Responsibility VS. Accountability

I owe a good chunk of the thinking behind this post to Roger Connors, one of the authors of The Oz Principle, a book primarily about business practices and leadership (I’m actually not quite certain— I began but never finished it). This was a man you couldn’t say no to, not because he would browbeat you—instead, you didn’t want to refuse him.

I’ve borrowed the idea from him and wrote it down once. Here it comes.

There is no word for ‘accountability’ in Spanish. Certainly, the concept isn’t entirely foreign to Spanish speakers, but it takes more words. There is a word for responsibility, ‘responsibilidad’. The significance of this might be lost, unless you want to distinguish between these oft confused ideas. Doing so, could be very meaningful in any leadership or mentorship position.

Responsibility is a moral obligation. Responsibility is something taken upon one’s self— sometimes unwittingly, other times in a more explicit manner. Whichever it is, the implications of responsibility are theoretically endless. Granted, my responsibility for someone in Nigeria might be less obvious, and more general than my responsibility to my wife… but as a moral obligation, the limits of responsibility are rather wide, and difficult to measure.

In contrast, accountability is the very essence of social contract (see Thomas Hobbes or John Locke). Accountability is a social obligation. It is the easily measurable counterpart to responsibility. I can call you to account for something in fairness, only if you and I have agreed previously to said ‘contract’.  Some of these contracts are explicit, others implicit. Examples include: it is implicit that if you live in a country and are ‘benefiting’ from said countries social programs and government, then you are expected to abide by the law of the land (note: I am not excusing unethical acts outside of your country of origin/residence); an explicit contract is when you take a class at the university. You pay for the course, and enter into an agreement with the professor to fulfill items required by the syllabus. Accountability is far more easily measurable.

With this in mind, the statement, “I’m going to hold you personally responsible” doesn’t hold up— instead, we should be saying, “I’m going to hold you personally accountable.” In no way do I mean to diminish the importance of responsibility as a concept, but the way that we teach it to others should be looked at. Instead of being something for which there is some unclear (perhaps even arbitrary) standard to judge someone, we should make clear the difference between responsible behavior and the lack thereof. For example: I can tell my brother that because he is the only one accountable for his grades, that it would be irresponsible of him to ignore them, because the ramifications affect not just him, but those around him. Now explaining why all of that is true is another thing, but perhaps this is a clear way of looking at these twin concepts. Understanding such is fairly critical when in the role of leadership or mentorship.

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13 Comments

Filed under Leadership, Philosophy

13 responses to “Responsibility VS. Accountability

  1. Jose Luis Ortiz Volcan

    There is a translation for Accountability in spanish: “Rendicion de cuentas”. The translation in english will be the one who provides the information about results good or bad and assumes the consequences of the results.

    • Thanks for the comment!
      Ah– but it isn’t a single word– the concept takes more iteration for effective communication. But thank you again, I wondered what the best translation of the concept would be.

  2. Esteban

    The reason why there is no exact word in spanish for accountability is strictly related to the very lack of its social value in
    spanish speaking societies. The concept is completely foreign to the very composition of the social thread of spanish speaking and particularly to latin american societies. Rendicion de cuentas is the closest we have gotten to “accountability” but as it is not a single word, it looses its social value and strenght. Perhaps when we find or make out a word for it in spanish, corruption can really be dealt within these societies.

    • Esteban, thank you for responding. I’m not sure whether you’re really commenting on this– but I think it can be clarified. Whether or not accountability is not a value of spanish speaking societies isn’t a one directional relationship. The lack of the word may reinforce a certain popular attitude, but the attitude may then preclude the word from maintaining or gaining popularity (or existing to begin with). Sort of a chicken and the egg idea, I suppose.

  3. Alberto

    In response to Esteban, Myke said it best when he said that accountability, or any other societal value, is not a “one directional relationship”. The fact that corruption is rampant in many countries in latin america doesn’t mean that many of its citizens (the majority I would venture to add) do not believe in the accountability of our governments or that we don’t believe in accountability as a core value. We, in Latin America, often believe that “impunidad” (the lack of accountability) is one of the primary causes of corruption.

    Sorry Myke. I know this wasn’t meant to be a political discussion.

    • Actually, I don’t mind the politics, although I appreciate that your comments are civil. Fascinating points, all. I do sometimes wonder how much the cultural meanings of words in any particular language shape actions and behaviors in various countries, and vice versa. In no way should this be taken to imply that I believe that Spanish-speaking countries don’t believe in accountability. I will have to remember your comment about “Impunidad.”

  4. Lol my husband and I laughed when I didnt find the literal translation of the word and I found your article a quite nice read. Specially the last part. It is interesting we don’t have it and I wonder why it is. What I remember about growing up is having that ‘impunidad’ idea. The idea of hell and el diablo’ come and get you. More an enphasis on what is supposed to happen to you. A fear based motivation. I don’t know if it is good or bad but certainly different

  5. Jesus

    Interesting your article. I came across it looking for a translation in Spanish of Accountable Care Organization (ACO). According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an ACO is “an organization of health care providers that agrees to be accountable for the quality, cost, and overall care of Medicare beneficiaries who are enrolled in the traditional fee-for-service program who are assigned to it.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accountable_care_organization). My first try was something like “organización de cuidado contable”, but reading your text, maybe is closer “organización para el cuidado responsable “. I do not need a one word translation, but even in that case I do not find it easy. Some ideas?
    Thanks,

    • Since I do not speak Spanish, I’m not sure that I can advise you. If I recall correctly the word ‘contable’ in Spanish is more related to accounting and finance than to the English conception of ‘accountability’. Good luck in your search.

  6. J. Enrique campos

    Enrique

    I find myself in the same crossroad, however I have to say that “contable” is indeed, a word related with accounting and finance.
    but on the other hand accountable, to get it closer in meaning must be “imputable”.
    thank you kindly for your valuable input.

  7. VI

    Maybe encargado. Like in the expresion “manaer responsible and accountabe for ensuring the process…” El gerente responsable y encargado de la seguridad del proceso….

  8. Gerda

    thanks a lot for the explanation,it’s very helpful
    I’ve been searching for this in many papers but still didn’t get the difference

    • Myke

      Thank you for reading. There are other ways to draw these distinctions, but this has long been my preferred dichotomy.

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