Accountability refers to the responsibility of an organization or individual to provide explanations for their actions and accept responsibility for any failures. When an organization or individual is held accountable, they may be required to answer for their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Accountability is an important aspect of good governance and helps to ensure that organizations and individuals are held responsible for their actions and are held accountable to their stakeholders. By accepting accountability, organizations and individuals can demonstrate their commitment to transparency, honesty, and integrity, which can help to build trust and credibility. The following are illustrative examples of accountability.
A customer service representative cancels a customer’s account out of spite after they perceive the customer as being rude. The customer publicizes their experience. The customer service manager is called upon to account for the incident to executive management. In this case, the customer service manager is accountable for the incident and the customer service representative is responsible for the incident.
A creative director leads a team of 50 creative individuals and is accountable for all of their work products. If a particular work product is perceived as low quality by a client, the creative director may be called upon to account for the perceived failure.
A Chief Information Officer develops and executes a strategy to outsource processes to a partner. If this strategy fails to achieve the benefits outlined in its business plan, the CIO is to blame.
A salesperson decides that a firm is not serious about making a purchase and neglects following up on the opportunity. It is soon discovered that the firm makes a large purchase from a competitor. The sales manager is called upon to account for the practices that allowed such a large purchase to go to a competitor without contest.
A bank has a de facto policy that all branch staff need to upsell 50 products a month or risk dismissal. This leads to a variety of aggressive sales tactics on the part of branch staff. The bank attempts to cast blame for these practices on individual employees and fails to take accountability for the policy that is the root cause of these practices.
A fashion brand outsources manufacturing to a developing country with low environmental and employment standards. The firm remains accountable for its environmental and community impact and can’t outsource this accountability.
An IT manager delegates a highly political and risky project to a junior team member as they can predict the project is likely to fail. When the project fails, the manager attempts to avoid accountability by stating they were not involved in the project. This is a poor practice as responsibility can be delegated but accountability remains.
An airline pushes maintenance, operations and pilots to avoid delays despite an overly aggressive flight schedule and a fleet of aging equipment. Teams are rewarded for meeting the schedule but not rewarded for highlighting and addressing safety risks. These practices lead to a poor safety culture whereby it becomes normal and expected to prioritize cost and schedule over safety. When a safety incident occurs, the airline attempts to blame human error when it was the culture of the airline that caused the human error.
Accountability vs Responsibility
Accountability is the duty to govern or manage. Responsibility is the duty to complete work. When a work product or decision fails, both those who are accountable and responsible are to blame. The accountable individual has greater blame and may take all the blame if they so choose. For example, if a creative director assigns a design to an associate designer that ends up disappointing the client it would be common for the creative director to take the blame as they should have managed the quality of work outputs. It is a poor practice for leaders to attempt to avoid accountability by assigning all blame to responsible individuals.
Accountability vs Authority
Authority is the power or right to direct, control and command. Authority always implies accountability. An system that grants authority without accountability is essentially broken. For example, a corporate executive who is protected from accountability by the terms of their contract may have little incentive to make decisions that are in the best interests of stakeholders.