The words are used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same. People must feel responsible for their tasks before they can truly be accountable for the consequences.
“The Buck Stops Here” are the words written on the famous desk sign of Harry S. Truman, who served as U.S. president from 1945 to 1953. He referred to his sign on many occasions to point out that, in the end, someone must take responsibility and that same person must be held to account for acceptance of that responsibility.
Coaching is aligned with this philosophy, because one of its primary goals is to help others take responsibility for their lives and then hold themselves accountable to do what must be done to exercise that responsibility. The words responsibility and accountability often are used interchangeably, but they are not quite the same. They’re more like two sides of the same coin. So let’s clarify their meaning and specify the conditions that foster both.
When a person feels responsible for something, it means he or she has internalized an obligation or commitment. There is a significant difference between felt responsibility and designated responsibility. The latter refers to an obligation or commitment imposed upon a person by external circumstances or is something the person thinks he or she should do but has no investment in. The former, on the other hand, means the person is personally invested in that obligation or commitment because it is intrinsically important to that person.
Felt responsibility generates a willingness to be answerable for the consequences of the acts performed as part of the obligation or commitment. In other words, there is an acceptance of personal accountability for the result when one feels responsible for something. Felt responsibility and personal accountability rely on certain conditions to be present. As a coach, your role is to test for and enhance these conditions with the people you are helping.
Four conditions that promote felt responsibility and personal accountability:
The obligation or commitment is considered significant and meaningful by the individual. As stated above, for a person to feel responsible and personally accountable for something, it must be intrinsically important to that person. As a coach, you can test the motivational value the person places on an obligation or commitment by asking questions that explore what the person gains from taking on the responsibility or, conversely, what the downside would be if the person did not follow through.
- Suppose you didn’t do this; what would be the downside of that decision?
- What do you have to gain by taking this on? (Make a list by asking for several potential gains.)
- What is the upside for you in doing this?
- How would you really feel if you didn’t follow through with this?
Such questions test the level of importance the person places on the task for which he or she is going to be responsible.
When workers truly take ownership of the outcome of a project, they demonstrate their feelings of responsibility, which leads to personal accountability — a willingness to answer for the outcome.
The person must believe he or she has control over the decisions and actions that determine expected outcomes. It is virtually impossible to feel responsible and accept accountability for something over which one has no control. After all, if the consequences of one’s decisions and actions are held to account, then those decisions and actions must be one’s own.
That is why coaching does not entail telling others what to do — even if you think you know what that is. If people act on the direction you provide, instead of making their own decisions and deciding on their own actions, they will not feel responsible for what happens nor will they hold themselves accountable for the outcomes of those decisions or actions. In their minds, they are just following “orders.” Remember, coaching is designed to help people think and decide for themselves, to increase both responsibility and accountability.
The same holds true when you are wearing your leader hat. When you delegate responsibility to someone but then dictate exactly what he or she should do and how to do it, it reduces feelings of responsibility and accountability. Delegation must include the authority to decide and act in any way necessary to accomplish the task. Your focus should be on whether the outcomes meet your stated expectations — leave the decisions and actions to the person to whom the responsibility has been delegated.
The person knows he or she will be held to account. If a person does not believe he or she will be held to account for their decisions and actions, then the idea of accountability is meaningless. That is why programs such as Weight Watchers work best when participants are expected to come to meetings, weigh themselves and document their progress (or the lack thereof). Each week, participants know that they will be held to account for their previous decisions and actions regarding weight loss.
As an accountability partner, one of the coach’s most important duties is to review what the person has done between discussions and then to compare that to what he or she said they would do. That’s called “closing the loop.” As a coach or leader, you must close the loop on that for which the person has accepted responsibility. Self-accountability might be enough, but adding an extra step of external accountability strengthens motivation.
Consequences are significant and meaningful. Without meaningful consequences, accountability does not shape behavior. Recently, there was a story in the news about a 30-year-old New York man who was evicted by his parents from their home because he wouldn’t move out and get a job. If viewed through the prism of responsibility and accountability, it is easy to see why the man never took on the responsibility of getting a job, finding his own place and being independent; the consequences of not doing so were not significant and meaningful to him.
Without consequences, there is no accountability. Without accountability, responsibility is a hollow concept.
While it can be difficult to untangle the relationship between responsibility and accountability, the relationship can be summarized as follows: If a person is responsible in any way for an action, then he or she must accept some degree of accountability for that action.
Felt responsibility is important because it is a mindset that engenders personal ownership and commitment to an outcome. Personal accountability is important because it means the person is willing to answer for the outcomes that result from his or her decisions, behavior and actions. Coaching (and leading) others must ensure that the conditions for felt responsibility and personal accountability are present.
Robert Hicks is a licensed psychologist and a clinical professor of organizational behavior and founding director of the Executive and Professional Coaching Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. He also is a faculty associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center, and the author of Coaching as a Leadership Style: The Art and Science of Coaching Conversations for Healthcare Professionals (2014) and The Process of Highly Effective Coaching: An Evidence-Based Framework (2017).