Should Leaders be Responsible or Accountable?

Should leaders be responsible or accountable? And what’s the difference?

blocklink-iso9001Both ISO 9001:2015 and ISO 45001:2018 are concerned with the apportioning of roles and tasks, and although the language used in each requirement has many similarities, I believe that the wording invites us to make an important distinction between responsibility and accountability.

ISO 9001:2015 uses this language:

 “Top management shall demonstrate leadership and commitment with respect to the quality management system by taking accountability for the effectiveness of the quality management system.”

On the other hand, ISO 45001:2018 will state:

“Top management shall ensure that the responsibilities and authorities for relevant roles within the management system are assigned and communicated at all levels within the organization and maintained as documented information. Workers at each level of the organization shall assume responsibility for those aspects of OH&S management system over which they have control.”

So what’s the difference between the accountability required by ISO 9001:2015 and the responsibility called for by ISO 45001:2018?

A barrister friend of mine suggested that:

  • Responsibility means being able to make a response.
  • Accountability means being able to bring an account.

An understanding of this distinction is key to our understanding of ISO 45001:2018, since the word “ensure” indicates that although responsibility for completing a task can be delegated to someone else, the accountability to make sure that the task is performed cannot be transferred.

In what other ways could the distinction between responsibility and accountability be defined, and what implications does this have for our workplace practices?

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