Emotional Intelligence and the Reality Distortion Field

One of my coaching clients who is a consultant to one of Australia’s largest independent IT companies sent me an email about how it was looking at the Reality Distortion Field (RDF) to improve its performance in project delivery.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term Wikipedia defines Reality Distortion Field as a term first used by Bud Tribble at Apple Computer in 1981, to describe company co-founder Steve Jobs’s charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Macintosh project.  Tribble said that the term came from Star Trek.  In the Menagerie episode, it was used to describe how the aliens created their own new world through mental force.  According to Tribble, “In [Jobs’s] presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules.”

The Reality Distortion Field was said by Andy Hertzfeld to be Steve Jobs’s ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence. It was said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and made them believe that the task at hand was possible.  The positive is that it demonstrates how Steve Jobs bent reality in such a way that a difficult or impossible task was made to appear possible, or even easy. The primary objective of this technique was to inspire employees and motivate them to tackle challenging situations in pursuit of an objective or goal. Although all good managers aim to inspire their teams in some regard, RDF implies Jobs’ legendary charisma, which many believe helped Apple achieve results that otherwise would not have been possible. In this way, Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field was a huge leadership attribute.

The weakness of the Reality Distortion Field was Steve Jobs’ darker side. Many considered him so driven that he would lie, pester, cheat or do whatever it took to succeed. In this light, a cynic would point to RDF as Jobs’ ability to manipulate people to do what he wanted.  Jobs would also use the Reality Distortion Field to appropriate other’s ideas as his own, sometimes proposing an idea to its originator after dismissing it the week before.

The term has extended in industry to other managers and leaders who try to convince their employees to become passionately committed to projects without regard to the overall product or to competitive forces in the market. It also has been used with regard to hype for products that are not necessarily connected with any one person.  Bill Clinton’s charisma has been called a reality distortion field.  The term has been associated with Donald Trump’s approach to running his 2016 campaign for United States President.  The Financial Times has used the term when describing Elon Musk.

When I read the above I think which of the seven 7MTF/Humm factors would allow a person to generate a Reality Distortion Field.  I think there are two.  First of course is the GoGetter/Hustler.  This is a dominant factor in the temperament of Jobs, Clinton, Trump and Musk.  Their ability to change how they view reality defies belief.

However there is another factor that distorts reality which is the Artist component.  The Artist is driven by the desire to create and is stubbornly persistent in his or her beliefs.  George Bernard Shaw famously said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  This is the credo of the Artist.  Of course. Jobs also had a dominant Artist in his temperament which is why he was particularly able to create a RDF.

What is a manager or leader to do if his or her Hustler and Artist components are weak.  Managers with a low H or A will find it difficult if not impossible to create an RDF.

One tactic is to follow those used by Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves Jr. who oversaw the construction of the Pentagon and directed the Manhattan Project, a top-secret research project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II.  When he arrived at Los Alamos Groves quickly realised the project was stalled with three insurmountable problems.  He divided the workforce into three groups.  He gave one problem to each group and told them they had to solve it and to also assume the other two problems were already solved.  Solutions to all three problems were found and the atomic bomb was built.  This technique gives new meaning to the phrase “divide and conquer”.

This article was first published on 26 June 2018 on LinkedIn




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Chris Golis - Author


"Put in a sales perspective, I loved your presentation! I got a lot from what you talked about and I will read your book."

Peter Morris, Executive Officer, Lomax Financial Group

Your presentation on 'Lifting your Level of Emotional Intelligence" to 10 CEOs scored an average 8.9 out of 10 for the topic and 8.5 for the presentation which is great. A couple of the attendees gave you a 10 out of 10, and the comments were:

- Great presentation. Very informative.

- Excellent presentation.

- made me think.

Christi Spring CEO Institute. - web www.ceo.com.au.