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All Right – Who’s Responsible?

Responsibility and accountability often get interchanged, but in the context of a business setting, they truly have unique and very specific meanings.

That’s a question that might bring to mind unpleasant memories from childhood, recollections of the parental discovery of something broken, spilled, or otherwise worse for the wear. But the question is a crucial one that business and nonprofit owners need to ask about every single role in their organization. In structuring our enterprises, it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of simply putting together job descriptions, giving a cursory glance at what’s required to get the work done, and plowing ahead with the task at hand.

One of the most common scenarios in which the definition of roles has been given a backseat to seemingly more important concerns is when a sole proprietorship suddenly transitions into a team of people. The business owner has been “in the weeds”, grinding through the day to day operations, fulfilling every obligation and doing everything that needs done. When increased business or new opportunities require that others be brought in to handle the workload, sometimes the entrepreneur can’t quite shift gears from the solo mindset they’ve embraced thus far. The first hurdle to overcome is being able to grasp and implement the idea of delegating, of being willing to entrust others to carry to completion what’s been solely yours up till now.

Once a team has been assembled, it’s tempting to believe that all the necessary prep work is done. If you’ve found yourself in this situation, you likely ran the mental exercise of determining what work needed to be accomplished and how many people you thought it would take for adequate coverage. The next step is to advertise the position, conduct interviews, review the resumes of the most promising candidates, then make offers and hopefully bring the best people onboard. Unfortunately, that’s where some business owners end up pulling the plug on the most important element of team building – really defining roles. Beyond simply figuring out what all the job functions in the organization will be, you also need to give deep and careful thought to determining who will be responsible and who will be accountable for each of those duties.

Responsibility and accountability often get interchanged, but in the context of a business setting, they truly have unique and very specific meanings. And properly applying them in regard to the work you do requires oversight – not simply management, but a real awareness of who is doing what and who is ensuring that things are getting done. On the most basic level, every employee of the company is responsible for their own job duties. This is something that every employer and employee has an understanding of, but the concept of accountability is a much more nuanced conversation. It could be argued that everyone is both responsible and accountable for the work they do, and sometimes this is the case, but often there is a second person who’s actually providing the accountability component.

With proper oversight, if an employee fails to complete the job duties they’re responsible for, someone else needs to notice this and take whatever steps are necessary to correct the problem. An individual’s sub-par work carries negative impacts for that single employee, but the person providing accountability oversight is aware of the more far-reaching impacts of the poor performance.

Too many organizations function with staff members ultra-focused on their own job duties and without anyone really supervising the collective efforts of everyone involved. This is the common problem known as “siloing”, and it’s quite often the by-product of situations where employees have never been given an understanding of how their efforts (or lack of effort) impact the rest of the company. Everyone simply operates in a vacuum when this is the overall office climate.

The best antidote for this scenario is for the business owner to put serious emphasis on defining roles well beyond the context of simply what each staff person is doing individually. Part of the accountability aspect involves taking whatever steps are necessary to invest employees in the bigger picture of what goes on in the organization. Every staff member, team, business unit, or department intersects on some level with everyone else in the enterprise. Calibrating staff to always think in the terms of universal rather than personal impact can be one of the most beneficial components for organizations to work as efficiently as possible.

The first step toward making this happen is to be acutely aware of the nature of the work to be done. Managers need to be alert and mindful when it comes to the distribution of job duties to ensure that a disparity isn’t being created within the team. Even employees who clearly understand their job duties and conscientiously perform them are likely to lose focus if they’re buried alive with an unrealistic set of expectations. Although small businesses and nonprofits generally don’t seem to have anywhere near the amount of staff they truly need, this is still no excuse for putting a crushing workload on someone. No staff member will be able to fulfill their role long-term because the avalanche of duties dumped on them will likely cause them to start questioning what their role really is.

Another key factor to support people embracing the roles assigned to them involves ensuring that they have the proper tools to learn and perform their jobs. Clear and precise written documentation is a must-have for any team – it helps to reinforce the elements of the job tasks while the position is being learned and also alleviates endless interruption of management to ask questions about how something is done. And even once employees have mastered the elements of their duties and are performing them correctly and efficiently each day, ongoing training and refreshers play an important role in keeping everyone’s performance at its best. Training sessions can also serve as a venue to exchange ideas and to express concerns about items in various job functions. This is vital toward helping staff to feel a real connection to the duties they perform and to ensure that each employee has a voice in the company.

Once employees have a confidence in fulfilling their role within the organization, the next logical step is to engage in cross-training. Not only does this pave the way for developing solid coverage for when someone is out of the office, but exposing staff to the inner workings of other team members’ duties is yet another way to broaden their understanding of all the work done by the organization. Cross-training can provide a different perspective as to the responsibility and accountability associated with a particular position and also help to create greater cohesiveness within the team.

Despite the best efforts of the business owner or hiring manager, there will invariably be occasions where someone is brought to the team and ends up feeling like a square peg in a round hole. This is detrimental for the company, which is relying on the team member to perform a vital function, but also can be devastating for the individual. One thing that management should always pursue in this type of scenario is to determine if there might be a better fit somewhere else in the organization. It could very well be a case where a highly intelligent and capable person was simply being asked to fill the wrong role. Connecting them elsewhere can end up becoming a mutually-beneficial situation for both the company and the staff member.

Even in situations where someone is a top performer, there can be great benefit in eventually assisting the employee to pursue other opportunities within the company. Particularly in high-stress or production oriented environments, it’s completely unrealistic to expect that people will indefinitely maintain their energy, enthusiasm, and focus for the long term. Rather than simply letting someone burn out and move on to another company, take the time to determine where the best place in the organization is for that person now – their existing role might have been perfect for them three years ago, but the shelf life may have long since expired.

Most people will come to your organization because they believe in what you’re doing and want to be a part of it. Beyond simply providing a place for people to work and pick up a paycheck, be intentional about ensuring that your organization is truly invested in defining each role and in finding ways to connect every employee to the organization’s purpose, as well as their own.


To gain a deeper perspective on the overall health of your small business or nonprofit, visit to to download your free copy of the PDF, “Taking Your Organization’s Temperature.” In the meantime, visit or call us at 240-329-9387 if you'd like to schedule a Power Hour to discuss your business development needs today! Then, make sure you check our recent videos on YouTube by clicking HERE. Each episode is designed to inspire, empower, and transform you and/or your organization.

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