Leaders inspire accountability through their ability to accept responsibility before they place blame.” – Courtney Lynch.

Do you know the difference between responsibility and accountability?

Responsibility and accountability are closely connected and their meanings are often interwoven into one. However, there are noteworthy differences in these supposedly similar words. Here is a quick way to never confuse the two terms:

Accountability: This term indicates that an individual is answerable for the final consequences of a certain action. This is clearly seen in the relationship between a leader and their subordinate- the subordinate is responsible for completing the task, but the leader will take ownership of the final result. It is a bottom-up approach and as the individual liable for the result should be prepared to take the blame if their own or teams work is not completed or questioned.

Responsibility: This term states that an individual is obligated to perform a task assigned to them. In this case, it is usually the subordinates duty to complete a task that has been assigned to them by their leader. Therefore, it follows a top-down approach in that the subordinate is responsible for the tasks delegated to them by their leader.

Although both these terms are similar in nature, it is important to understand as a leader that you may delegate responsibility to your team members. However, you are liable to take accountability for your team as a whole. Your team members will find themselves in positions where they too need to take accountability of their own actions, it is therefore not only something a leader should be able to do. As a leader you want to instil the importance of taking accountability and foster an environment built on trust and psychological safety.

The blame game

Have you ever thought about why some of your colleagues tend to play the blame game when a task is not completed?

Does this sound familiar: “It wasn’t my fault that I missed the deadline, it was someone else’s fault”?

There are multiple reasons as to why individuals don’t take responsibility for their actions. Some people are not motivated to complete a task while others are overwhelmed by the fear of failure.

Why do employees feel unmotivated to take responsibility for particular tasks?

It seems to be ingrained into our society to blame the factors around us. We blame the weather for not being able to go for a jog, we blame that colleague when your work is late. The blame game seems to alleviate us from our responsibilities to create a guilt free conscious. We pass the baton on because its easier for us to blame others for our responsibilities instead of owning our own wrong doings.

Sometimes, team members do not take responsibility for their actions because they may lack the skills or experience to do so. When you assign a particular task to an individual as a leader, you need to be aware of their strengths and potential developmental areas. Giving a task to an individual that is too challenging and out of their range of capabilities, they are likely not to take responsibility for it.

Other times team members do not take responsibility for their tasks because their subordinate approach may not match well with the leadership style you possess. In this case it may be wise to conduct the 15FQ+ personality assessment with your team to determine how you can create the most favourable and cohesive dynamic between you and your team members.

The do’s and don’ts responsibility and accountability

Sometimes its easier to do what is right when you know what is wrong. Think about individuals that may have failed in leadership positions. Can you remember whether they took accountability of their mistakes? When you think of these leaders did they make excuses for why they failed or did they decide to tell the truth and face being critiqued and judged?

Lose the excuses.

Freeing ourselves from taking responsibility and making an excuse is tied to releasing that guilt we feel by not taking responsibility. As humans we always look for reasons to justify our actions rather than taking ownership of the mistakes we make.

Although it is difficult, owning up to our actions is courageous and shows humility and self-respect. This is a culture you want to drive and sustain as a leader.


Micromanage: When you micromanage as a leader, you strip your team members’ ability to take ownership of their actions. Ripping the opportunity for your team to own their mistakes, you teach them to depend on you. This dependent relationship decreases their self-confidence which ultimately leads to them believing they are not capable of completing the task at hand. Learn how to guide your team rather than act as the fire extinguisher that resolves all their fires.

Taking ownership is not easy. However, it leaves a trail for forgiveness, trust and accountability to be built in its shadow:

“I had the opportunity and the information, and I failed to make use of it. I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster…The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore, look no further; I am guilty of allowing the Columbia to crash.”- Launch Integration Manager N. Wayne Hale Jr., post the Columbia space shuttle explosion that resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts.


  • Talk: It is wise as a leader to address the behaviour with the individuals involved. It is important to remember that your team have personal lives that may be influencing their behaviour in the workplace. Provide the individual with feedback of notable behaviour you have witnessed, and this feedback can be provided in a very positive manner.
  • Lead by example: Your team looks to you to set the standards. If you are not afraid of admitting your mistakes, your team will follow suit. Let your team know that admitting a mistake is far more courageous then not taking ownership of their responsibilities.
  • Create a psychologically safe space to speak: Create a culture that allows your team to speak up when an issue arises. They often view events with a different set of glasses on and this perspective may help to avoid a shipwreck that is looming in the future. Reiterate that you would appreciate your team speaking up when something goes wrong and create a sense of joint responsibility in your team.
  • Provide necessary resources: As a leader it’s important that you have ensured the necessary resources such as training, equipment, guidance and support is provided to assist your team in achieving the required outcomes.
  • Roles, responsibilities and objectives are clearly communicated: Ensuring that each team member has an updated job description and that they are aware of their responsibilities. It is be beneficial to have a weekly catch up session with your team where each individual is hands-on in determining their responsibilities for the week. As a leader you need to ensure your team members are made aware of the ‘bigger picture’. This will allow them to make connections with how their work lends itself and enhances the overall objective of the organisation.
  • Values are aligned with the task: We tend to be engaged in a task when we find it meaningful and when it connects to our values. Realistically, not all the tasks we will do at work will be as meaningful as changing the world. However, as a leader it is important to give team members responsibilities that link to their values. This will not only mitigate issues of not taking responsibility, but it will also enhance the quality of work produced by your team.
  • Understanding your team’s locus of control: This can be quite a daunting task. It would be valuable to get your team to complete a questionnaire that identifies their locus of control. Individuals that have an external locus of control are likely to allow external factors to influence their life. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe that their behaviour and actions influence what happens to them. Ultimately, individuals with an external locus of control need to be given tasks that elicit quick wins to develop their self-confidence and allow them to make the connection between their actions and their results. Another way you can use the results from the locus of control questionnaire is to pair individuals with opposite locus of control so that team members can learn from each other.
  • Question the payoffs of taking responsibility: As a leader, it is also necessary to identify when your team members have flourished due to taking responsibility for tasks. Be inquisitive and ask them if they did anything differently or what approach they took in successfully completing a task. This will help them reflect on taking responsibility and build their self-confidence in the process.
  • Allow your team members to fail: This almost seems like a conundrum. At times leaders may feel obliged to fix their team members problems and this only leads to the team member not taking accountability for their actions. Provide your team with guidance when there is a hick up in the road and encourage them to navigate their way through their failure through your guidance.

Being a leader is filled with many challenges and triumphant moments. It is important to remember that there is no right way of doing something. We make mistakes and we learn every day to make less mistakes than we did the day before. Leaders need to challenge themselves and constantly reflect on how their actions of taking accountability can infiltrate all aspects of their business.

Monkey see is monkey do.


Alan Zimmerman. (2016). 7 Ways to Get People to Take Responsibility. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/274480.

Ben Brearley, Thoughtful Leader. (n,d). 4 Reasons Why Your Team Members Won’t Take Responsibility. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtfulleader.com/team-members-wont-take-responsibility/.

Ben Brearley, Thoughtful Leader. (n,d). How to Encourage Team Member to Take Accountability. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtfulleader.com/take-accountability/.

Cameron Herold. (2019). How To Encourage Your Team To Take Responsibility? Retrieved from https://cameronherold.com/employees/how-to-encourage-your-team-to-take-responsibility/.

Diffen. (n,d). Accountability vs. Responsibility. Retrieved from https://www.diffen.com/difference/Accountability_vs_Responsibility

FreeForAll. (2016). Why We Are Responsible for Our Actions. Retrieved from https://www.freeforall.org/why-we-are-responsible-for-our-actions/.

Gordon Tredgold. (2016). 49 Quotes That Will Help Boost Your Accountability. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/gordon-tredgold/49-quotes-that-will-help-you-avoid-the-blame-game.html.

Hiba Amin. (2018). 5 ways to help your employees take ownership of their work. Retrieved from https://soapboxhq.com/blog/employee-motivation/help-employees-take-ownership-work.

MindTools. (n,d). Helping People Take Responsibility. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/taking-responsibility.htm.

Surbhi. (2018). Difference Between Responsibility and Accountability. Retrieved from https://keydifferences.com/difference-between-responsibility-and-accountability.html.

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