What Is Responsibility?
Responsibility n. the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone. (Oxford Dictionary)
Most of us learned about responsibility as children. Our parents gave us responsibilities like walking the dog or loading the dishwasher. As adults, we’re responsible for paying our bills, finishing our tasks at work, and doing the laundry.
Within your aviation SMS, everyone has some measure of responsibility. At the very least, every employee has a responsibility to report unsafe conditions and to work safely as possible.
Responsibility is a broad term encompassing anything you’re expected to do.
What Is Accountability?
Accountable adj. (of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible. (Oxford Dictionary)
Accountability takes responsibility to another level. When you are accountable, you not only have a duty to deal with something but must answer for the outcome.
Being responsible does not make someone accountable. In most cases, we hold people accountable for the things they are responsible for, but not always.
Everyone in your SMS has a responsibility to report hazardous conditions. They’re not all accountable, neither for the success of the reporting system or the success of the SMS itself.
Your safety manager can answer for the system if it isn’t working. The safety manager is accountable to upper management, while the "accountable executive" or CEO is accountable to regulatory authorities.
What Is Authority?
Authority n. the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. (Oxford Dictionary)
Authority is different from either responsibility or accountability. Having authority does not make someone responsible or accountable.
Yet, authority in the absence of responsibility or accountability is pointless. Such authority accomplishes nothing. Without responsibility, it has no direction. Without accountability, it is tyrannical.
Those held accountable should have authority. Accountability without authority is a scapegoat, rather than someone empowered to solve problems.
Putting It in Context
In a day-to-day speech, responsibility, accountability, and authority are interchangeable words. This isn’t wrong, but it is helpful to understand the subtle differences.
Responsibility is broad. Everyone has it to varying degrees. Your safety culture should instill a sense of responsibility in every employee.
Accountability is narrower. Those with accountability can answer when something is or isn’t working as intended.
Authority allows an individual to make changes. Accountability and authority should go hand in hand. Neither is effective otherwise.
An Aviation SMS Example
You’ve instituted a reporting program. Within your reporting program, employees have varying levels of responsibility, accountability, and authority.
The accountable executive is accountable for the program’s success or failure. They have the authority necessary to back up this accountability.
Accountable executives delegate the reporting program to the safety manager. This passes some of their responsibility and authority down the line.
The safety manager becomes accountable to the executive. The executive is still accountable to the outside world. The outside world in this case includes shareholders, customers, and regulatory agencies.
Safety managers use delegated authority to implement and manage the SMS. They make the decisions and assign responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities will need accountability, while others will not.
Why the Difference Matters
These differences don’t seem major, and most of the time they aren’t. So why be pedantic about them?
If you’re a manager, it’s important to make these distinctions. Knowing the differences will help you make better decisions.
When you know who is responsible and who is accountable, you know who can answer for a decision. Knowing who is accountable, you make sure they have the authority necessary.
Understanding these distinctions empowers you to become a more capable safety manager. How have these distinctions helped you? Do you have a different understanding? Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think!
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Last updated September 2023.