Responsibility, Accountability, Ownership: Definitions, Distinctions, and How They Add Up to a Healthy Team — Signal Key

AnyTech LeadEngineeringManager
Date Added
Mar 17, 2024 9:29 AM

This morning while out with the dog, I told myself, Today is the day I stop getting tripped up by the terms Accountability, Responsibility, and Ownership, three common terms that any person teaching leadership *should* have straight in their heads. Yes, I can be judgmental against my own self.

An hour later, as I scoot in my rolling chair over to the bookshelf and then back to the web browser, and back and forth again, I realize there’s a reason I’m not totally confident in my working definitions of these terms. In all the books and in leadership content online, there is a surprisingly wide range of definitions and distinctions.

So, from a wide range of sources and my own ideas, here are Accountability, Responsibility, and Ownership, in relationship with each other, in a way you can use.

Accountability: A person or a team are held accountable. Accountability is about results. If I am accountable for something going well, I answer for the results I get.

Accountability happens when work is complete (or should be) or when we stop to decide if the work-in-progress is progressing as expected. Accountability is usually external to the individual.

For accountability to work, it can’t be a surprise. I have to know I will be held accountable in the future, so I know what to spend my time doing. The violent cliche “throw someone under the bus” refers to an ugly kind of surprise accountability, meted out on an individual scapegoat for bad results. (See: Putin’s generals and other officials during his invasion of Ukraine.)

Responsibility: I accept responsibility, as it is assigned to me. A responsibility is usually ongoing, part of a person’s role in the team or in a certain project. The main responsibilities for a role are in the job description. Beyond that, we get into more detail as needed in specific projects or programs: “I’m responsible for project management. She is responsible for collaborating with the finance department.”

Part of developing people on a team is looking at the team’s needs and at people’s talents and interests, and matching them to new or broader responsibilities.

Ownership: I take ownership. Ownership is something I accept and adopt myself. Nobody can make us own something. Ownership is about initiative, making things happen, not waiting to be told. Ownership is the goal of managers and leaders who want to trust people to do the work, who don’t want to micromanage. We create the conditions for ownership by being clear about the scope of people’s responsibilities, and by making clear who will be held accountable.

I will never forget one conversation I had with my boss, circa 2006 in an early job of mine. Ownership of my work became complete in one moment.

I was stuck in a big project. I wanted more input, from a grant funder and from other advisors. I was talking almost daily with my boss about the project. She would offer her ideas and support. But I wanted this input, and she wasn’t making that input happen.

This one day, I said what I thought should be obvious to my boss. I asked for a meeting with all the people whose input I wanted.

Boss: “Great idea. Schedule a meeting.”

Me, shocked: “Me? I can schedule a meeting?” I had never called a meeting before. I didn’t think I was allowed. I assumed my boss wanted to decide when we should ask for people’s time, and when to commit her own.

Boss, both confused and amused at my surprise: “Of course.”

Me, feeling silly for not asking about this sooner: “Okay, then! I will schedule a meeting.”

From that point on, I felt complete ownership over that project. I wasn’t sitting expecting my boss to do this and that. I took care of it.

Ownership is what people mean when they say “employee engagement.” But I say “ownership” instead. “Employee engagement” carries the assumption that the bosses are doing everything right and are just waiting for everyone they manage to step up. Ownership better describes the invitation and opportunity we have in mind.

Anxious bosses beware: Ownership requires allowing a degree of freedom, of control granted to the team. (See my earlier “Roots and Wings” article.)

How do these three terms fit together? What will my doodle show when I turn to it next? Here’s what I think:

Ownership is the goal of all humble leaders who want to get out of their team’s way and allow them to be smart, creative, and independent. Ownership can grow when Responsibilities are clear and clearly stated, and when everyone holds each other Accountable when it’s time for results.

What do you think? Do you hold different definitions on these three terms? How do you see them in relation to each other?

Note on a classic management tool: If you have ever been in management training, you may be wondering, “What about the RACI matrix and its Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed?” I recommend using that classic tool at the beginning of a project, at that level of specific tasks and decision-making. Among other benefits, it will make clear who needs to be in meetings, who needs to get emails, who can proceed without waiting on a certain boss or team member to respond.