Responsible vs. Accountable
Though widely accepted as synonyms, responsible and accountable are two distinct feelings and serve two distinct purposes. The confusion may be one reason why more and more people are showing up irresponsible and unaccountable.
Accountable = Account – Able
An account is an objective list of something. In the context of this article, the list includes your available options in a given situation (whether you see them all or not) as well as a list of the tangible results connected to each option (whether you understand or acknowledge them all or not.)
- Being able to recognize all your options
- Being able to understand and acknowledge the consequences of those options
Responsible = Response – Able
A response is an answer to something. In the context of this article, the answers include your knowledge (what you’ve learned formally or informally) as well as the ways in which you make decisions (knee-jerk or thoughtful.)
- Being able to face a situation as it unfolds
- Being able to use your wisdom to choose the best answer
You are accountable all the time whether you think you are or want to be. You are because you have to live with whatever happens to you–it is your life, right? If you profit from excellent investment advice, your future gets a bit more secure. If you’re hoodwinked by a used car salesman, the lemon you bought sits in your driveway—complaining or blaming won’t change anything.
Reactions are rooted in the past
Confusion arises around the distinction between response and react–again most people use these words interchangeably and it causes misunderstandings.
Reactions are reflexive and automatic; something has triggered your habitual patterns of thought (attitude) and your body (words and actions) get going accordingly. Attitudes and habits are formed by repetition and become so familiar that your conscious mind isn’t really involved any longer. By definition, habits are formed by past experience, past thoughts, and past actions. The word’s Latin origin even means “done again.” Whenever you are reacting to something, you are not considering the present circumstances and you’re acting without your conscious mind. A pretty important thing to know considering that your conscious mind is where will-power resides and choices are made.
Responses, on the other hand, are based on the present moment. To respond is to utilize knowledge and experience, as well as future goals, desires, resources, risk, and consequences in formulating your list of options (accounting). With all this pertinent information available, the best choice (answer) becomes obvious. When your thoughts and feelings are rooted in the present moment—versus the past—you are truly able to respond to the present moment’s opportunities. Otherwise, knee-jerk reactions leave you scratching your head wondering why things went wrong, again, or why you just can’t seem to get ahead.
The ultimate outcome
I think most parents want to teach their kids how to make good decisions and to be able to face the consequences of the decisions they’ve made; the words we use, i.e., responsible or accountable, are all trying to describe this ultimate outcome. So, how do we do that? It starts with you—you must practice accounting and responding first so that you fully understand the difficulties and rewards. Once you’ve got it, your actions demonstrate the meaning of your intentions to your kids. They learn the most from you by watching you in action.
So, how do you become responsible?
First, unhook from the past.
- Observe how your actions are triggered.
Second, look back on a few poor choices you’ve made.
- What were some of the options you didn’t see at the time?
- Were you feeling pressure or afraid of something?
- Were you trying to avoid making a mistake?
Third, look back on a few better choices you’ve made.
- What were the circumstances in which you were able to choose well?
- Did you have time to think?
- Was your choice based on a goal?
Most people naturally begin to pay attention more and make better choices quickly. It’s cool how awareness makes so many things fall into place easily.
With an understanding about the distinction between responsible and accountable, perhaps you’ll have a different conversation with your kids; one that starts with accountability that elicits responsibility. Please let me know how it goes for you.
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