Delegation: Accountability vs. Responsibility

Effective Delegation: Distinguish Accountability from Responsibility

Case Study: Steve Delegates

Consider the following case.

A small company received a complaint from its key customer. The CEO assigned this problem to Steve, the engineering team leader, and asked him to resolve the problem in two days. Steve delegated the problem to Jessica, one of his engineers.

A week later, when the customer complained that the problem was not yet fixed, the CEO asked Steve to explain the delay. Steve responded: “I do not know how to fix the problem. I delegated the task to Jessica. Has she not fixed this problem? It is her responsibility.”

Yet, Steve was Answerable

Effective Delegation The above episode reflects poorly on Steve’s managerial skills. Steve failed to recognize that, although Jessica was responsible for fixing the problem, he was accountable for the problem and its resolution. He was answerable to the CEO; his duty was to resolve the problem through Jessica.

The terms ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ are near-synonyms; hence, managers tend to use them interchangeably. The distinction is subtle, nonetheless critical, as highlighted in the following table.

Effective Delegation: Distinguish Accountability from Responsibility

Effective Delegation

A primary shortcoming of many managers, especially new managers, is that they do not give clear assignments—they do not explain a problem adequately and/or fail to enumerate expectations on desired outcome and timeline. After delegating a task, they assume they no longer hold ownership over the task. They thus tend to fault their employees, the ones they delegated tasks to, when a problem arises.

One of the keys to effective delegation is to understand the differences between accountability and responsibility. Understand that you are still in charge of getting a delegated task completed and accomplishing the associated mission. Follow-up frequently and ensure completion.

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