Accountability vs. Responsibility: How to Multiply Employee Potential Instead of Squandering It

People & Culture

In most organizations, when trying to create clarity for employees, the first thing that business owners want to do is to write job descriptions that go into great detail about the responsibilities of the role and how they should be carried out.

But what if this approach of specifically laying out the “how” a job should be done actually diminishes the potential of your team members? Keep reading to find out why you need to consider accountability vs. responsibility to attract and retain A-players.


Understanding the Drivers of A-Players

Most leaders want to build a team of A-players. These are team members who exceed your expectations for both cultural fit and productivity. These are your absolute rock stars – the type of workers you wish you could clone and have a hundred of in every single business. 

If you had a team stacked with A-players, you’d have confidence that everything would get done, problems would get solved, and you’d be able to achieve increasingly bigger goals…and have fun while doing it.

According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, A-players are motivated by three things:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Being linked to purpose

These things are particularly important to (and expected by) younger generations of employees…especially autonomy.

As a business strategy consultant, I’ve seen how powerful autonomy is for business leaders. If you can leverage this desire for autonomy, some weight can be taken off your shoulders. 

But there’s a big danger we must overcome to allow true autonomy. Autonomy requires accountability and competence.


What is Accountability vs. Responsibility?

It’s incredibly important for business leaders to understand accountability vs. responsibility. Put simply, accountability refers to owning the result, while responsibility describes how it gets done.  Many people can be responsible for something, but only one person can be accountable.  

When you create standard roles and responsibilities, Most focus on how someone does something rather than the result they are creating. In doing so, you inadvertently restrict their creativity and the potential to discover better ways of doing things.

To create an A-player team that has the autonomy to get stuff done, you need to switch from focusing on responsibility to focusing on accountability. This means shifting away from micromanaging how they do something to focusing on the result they are expected to achieve (and giving them some leeway to decide how they can best achieve that result). 

A-players thrive in this type of environment, while C-players fail. And that’s okay-because you want A-players!


How Your Leadership Style Relates to Accountability vs. Responsibility

The challenge ends up being that as soon as one little thing goes differently than we expect as business leaders, we tend to hit the brakes and jump in to tell someone how it should be done. 


When you do this, you strip away the autonomy that A-players need. We need to level up as leaders, which can be hard. As Liz Wiseman discusses in Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, you need to switch from being an ‘accidental diminisher’ to being a ‘multiplier of genius’.

The number one way to do that is to change how you work with the team. When your employee owns the result, your job is not to tell them how to get it. Your job is to ensure they have the appropriate guardrails in place and then coach them to be the best they can possibly be within those guardrails. You want someone to follow the methodology and processes your company uses but have the autonomy to make decisions along the way (within reason).


Accountability vs. Responsibility in Action

As a business leader, you’ve probably written a thousand details about what someone must do for their job, and probably how they have to do it. But have you taken the time to create a culture of accountability

One of the companies I worked with had a situation in which the sales leader was micromanaging every detail of every single deal, including approving the pricing of each deal and even telling salespeople which clients to visit and when. Not surprisingly, this manager was completely burnt out and the team despised him.

The shift that we made was to give the salespeople more autonomy within certain guardrails. We told them their success would be measured by revenue and gross margin, but they were free to decide where their time was best spent. To ensure a certain level of sales activity and coverage of their client base, the guardrails put in place included that:

  • each client must be visited every quarter
  • they should prioritize booking with A clients first, B second, and C third 
  • some meetings may be phone calls and some may be in-person

The salespeople were also given a pricing flexibility of 10% to close a deal with the understanding that they’d need to manage the tradeoff between gross margin and revenue.

This freed up a lot of time for the sales manager since he no longer had to approve pricing for each and every deal and was not allowed to micromanage. Instead, he was trained to coach his team by asking the right questions. For example, ‘I noticed your sales pipeline report in the CRM looks light- what will you be doing to increase the number of opportunities you have in there?”. 

The leader was now coaching instead of doing. The sales team went from being frustrated drones with no autonomy to having to think, plan, and manage their world. They now had accountability for their territory and clear metrics for success along the way.

This story highlights two crucial ingredients for attracting and retaining A-players:

  • Part of creating clarity with accountability is understanding what success looks like and being able to measure it. Having these metrics for success allows guardrails that make sense to be put in place.
  • From a leadership standpoint, changing from a leader-follower model to a leader-leader model allows you to switch from micromanaging your employees to coaching them, which increases trust and confidence for both parties.

Changing the way you lead can be challenging. If you’d like to explore ways that you can attract A-players and cultivate accountability vs. responsibility in your business, please contact me

Mike Knapp


Mike has been helping businesses achieve their goals for more than 20 years. He believes there is a better way for business owners and leaders to build their businesses and achieve their big goals. As a Gravitas Impact Premium coach, he leverages the 7 Attributes of Agile Growth™ to simplify the art of strategy and discipline of execution.

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