Consequences and Accountability

One of my clients likes to talk about the importance of accountability. He believes that it is critical that the people who work for him feel a sense of accountability for the results of their efforts.  I think he may be a bit confused when he talks this way about accountability, as if it arises naturally or intrinsically within people.  Maybe he is confusing a sense of responsibility for results with a willingness to be held accountable.  [I have to admit that it is easy to get confused when talking about responsibility and accountability.  According to, the synonym for the word responsible is “accountable,” while the synonym for the word accountable is “responsible.”]  Let’s take a closer look at the two ideas to see if we can find what I believe is a critical distinction between the two.

The Latin root word for responsible is responsus, which originally conveyed a sense of moral obligation.  The more common definitions of “responsible” include this idea of being responsible for something. That’s the sense that most of us take when we use the word. It connotes an internalization of obligation; a personal ownership of the duty.  Failure to deliver when you are responsible for something can be the root of feelings of guilt and shame.

The origin of the word accountable in the English language occurs sometime between the early part of the 14th century and the late 16th century, from the combination of the words “account” and “able,” meanst “liable to be called to account.” [Of course, the concept of account-giving has ancient roots in record keeping activities related to governance and money-lending systems that first developed in Ancient Israel, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  One of my personal favorites in this vein is Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30.]  In any event, that early English usage is not far from a current dictionary definition of accountable, an adjective meaning:

“subject to the obligation to report, explain or justify something; answerable.”

The noun accountability, first appearing in the late 18th century, is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as follows:

“the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”

Andreas Schedler in his 1999 essay,  “Conceptualizing Accountability,” offers this conceptual definition of accountability:

 “A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B about A’s (past or future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct”

I like this definition a lot, as it makes perfect sense to me.  The critical element of the definition is that you have to be accountable to someone.  In turn, someone has to hold you accountable.  Accountability is something that is demanded, and, if it is to be more than simply the idle use of a word, consequences must accompany the accountable actions. There is very clear “Do-X-or-Else-Y-Will-Be-Done-to-You” element involved.

This is where many organizations let things slip.  They sing the praises  of accountability.  They acknowledge accountability as a core value. But when push comes to shove, they threaten negative consequences but don’t follow through. They fail to uphold the Three Commandments of Consequences:

  1. Make consequences Personal
  2. Make consequences Immediate
  3. Make consequences Certain

Personal:  Consequences should be as personal as you can make them.  It does not matter if consequences are real or imagined. Perceived consequences are real for that person.

Immediate:  When someone you are holding accountable for a result fails to deliver as agreed, you don’t want to wait to deliver consequences.  You want the consequences to be felt as immediately as possible.  The impact of short-term consequences is far more powerful than long-term consequences.

Certain: Always deliver the promised consequences.  The real tragedy is that by failing to hold people accountable for the little things, by delivering a small dose of negative consequence in a timely fashion, you make it so much harder to deliver consequences when someone fails you in a big way.  Realize that if you pull the trigger on little things, you never even have to get the gun out on big things.  In this regard, I will always remember a quote from coach and trainer, Tom  Conellan:

“A well aimed, well-timed BB is more significant as a deterrent than a poorly timed, poorly aimed howitzer.”

Here’s the bottom line:  Consequences are where the rubber meets the road for accountability.  Without consequences, there is no accountability.  If you are not getting the results you expect, don’t complain that your people don’t behave as if they feel accountable for results. Ask yourself, “How well d0 I hold people accountable?”

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1 Comment

  1. People confuse these two all the time.

    Responsibility is something assigned and received IE: “Do you accept this responsibility?”

    Accountability is something placed upon the responsible party AFTER it has been received.
    “Holding you accountable for:…. ”

    Those who are held accountable when the responsibility to execute has not truly been accepted …often confused accountability with reprimand!

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