Responsibility vs. Accountability

Although the words responsibility and accountability are usually treated as synonyms of some sort, I like to view them as representing distinct concepts. On the one hand, I see responsibility as something one accepts; and on the other hand, accountability is something one enforces against another. Although this might seem like an unconventional distinction to make, I like to use it as the basis of a simple 2-dimensional model that helps me think about those kinds of interpersonal conflict in which responsibility is a core issue.

For example, here we will consider the particular case of an us-versus-them scenario. In order to make it concrete, we will suppose that we have been invited to a dinner party at which chocolate cake will be offered for dessert. In this scenario we will analyze the cases where “we” may accept (or not) responsibility for bringing the cake, and “they” may enforce (or not) accountability against us for doing so. The following diagram illustrates all four of the possible combinations of responsibility and accountability: Responsibility versus Accountability

Starting in the upper left (green) corner of this diagram, we have the case where we accept responsibility for bringing the cake, and they enforce accountability against us for doing so. Then in the upper right (red) corner is the case where we do not accept responsibility for bringing the cake, while they still enforce against us accountability for doing so. In the lower left (green) corner is the the case where we accept responsibility, but they don’t enforce accountability; and then in the lower right (green) corner, is the case where neither we accept responsibility, nor do they enforce accountability for bringing the cake.

Now, a lot more could be said about this diagram, but for now I’ll just point out that the case in the upper right corner that is highlighted in red is really quite unique in that it is the case that will most likely cause interpersonal conflict. A situation in which our hosts will hold us accountable for bringing a cake that we ourselves have not actually accepted responsibility for bringing is, well, doomed to be difficult, to say the least.


Image Credit (Icelandic gorge): Pixabay.