Emotional intelligence terms: Responsibility vs. accountability

Emotionally intelligent leaders understand the difference between these two terms and apply them wisely. Let's examine a few misunderstandings
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The words “leadership” and “emotional” don’t seem like they should go well together. Thinking of emotional leaders conjures images of unstable bouts of stress and burnout or fear-inducing temper tantrums. Most of us would shy away from following a leader that we consider to be emotional. When we add the word “intelligent,” however, the balance shifts.

Leaders need to determine where accountability and responsibility should fall for a given situation.

An emotional leader creates instability, but an emotionally intelligent leader creates understanding and promotes stability. The awareness and controlled application of one’s own emotions in relation to the emotional state of those they interact with is a pathway to empathy. And it's this foundational component of EQ that provides great leaders with an intuitive framework for one of the more important aspects of their role: Determining where accountability and responsibility should fall for a given situation.

There is a subtle — but important — difference between the words “responsible” and “accountable.” For instance, if I coach a softball team, I’ll be held accountable for a win or loss, but I am not responsible for playing the game. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that difference and apply it appropriately in leadership. 

Let’s look at a few ways leaders misunderstand or misapply these two terms.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Being responsible when you should be accountable

Recently promoted leaders commonly make this error.

This error is common among leaders who have recently been promoted, and I’ve most certainly done it myself on many occasions. If you try to do it all yourself, you suffer, your team suffers (what do they get to do?), and your outcome suffers. You may know the best way to do things, and you may be able to do them more quickly, but the decision to put you in a leadership position came about for a reason: One person can’t do it all. You recognized this yourself by accepting the promotion.

Emotionally intelligent leaders will quickly recognize the harm to their team in this situation, and their empathy will simply not allow them to continue in this manner. As soon as it is feasible in a new leadership role, you must assume accountability and place responsibility on your team.

Proper delegation for high-EQ leaders comes as naturally as pouring a cup of coffee in the morning. This is not offloading to clear the leader’s plate, nor is it offloading in order to ensure the team is busy. It is delegating the right activities to the right people to create engagement and harmony across the team while meeting objectives.

Being accountable when you should be responsible

Many years ago, I was an individual contributor on a large team. Our leader was scheduled to brief an executive on the details of a project but was involved in an emergency when the meeting started. The boss asked me to show up at the executive briefing to deliver the update. I went and was thanked graciously, then asked to go back and send my boss to the meeting. I know not what transpired after I did so, but I imagine it wasn’t the best time for my boss. Showing up for the executive briefing was my boss’s responsibility, and sending a stand-in without notice was overstepping in this case. There were probably things being discussed in that meeting that were simply not for my ears to hear.

Understanding when something is for you to do yourself is important.

Understanding when something is for you to do yourself is just as important as understanding when something is the responsibility of your team. A high-EQ leader would avoid the awkwardness of imposing their own responsibility onto an employee. Instead, they might decide to carefully orchestrate a similar event in order to help develop their protégé, but, importantly, it would be centered around the benefit of the employee rather than the leader.

Distributing accountability and responsibility properly, then confusing them later

Many of us accidentally claim credit for wins.

Back to my example of the softball coach: Let’s say the team won a big game. What if I were to go around telling everyone that I won the game? The players won, the team won – not me. In this context, it is all about them.

It is easy to see the right thing to do in this example, yet so many of us still inappropriately claim credit for wins. The key here is to pay attention to detail. That presentation you’re delivering is more than a bunch of slides; it is the culmination of dozens — maybe hundreds — of hours of work assembled by your team and others they’ve interacted with. Is it your presentation? Yes. Is it your work? No. 

Let’s say the team lost the big game. This is where it gets sticky. Is the loss your fault? Absolutely. Is it the team’s fault? Absolutely. But using the word “fault” in this case is a fallacy. It assumes both accountability and responsibility. It would be more accurate to say that you are accountable for the loss, and the team is responsible for playing better next time. Because you hold accountability, you will coach and empower the team to fulfill their responsibility.

We often overreact to a loss and assume responsibility ourselves. This robs the team of the opportunity to grow and improve. Not everyone will like it in the moment, but placing responsibility where it belongs will help your rock stars evolve into superstars.

A high-EQ leader will obsess internally over whether they have placed accountability and responsibility correctly. In the event of a miss, they will place responsibility back onto the team and stand accountable themselves. This allows the team to learn from the experience and focus on their responsibility.

Holding no one accountable or responsible

In her book “Radical Candor,” Kim Scott calls this “ruinous empathy.”

I feel like I shouldn’t have to include this one, but it happens. In her book “Radical Candor,” Kim Scott calls this “ruinous empathy.” Caring about our team members, their lives, interests, and feelings, helps build strong and productive relationships. But if we do that without boundaries or direction, we’re setting those team members — and ourselves — up for failure.

In my experience, this happens if I am not properly holding myself accountable. I’m naturally very personable, and I love getting to know and spending time with the people I work with and/or manage. This makes it very easy to let things slip through the cracks. One remedy is to place proper importance on objectives within my own mindset. We must care about what we’re trying to achieve just as much as we care about the individuals on our teams. Without both sides of this coin, things will often turn out very differently than we envision, and correcting them may cost us the relationships we value.

A high-EQ leader will undertake decisions grounded in empathy but resist the urge to sacrifice objective outcomes in favor of unanimous happiness. Being empathetic but knowing when to act against it is also an important component of EQ.

Getting it right pays off

Very few leaders take on the mantle of mastering emotional intelligence. It is more of a skill than a talent, and it must be learned and practiced. Some will start at a higher baseline than others, but these leaders are also susceptible to allowing empathy to have too great an influence on their decision-making.

Developing a high EQ can start with learning where accountability and responsibility should fall and then practicing it every day. This isn’t always easy; you will often get it wrong, but continued focus in this area will undoubtedly pay off in better outcomes and a happier, more motivated team.

[ Learn the go-to phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

Currently senior product manager for SentryOne, Jason has worked in technology for over 20 years. He joined SentryOne in 2006 having held positions in network administration, database administration, and software engineering.

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