Are You Accountable or Responsible?

A Blog Post by Chad Hall

I think it was Mark Twain who said the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.  Sometimes what seems like a small matter is a really big deal.  Such is the case with distinctions in coaching.

Distinctions help a client notice the important difference between two easily conflated terms, issues, realities, etc.  Distinctions is all about creating new awareness, so the client can gain clarity on the matter and move forward with greater confidence and effectiveness.

I recently heard a great distinction: accountability vs. responsibility. 

My very first coach was a man named Scott Eblin.  He is the former CFO of a large regional bank and an extraordinary coach.  He’s also the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know about Executive Success.  The 3rd edition of the book just came out and as I re-read it, Scott reminded me about the important distinction between being accountable and being responsible.  It’s a distinction I employed immediately with one of my clients.

Here’s a snippet from Scott’s book:

[Leaders hold themselves back when they act] as if they’re personally responsible for everything that comes out of their shop.  It’s as though they have to touch everything that passes through to do a final quality check on its way out the door. …To survive and succeed at the next level, you have to overcome your “go-to person” self-image and start thinking of yourself as the person who develops teams of “go-to people.”  That’s what will enable you to play a bigger game.  Picking up accountability for many results and letting go of acting as if you’re personally responsible for results will get you there.

Coaches employ distinctions like this one as a way to help clients get a handle on what they are experiencing.  I heard my client describe being in the weeds of several issues and the stress it was causing for her to try to focus on so many things.  I introduced the distinction by saying, “I read something the other day that might help.  The author said that leaders at your level often confuse accountability and responsibility.  When you’re accountable, you own it, but when you’re responsible you do it.  It’s the difference between leading and doing.”  I then concluded by asking, “What do you think of that distinction.”

Truth be told, my client did not have scales fall from her eyes and then rejoice in her newfound awareness.  She pondered the distinction.  It was like she was rolling a sip of wine around in her mouth as she decided whether to swallow or not.  That’s the way these sorts of insights work in coaching.  The coach offers an awareness based on what we’ve heard, what we know, what the client shares, etc. and then invites the client to own it (or not).

My client eventually declared, “I think that’s true for me, but how can I own something and not be responsible for it?”  I offered a metaphor: you’re accountable for getting your car inspected each year, but I doubt you actually do the inspection yourself.  She smiled with recognition.

From that point, the conversation turned to what it would look like for her to let go of responsibility and pick up accountability.  Employing a new paradigm is not easy, but the distinction gave her a handle for better understanding and engaging her work.

If you coach leaders, perhaps the distinction between accountability and responsibility will be useful.  I’d also love to hear about other distinctions you’ve used in your own coaching practice.  Please tell us about them in the comments section.