Responsibility, Authority and Accountability


What is the difference between responsibility, authority and  accountability? Does it matter to most Jamaican  companies?

One of the challenges that faces your organization  is simple: how do people relate to each other to achieve goals  that its individuals can’t accomplish alone? A part of the answer lies in the following quote:

“Responsibility is always taken. Authority is given, but Accountability is negotiated.”

Of  course, this is no ordinary list. In fact, it corrects a  problem staff have in most companies who use the terms   interchangeably.

The reality? They  aren’t the same. And when your employees mistakenly merge them into one, it perpetuates a confusion which blocks the path to high achievements.

Here’s how you can untangle them.


The  quote indicates that people who are responsible create a special  relationship with particular results. Furthermore, they do so using nothing more than an inner  will or conscious intention.

While this requires a level of intrinsic motivation, it’s also true that the trigger to initiate a new “zone” of  responsibility may come from anywhere. Possible sources include a direct invitation  from another, a catastrophic event or an inspiring biography.

Therefore, don’t think that you can “hold someone responsible.” The most important step takes place within the individual who exercises his/her free will.

However, some managers argue otherwise:  they honestly believe they can use force to conjure up responsible  subordinates. The result of their muscle? A Jamaican workplace full of Bredda Anansi-like  fake-responsibility.

It’s tricky to spot: At the start it appears that someone has truly stepped  up. The truth only reveals itself later, when the first big obstacle  shows up and the blame game starts. Consequently, it becomes clear that they weren’t in the responsibility game at all: they were simply taking credit  while things were going well.

Beyond such shenanigans, the amazing thing is that anyone  can take responsibility for any outcome they wish. Our National Heroes  were elevated precisely because they willingly did so for a large number of  people, putting themselves in harm’s way to accomplish a grand, shared  objective.

Most of us may never take responsibility at that  high level. Fortunately, your organization doesn’t need you to be famous or a life-risker.  All it asks is that you keep generating fresh zones of responsibility  in service of shared goals. It’s up to you to continually  define these areas and act accordingly.

By contrast,  authority is granted by the leaders in an organization to  those who play pivotal roles. Ideally, authority would only  be given to employees with a long track record of responsibility. By virtue  of stepping up to be responsible repeatedly, they would already have garnered a  critical mass of credibility.

Unfortunately, most organizations don’t wait for this to happen. They promote people (even to the highest levels)  whose only skill is buck-passing and complaining. According to one  Caribbean CEO to his new subordinate: “I learned ages ago to never sign  my name to anything around here. All you get is grief.”

Perhaps you can also recall a leader you met who is that twisted.

Sometimes,  such persons are exposed as the frauds they truly are, but it happens  too rarely. More often, they are tolerated and enabled by others who are petrified by the authority they wield.

However,  when authority works in daily life, it’s comprised of individual accountabilities. These  are defined as discrete agreements (or partnerships) between a leader  and a stakeholder to produce a particular outcome according to specific  conditions of satisfaction.  For example, I may promise my manager to “Sell x units  by Sep 30th at a 50% profit margin.”

Such agreements are the  sinews of an organization. Without them, it’s impossible for my manager to have a proper follow-up conversation with me on October 1st. In other words, when  accountability is missing, any result will do.

Once again, in an  ideal world, persons promoted to positions of authority should  have a firm grasp of this unique relationship. Usually, they can point  to a number of accountable partnerships which helped them produce  results, and explain the special role of this ingredient.

Unfortunately,  you probably also have met managers who occupy important positions  but  don’t know how to hold people around them to account. Therefore, when good things happen, it’s by sheer luck;  not because they reinforced  the sinews of accountability.

For example, sometimes weak leaders are  fortunate to hire great employees. These rare workers reverse the tables, forcing (or shaming) their manager into an accountable relationship by insisting on high standards.

As a result,  such cases are few and far between. For too many staff-members, their manager fails to create either accountability or responsibility. These rich worlds simply don’t exist.

Companies who separate and teach these three elements empower everyone. When they occur together, but separately, they open the door to outstanding results individuals cannot produce by themselves.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2018, send email to