Why the difference between “ownership” and “accountability” can be huge

I had a great conversation this week with Colin Buechler, Senior VP of Sales and Marketing at Lifesize, a fast-growing video conferencing company, about improving collaboration between the sales organization and the marketing organization. Colin recently added the sales responsibility to his role after guiding the marketing function over the past several years. He has encouraged his team to drop the term “ownership” and replace it with “accountability.” His insight is applicable to the relationships between any two groups or individuals, not just sales and marketing.

Let’s look at these two words according to the Random House Dictionary:

Ownership 1. the state or fact of being an owner 2. legal right of possession; proprietorship

Accountability 1. the state of being accountable, liable or answerable

There is a lot of talk in business journals about getting employees to “take ownership.” The problem with that terminology is it implies I own something and you don’t. This is often used in the context of defining roles and responsibilities. With employment anxiety, owning something is felt to be justification for job security and therefore validates the continued need for a person’s role. It is also used to “keep people off my turf” and conveys an attitude of “I don’t need you.” It leads to extended and contentious conversations that are often unproductive and trust diminishing.

Accountability, on the hand, implies responsibility but not independent authority. It clearly communicates that you have an important role to play and that you take it seriously. It also leaves open the possibilities that you can work with others to achieve the goals for which you are accountable. Stephen Covey says, “accountability breeds response-ability.”

Language is an important tool for building collaborative relationships. If your team is struggling with this issue, try shifting the terminology to accountability from ownership and see if it helps you as it has Colin.