Accountability: The Missing Rung on the Professional Ladder | Career Boost

Corporate Ladder

We often talk about responsibility. In fact, I published a LinkedIn article about it (click here to read it). But what often gets less attention is accountability. There is an important distinction and it makes all the difference for your professional trajectory.

Everyone is Responsible

Every employee is responsible for something–if nothing else, the basic duties of your position. Those responsibilities are important, sometimes even critical. No matter how critical, responsibility is still common. It is the working equivalent to breathing. If you are employed, you are entrusted to complete a delineated set of functions, or you’re fired.

Taking on more and more responsibility is how most people angle themselves for that next promotion. And they quickly find themselves drowning in a sea of misery of their own making. Completing tasks is horizontal, doggie-paddle stasis. By taking on an ever growing amount of responsibilities, you are merely paddling faster and faster. But you still aren’t getting anywhere. That’s why so many people feel so dissatisfied and exhausted in their positions.

There is a misplaced notion that if I just do more, they’ll appreciate me and know my worth. Study after study, anecdote after anecdote, ulcer after ulcer has proven this notion to be out of whack with reality. The problem here is that the usual responsibilities can be accomplished by just about anyone. You volunteering to take on all of these tasks is convenient, but not indispensable.

No matter how many responsibilities you shoulder, you are never going to give yourself a leg up. Responsibility only demonstrates that you can perform a function. It doesn’t demonstrate that you can take action.

The Action of Accountability

Climbing the professional ladder requires action–in an upward, vertical direction. That requires focus on your direction (up) and lightening your load (relieving yourself of unnecessary responsibility). If you are bogged down you can’t boost yourself to the next level. If you are constantly looking at the lower level tasks, you can’t be considering the big picture or a future vision. My mother always told me to dress for you I want to be, not who I am. It was the best advice ever. In the same way, you have to focus on the tasks that will help you go up–not the ones that will keep you where you are.

Think of it this way. You have responsibilities, but your superior has accountability for your responsibilities. Follow that logic all the way up the chain. If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like you do more work than the VP in the glass-doored office, here is your answer. Accountability is what drives decisions. There is a lot of responsibility in being accountable for the productivity of a team. There is even more for a division. More still for an entire company. However, the bulk of the individual tasks are delegated to those who are less accountable for the group’s greater success.

In almost every instance, you can spot the accountable person. There is only one–one person answerable for the success of that activity. So if you find yourself doing something that five other people at your firm could do, you aren’t doing the work that will get you ahead.

Responsibility > _________________ > Authority

Accountability is that missing link between being responsible for a duty and having the power of authority. It’s such a cliche because it’s true: don’t work harder, work smarter. It’s so much easier to be responsible than to be accountable. People are generally scared of the notion because it comes with a big red X on your forehead–or so we think. If I’m accountable for something that means that I will be blamed if it doesn’t go well, right? Maybe. But I want to challenge you to look closer at the mechanisms at play in your own workplace. When things go wrong, who usually gets blamed? When things go right, who usually gets the credit? Think critically about that, and you will understand why accountability puts you in a better position to negotiate power. That is the path to authority.

So if you want to take responsibility for moving up the corporate ladder, find opportunities to become accountable.  Volunteer to head up a particular group project, become the intern mentor, be the liaison for an event–there are so many possibilities. Prove that you are the best and only right choice for the activity and then make sure it gets done–not by yourself, but with a team. This is not an extra task for you, this is a moment to demonstrate your leadership skills.

It may not feel like it, but taking on responsibility may be keeping you in your comfort zone. Be bold. Stop the doggie paddling, and start critically thinking about how to clear out the clutter and claim some accountability.


Kate E. Stephenson is a resume expert and career coach with over a decade of experience. The Career Cafe is a blog that offers insight into today’s job market and hiring tips.

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