Words With Meaning – The Importance of Definitions

Published in New Zealand Management, June 2015

By: Leigh Paulden, 10 April 2015

Accountability vs. responsibility vs. authority. Although they look and sound different, they are often interchanged haphazardly.

What do we really mean when we assign responsibility, make someone accountable or give authority? Confusion surrounding the application of these terms in an organisational context can be very damaging to a business – it’s how problems fail to be identified, acted on or resolved and, ultimately, how revenue is lost.

The main difference between accountability, responsibility and authority is that the last two can be shared, while the first cannot. In his best-selling book released last year, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits 2.0: Scaling Up, Verne Harnish, founder and CEO of Gravitas Impact (Gazelles International), says, “If more than one person is accountable, then no one is accountable, and that’s when things fall through the cracks.

So let’s look at the definitions.

Accountability

Most times, this is where things start to go wrong and confusion creeps in. Broken down, account is “a report or description,” while ability is “possession of the means to do something”. Therefore, accountability refers to having the ability to report or count.

In effect, it is the role of tracking progress and speaking up when issues arise. Being accountable DOES NOT include making decisions or wearing consequences.

Responsibility

This falls to anyone with the “ability to respond”. It includes everyone involved in a particular process or issue. Giving someone responsibility for a task, process or service means it is the role of that person to do the task.

To take this one step further, responsibility is not just about the tasks assigned to someone, it’s about the standard to which they are delivered. So, with responsibility comes expectation. For example, it is the responsibility of all staff to uphold the reputation of the company, but there is also an expectation around how and to what extent this is achieved. It is not enough to simply memorise the corporate values, staff are expected to live them.

Authority

This lies with the person or team who has the final decision-making power and, like responsibility, this can be shared.

Although the meaning of this one seems obvious, problems arise when it is not assigned clearly, which can make decision-making difficult causing frustration and unnecessary obstacles.

The example Harnish uses in his book to illustrate the differences between accountability, responsibility and authority is that of his own organisation, Gravitas Impact.

“Gravitas Impact’s CFO has accountability for cash – she literally “counts” and reports it to the team daily. And she’s accountable for alerting the team if she senses any potential issues now or later in the year. In turn, Harnish, as CEO, maintains the authority over cash, signing off on major expenditure and investments. And everyone in the company has responsibility for making sure that cash is spent wisely and that deals/contracts are structured so they help generate vs. absorb cash as Gravitas Impact continues to scale up.”

Another point he makes is that throughout the different levels of an organisation, the balance between authority and accountability shifts. For frontline staff, a level of authority may be required in order for them to be accountable. However, in the upper levels of an organisation, management staff often find they are taking on increasing accountability for things they have less and less control over.

This is why leaders get paid the big bucks – to bridge this ever-increasing gap between accountability and authority, using their skills of communication, persuasion, education, visioning, etc.

In an effective, successful and well-positioned business, everyone is responsible for their assigned tasks, but only one person is accountable to the results or progress of those tasks, and only specific, clearly-identified people have the authority to make decisions around these tasks.

So why are so many companies getting it wrong? It’s because not enough attention is paid to the details. Clearly defining what each person is responsible and accountable for, and has authority over, within correct and consistent definitions is critical. They are not just words, they have meanings attached and it’s crucial to get those meanings right.