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What’s the difference between responsibility and accountability?


At the latest meeting of Insight’s South Wales Coaching Network, attendees shared thoughts on how they secure accountability in coachees through positive, pro-active change. Psychologist Manjula Bray, who hosted the session, began by posing a question to those in attendance: what is the difference between responsibility and accountability?

These terms get used interchangeably, but there is a key difference. While accountability means being answerable for your actions and involves a level of self-awareness about what is expected from you, it cannot be bestowed; it is about the individual making a decision about how they will achieve a positive outcome for both their organisation and themselves. Contrastingly, responsibility can be bestowed. It takes a level of trust for a manager to bestow responsibility on one of their employees – trust that they will, in turn, take accountability for their actions and have the discipline to perform a task to the highest possible standard.

Analysing your own levels of accountability is problematic, because we all have internal biases that affect the way we view ourselves. These biases are part of our unconscious brain – we aren’t always aware that they are affecting our actions, and this lack of self-awareness can lead to us setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves. It is through coaching, Manjula suggests, that we can help coachees to understand their own unconscious thoughts and emotions, helping them to become more accountable in the workplace.

“The coachee is always responsible for their actions, recognising that they have a job to do,” commented Manjula. “As coaches, one thing we’re always doing is digging deeper, helping others to understand how their unconscious behaviours affect their conscious ones.”

The analogy of an iceberg is useful to understand this concept – our behavioural aspects are above the waterline, meaning others than view and observe them. Coaches start with this visible, surface level, noting competencies and consistent behaviours, before ‘digging deeper’ to uncover the unconscious drivers of those behaviours. These are less obvious – attitudes and beliefs – and would therefore be considered below the waterline in the iceberg analogy.

Implicity tests are a good way to determine the unconscious mind-set of a coachee. These work by timing the coachee’s reaction times to a predetermined set of words and descriptions, rating each as negative or positive based on immediate associations. After uncovering any biases or attitudes that are holding back the coachee from reaching success, a coach can use their own techniques to help the individual to overcome them and make a positive change.

After practicing these techniques in a co-coaching exercise, attendees at the event commented on how they were surprised by their own unconscious thoughts and felt inspired to use similar techniques with their own clients. The collaborative environment, with coaches from around South Wales sharing their own ideas and techniques on the subject of accountability, made for a positive conclusion to a productive session of co-coaching.

If you would like to attend one of Insight’s free South Wales Coaching Network events, get in touch by emailing hello@insight-hrc.co.uk. Alternatively, join us on Twitter @Insight_HRC.

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