“As commander in chief, I’m responsible,” David Frye once said, doing his impression of Richard Nixon during the height of the Watergate scandal. “But I’m not to blame. Let me explain the difference: People who are to blame go to jail. People who are responsible do not.”
The Nixon administration sliced the bologna pretty thinly back then. No thinner, though, than many of us do today when we walk the fine lines that separate responsibility, accountability, and blame.
Let me explain the difference: When you hold employees accountable, you help them succeed. When you assign (or allocate) blame, you ensure everyone’s failure.
Start with the terms “responsible” and “accountable.” Never mind the dictionary; there are two similar but distinct ideas to keep track of when you delegate; we can use these two words to make the difference perfectly clear.
First, let’s talk about responsibility. If you’ve been assigned a responsibility you’re supposed to figure out what has to get done and go do it. If you’re a responsible soul, you do so. Key to responsibility is matching it with authority: Giving someone responsibility for the summer picnic, for example, but not letting them choose what brand of hot dog you buy just isn’t kosher.
Then there’s accountability, which we’ll attach to a related but different idea. If you’re accountable, your boss is aware of how you are doing. If a problem arises, your boss is aware of that, too, and wants to know how it arose and what you’re going to do about it. People are (or are not) responsible; you hold them accountable. The distinction may seem like a fine line, but it’s really a broad chasm.
People are responsible for results, not problems. That means they’re responsible for solving problems within their area of authority, not for the problems themselves. It also means you hold them accountable for results, not for problems that arise.
The exercise of determining who caused a problem doesn’t assign responsibility, nor does it hold people accountable. It simply assigns blame, determining who gets punished. This “heads will roll!” mentality is always a bad idea, because if heads may roll, heads will be kept down, which means problems will go unsolved.
Asking who caused a problem is, in fact, the wrong question because most problems are caused not by a “who” but by insufficient process design, resource constraints, earthquakes, tornadoes … and yes, occasionally by incompetence, laziness, poor judgment, or just a bad guess. Don’t ask who caused a problem, ask what caused it. If you find the problem arose from the actions of an employee or team, punishment is appropriate only on rare occasions. What matters is figuring out how to avoid repetition.
Because of how a problem arose you may decide an employee is unsuited to a job, or even unsuited to employment with your company. If that’s the right answer, make the right decision – not to punish the employee, but to help both the employee and your company succeed, neither of which will happen unless the employee changes roles or employers.
Punishment is only appropriate in the case of malfeasance.
So … If you’re responsible, you make sure things get done. If you’re accountable, your boss is in the loop. If you’re to blame, your boss asked who was at fault, decided it was you, and made chopped liver out of you for it.
Another bit o’ semantics: Many people call the combination of responsibility and authority “ownership.” The upside: People who own things understand that they’re both responsible for them and have authority over them. The downside: They guard them as part of their territory. Personally, I prefer the term “stewardship,” which means you’re both responsible and have authority, but over somebody else’s property.
Responsibility, authority, ownership, stewardship, accountability, blame … what matters isn’t how thinly you slice these words. You may define them beautifully, or do the wurst job ever.
What matters is, as the Japanese would say, whether you fix the problem or just affix blame.