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The difference between accountability, responsibility, and authority

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The difference between accountability, responsibility, and authority

These 3 business terms are often used interchangeably. To understand the difference between accountability, responsibility, and authority, let’s look at the definitions. Verne Harnish from Scaling Up defines these terms as follows:


This belongs to the ONE person who has the “ability to count”. In essence, it is the person who is tracking the progress and giving voice (sometimes screaming loudly) when issues arise within a defined task, team, function, or division. It doesn’t necessarily mean this person makes all the decisions (or even any decisions). Therefore people often talk about leaderless teams.

However, someone must still be accountable. The rule: If more than one person is accountable, then no one is accountable. This results in things falling through the cracks.


Responsibility is essentially the duty to respond to and complete tasks.

This falls to anyone with the “ability to respond” proactively to support the team. It includes all the people who touch a particular process or issue.

Moreover, responsibility can be shared among a team. Multiple people can be responsible for achieving a specific outcome by working on the same task. Or they have different tasks they are responsible for that lead to the same goal.


This belongs to the person or team with the final decision-making power.

It is important to understand that authority isn’t automatically available with every job, task or duty. Authority is the power, right or permission to act. It is the ability to control the outcome.

Here’s an example…

Let’s use finance management as an example to explain the difference between accountability, responsibility and authority.

Usually, the CFO of a company has accountability for cash. He “counts” and reports it to the team daily. And he is accountable for alerting the team if he senses any potential issues, whether immediate or in future.

In turn, the CEO maintains authority over cash, signing off on major expenditures and investments.

In addition, everyone in the company has responsibility for making sure that cash is spent wisely. In other words, making sure that deals or contracts are structured so they generate, rather than absorb cash.

Leaders need to bridge the gap

Increasingly more accountability for things they have less control over, is automatically assumed by those moving up in the organization, into middle and senior management positions. Undoubtedly, top leadership find they are legally liable for anything that goes wrong in an organization, often expanding beyond their day-to-day reach.

All things considered, leaders need to bridge the ever-increasing gap between accountability and authority, using their skills of communication, persuasion, education, and visioning.

CoLAB can help you

Are you a business leader, not sure how to address the difference between accountability, responsibility, and authority in you company? Getting accountabilities clear throughout the organization is crucial. CoLAB can assist you with this important process.

CoLAB has a #bestpractical approach to assist leadership teams with these challenges.

Set up a no-obligation 20-min call with our expert facilitator, Barend Cronjé, to discuss your challenges, and explore how CoLAB can help you? Click HERE to book the call.

The CoLAB group serves its’ clients through 3 specialist practices:

CoLAB Profit Improvement 

CoLAB Talent Placements 

CoLAB Project Delivery 

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