The Two Most Important Words In Performance Management

responsibility accountability

Responsibility and accountability are the yin yang of performance management. When used correctly they work well together. But as business owners we sometimes mistakingly use one for the other. And when we do we're not always aware of the impact it can have on our businesses.

Responsibility and accountability aren't interchangeable and here's why...


For instance, what exactly do we mean when we tell our staff they have certain responsibilities? Or when we tell them they are being held accountable? These are two powerful words when it comes to employee performance. How you define your staffs' responsibilities and accountabilities may be the difference between barely meeting your expectations or exceeding them. Let's take a closer look at these two words.

Ironically the dictionary definitions of these words look fairly similar. The word "responsibility" has accountable in its definition, and the word "accountability" has responsible in its definition. What gives? They seem interchangeable. So let's dig a bit deeper.

In his book Scaling Up, Verne Harnish offers his definitions. He defines accountability as the "one person who has the ability to count", and defines responsibility as "anyone with the ability to respond". Using his definitions means the one person accountable is the person tracking progress and speaking out when issues come up. It means that everyone is responsible to proactively support the team, the business and its processes.

To put it into even simpler terms everyone is responsible for their actions and how they represent the business. Only one person can be held accountable when it comes to measuring the results. The rule as stated by Verne is: If more than one person is accountable then no one is accountable, and that's when things fall through the cracks.

In all probability you have a list of responsibilities for each of your staff positions. You discussed these responsibilities when you made the hire and may revisit them on occasion throughout the year and specifically when you evaluate performance. After all, responsibilities are how you expect this person to act in their position.

Unless you're hiring a sales position where outcomes are very clear, chances are you didn't discuss accountabilities when you were interviewing. These are the specific results one would expect from this position. And again, unless you’re in sales it’s not always that obvious.

Take for instance a front desk support staff member in a dentist office. The responsibilities may include answering the phones, helping patients set appointments, checking patients in and out, taking payments, setting return appointments, and conducting reminder calls while remaining pleasant and helpful. These are all actions to be expected from anyone working at the front desk. The outcome or results of these actions is the practice having a full schedule where patients are placed in a time slot that allows the practice to operate efficiently and on-time.

Now in order to have accountability there needs to be a measurement. In this example it might be the percentage of available appointments filled by a patient, or what I’ll call a fill rate. It’s the responsibility of the front desk staff to keep the schedule full, so if a patient cancels it’s also their responsibility to fill it, hopefully from a waiting list. So a 95% fill rate could be the accountability goal, and instead of everyone at the front desk measuring it, there might be one team leader at the front desk accountable for keeping track and raising the red flag if problems arise.

These accountability measurements are also know as KPIs, or Key Performance Indicators. It’s possible that every member of your staff have their own KPI. At a minimum though there should be a handful of KPIs the business tracks in each of it’s functional areas that measures performance daily. For a busy business owner it’s the simplest way to know if the business and the staff had a good day or not.

Which brings us back to these two words: responsibility and accountability. As you can see they aren’t interchangeable and they’re both crucial to the success of your business. Responsibilities are how you expect your team members to act in their position. Accountabilities are the outcomes you expect from the actions they take. Everyone is responsible for their actions, but only one person is accountable to the results, and in some cases that may be a team leader in a functional area of the business.

To get the most from your team it’s imperative you are crystal clear on what you expect. First, establish position descriptions that clearly define the responsibilities of the position and then implementing a system for inspecting what you expect. Second, establish accountability by setting clear goals and KPIs for the business and assign one person to keep track. Lastly and most important, communicate with your team. Responsibility and accountability will become part of your business DNA the more you talk about it.


About the Author

Asa Beavers is an authority on increasing performance in small businesses. He helps business owners uncover the bottlenecks that may be holding them back, and teaches essential strategies to help them work ON their business and unlock its full potential.

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