions are important when a leader is shaping the company culture and building leaders throughout the organization. And leaders hold themselves, peers and others accountable for 100% of the communication. How might we do that if we are “sloppy” with words or are not willing to TAKE responsibility to define our words and the context in which they are used? Could this be a major contributing factor to major change initiatives failing?

Words are important. Words can be subtle in meaning. So is the culture in our organization. What are your thoughts?