Leadership in Technology; Is it Safe to be Innovative in Your Organization?

At its core, the technology industry revolves around organizations that  focus on research, development,  innovation and production of products and services that create new and unique value to their clients. Technology-based organizations are uniquely at the forefront of innovation and are always under pressure to innovate by their shareholders, external market forces and clients.

Being innovative requires cutting edge resources and a team that is not afraid to be “disruptive.” Often, tech companies find themselves fighting over talent within the industry on a global scale. Imperative to the success of a tech company is a strong team with limitless creativity that will be shown in the work. This work is not simple and can very easily take a toll on leaders who are dedicated to their job. Depending on its lifecycle stage, a tech company is often expected to produce impressive, large year-over-year growth numbers to satisfy investors. This puts added pressure on leaders who are trying to balance creating a healthy work environment for their teams with pressures of production and growth.


So, what is the impact of this “pull” between healthy work environments and production?  In many cases it results in workplaces that lack psychological safety.  Psychological safety, as defined by . Timothy R. Clark is a condition in which human beings feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo. When an organization reaches a “Level 4”culture of psychological safety, it means that their leaders can provide their employees with not only the basics of feeling included and heard, but also an environment that allows them to learn, challenge, and make mistakes.


So, how does your leadership “style” affect the level of psychological safety on your team? And which leadership styles are the most natural to ensure a psychological safe environment of learning and innovation? In our 20 years of working with leaders at all levels of organizations, Refinery has found that there are two primary styles of leadership that emerge as most effective in innovative technology organizations:  Transformational Leadership and Visionary Leadership.  Why?  For one, both of these leadership styles depend on establishing high levels of psychological safety in teams in order to allow creativity, and yes—mistakes—to happen.  Without this level of psychological safety, team members will feel diminished, fearful and reticent to make suggestions for improvement, for fear of retribution from their leaders.


Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these styles of leadership to see what’s behind them, and why they are effective especially in technology organizations that are going through rapid growth:



Transformational Leadership

Transformational Leadership is a leadership style that that encourages innovation. While some leadership styles favour quicker, short-term results, Transformational Leadership is implemented by leaders whose goals are rooted in the long-term success of their company. Understanding, compassion, and trust in your team are all key parts in a leader successfully implementing this leadership style. There is an openness within the team that allows employees to be forthright with their leader, which means that alternate viewpoints and criticism are celebrated instead of discouraged. A leader respecting their employees is at the top of the list when it comes to creating and nurturing an environment that runs on trust. Transformational Leadership sees those in charge placing trust within their employees to effectively problem solve, thus building individual and group confidence, which will lead everyone to success. While accomplishments are celebrated, setbacks are studied and used effectively to promote healthy growth. Transformational Leadership is structured, organized, and effective when it comes to guiding teams on how they can lean into individual strengths to make all the moving parts of a company come together as one.


Visionary Leadership

Another very effective leadership style for tech companies is Visionary Leadership. A visionary leader has goals in place and is hyper-focused on utilizing their team to meet these goals. It is leaders with this frame of mind that tend to see through the cracks and find alternative solutions that not everyone can see. It is also not uncommon for visionary leaders to see what is needed and provide an answer before a question has even been asked. Visionary Leadership revolves around grouping members of your team together to tackle different areas on the path to their goal, all of which center around the various strengths within the  team. Visionary leaders also leverage their own views of possibilities to create openings for new ideas and challenges from their team members.  Rather than saying “That won’t work,” they are more likely to ask, “How might we…?”  Traits of a visionary leader include strategic planning, risk-taking, innovative thinking, organization and being detailed oriented, and optimistic. When we think of the world “visionary,” one of the first images that comes to everyone’s mind is a person they hold deep respect and admiration for. Visionary Leadership within your organization gives employees someone to look up to and be inspired by.


Whether you identify as a Transformational or a Visionary Leader (or, frankly—neither)—it is imperative for you to create an environment of psychological safety in your teams in order for innovation and growth to occur.   A first step in determining the level of psychological safety in your teams is to ask team members a few simple questions:  1) Do you feel that you can make suggestions for improvements and that you will be heard?  2) Do you feel safe in disagreeing with the status quo in your organization? 3) Do you feel that you have a solid platform of support from your leaders when you challenge ideas or “sacred cows?”   If the responses to these questions leave you feeling a bit dubious about the levels of psychological safety in your organization, it is time to confront it.


Why Refinery is Best Suited to Assist Your Company

When asked why tech companies like to work with us, we often hear it’s because of our “edgy”, no-bullshit approach to finding underlying causes for dysfuction in teams. We are not afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions and challenge assumptions, or offer sometimes radical candor to help address issues. . We are, at our core, best known for our transformative work that is born out of a combination of academic research, best practices, behavioural psychology, and a clear connection to why this should matter for the organization.


We go far beyond where traditional development programs stop, which is based on Passive Learning approaches. This is why we boldly say that Refinery participants can take leadership concepts and immediately put them to work.