Accountability or Responsibility?

I’ve been reading a number of articles recently about the Finnish School system, which as you may know is regarded among the finest in the world.  It’s a system that, unlike its East Asian counterparts, doesn’t rely on rote memorization and long hours of study.  Instead, students don’t start school until the age of 7; they tend to be given a great deal of creative time; there are no standardized tests (other than a matriculation exam prior to graduation), and teachers are regarded professionally in the same breath as doctors and attorneys.  It’s a system based on equity and trust!

That said, my objective here isn’t to praise the Finnish School System so much as highlight what I learned from Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility.  As noted in a December, 2011 article in The Atlantic, he made these two comments which really struck me and may provide leadership insights we can bring to our organizations – public or private, business, or education.  First he said, “There is no word for accountability in Finnish.”  Second he explained, “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility gets subtracted.”  Wow, I thought!

In Finland, it’s not about holding students and teachers accountable, it’s about inspiring them to take responsibility for their own education and performance.  And if you think it’s just semantics, consider that in Finland, and countries that focus on responsibility and trust, teachers receive $30 in professional development for every $1 spent on testing.  Now, take a look at countries that focus on accountability through testing and you’ll find the inverse.  It doesn’t take a product of the Finnish School System to figure out that if you invest in the actual education of teachers and students versus pour money into the measurement of it, you’ll likely achieve better results.

Accountability is a big word in companies today and rightly so.  The question is whether you would be better served if you focused on responsibility instead.  If nothing else, accountability might be that much easier.  Rather than demanding accountability, you could do a better job of inspiring people to take ownership of their results and their contribution to company performance.   You would invest more time in professional development and doing the actual work.   Maybe you would cut written reporting requirements by half.  I’m just sayin’.

Imagine if we all spent less time measuring our efficiency and more time improving our proficiency.  For this week, consider adding a new word to your lexicon: vastuu (responsibility in Finnish).

Category: Leadership

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Avatar About the Author: Leo Bottary

Leo J. Bottary is an adjunct professor for two of Seton Hall University's graduate level programs in strategic communication and leadership.  Leo has enjoyed a 25-year career counseling leaders in the areas of strategic comm…

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  1. Evan

    May 9, 2013 at 10:44 am

    As a businessman I have come to know that the definitions of certain words can make the difference in understanding and not understanding important subjects… pretty simple. On responsibility and accountability, a few thoughts.

    RESPONSIBILITY – This is an other way of stating an assigned Mission. It points at who owns the task, either before or after the task has been done. “It is his mission (responsibility) to write the Policy.”

    ACCOUNTABILITY – This refers to the ownership (of the outcome) of the work, its quality and its result. Only the person who does the work can be accountable, as he “owns” his output. Others cannot “hold” the worker accountable. Only the worker can himself accountable.

    The worker is responsible for performing work and therefore is accountable (owns) for the work results.

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