Key Points:

Some of you might remember a man who had the temerity to predict that the Silver Ferns would lose against the Aussies just before the final of the Netball World Cup. Jamie Ford, the director of the Foresight Institute, got a fair bit of TV coverage at the time.

After the sporting year we've had, a lot of people were looking for explanations and even the most devoted fans had a sinking feeling that the Kiwi team were not going to pull off a win against their slick Australian counterparts.

The institute is the Asia-Pacific regional provider of the Seligman test. This is a psychometric test measuring people's mental toughness, written by the motivational psychologist Dr Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.

The assessment looks at people's explanatory style, seeing how they explain setbacks to themselves, why things happen and how they pick themselves up afterwards.

"Sometimes you are quite hopeful, sometimes quite destructive," says Ford.

"The crux of Seligman's theory is that pessimism damages your motivation and your belief that you can overcome future diversity. Optimism, on the other hand, leads to success.

"It is proven that a pessimistic attitude affects academic progress and success in a working career."

The business coach has taken these Seligman techniques to the MBA programme at Massey University for the past year, running a mental toughness course.

"We wanted to ensure that MBA students could see their growth not only in knowledge but in qualities," says Patricia Fulcher, executive education manager at the MBA course, who has studied Seligman's research. "SASQ [Seligman attributional style questionnaire] results give them a first glimpse of themselves and where they can move to."

The Massey students take the Seligman questionnaire at the beginning of their MBA orientation weekend.

"If you think of setbacks as permanent, global and personal, you are a pessimist," says Ford. "Optimists on the other hand, think of setbacks as temporary, specific and external.

"An optimistic or pessimistic attitude forms early on in life - it's not genetic, it's learned."

The director has has been testing New Zealanders in business for 15 years and has looked at thousands of test results. His conclusion: "Pessimism is endemic in New Zealand because it's learned, embedded in our culture.".

The tall poppy syndrome is a symptom of a pessimistic way of explaining successes and failures.

"When awards are being handed out, Kiwis moan and groan, say they don't deserve it, whereas other nationalities will show their acclaim," says Ford.

A sign of pessimism is the culture of blame, which Ford believes exists here.

"The habit of blaming people for their emotions is okay for kids, but it's not appropriate for adults," he says.

When Ford gives groups a scenario where they are late for an important meeting, the optimistic and pessimistic will give a different explanation.

"They look at each other as if they're from different planets," says Ford.

The pessimistic culture is in the language, he says.

"A lot of people are shopping in the $2 shop for their thoughts. They ought to be shopping at Smith & Caughey."

He teaches his students to employ a "thought librarian". When they have negative thoughts, they stop and go off to their thought library for a more positive approach.

Ford is confident that people can change their explanatory style with some coaching.

You can never start too young. Next year, Seligman is going to be spending six months at Geelong Grammar, the prestigious school with a reputation for spawning Australia's future leaders.

The school has raised $16 million to establish a wellbeing centre and the academic and his team will be implementing a programme on positive psychology with the students.

Many New Zealand employers, meanwhile, are assessing their employees with the Seligman test. "It gives a competitive advantage for organisations to have a positive work force," says Ford.

Some will say they are going to have everybody tested and will only employ people who are at least average or above.

"Others say it's a tight market, we'll endeavour to take the best and get coaching for those whose score is not the greatest," says Ford.

The coach, who also teaches a short course on mental toughness at the University of Auckland business school, remembers a manager of an international distribution company who did very well on his Seligman test. His problem was motivating his staff.

He left the course saying: "Now I understand what is going on in their heads, what goes through their minds when they have a setback."

David Verschaffelt is a highly motivated Massey MBA student who has just completed the mental toughness course run by Ford. The 32-year-old, now managing The Distribution Centre, a logistics company, has been running businesses since the age of 20 and found to his surprise that he came out a pessimist in the Seligman test.

He was one of many. In his class of MBA students, about 80 per cent came out as pessimistic.

He thinks if a pessimist takes a knock, it stops them in their tracks whereas an optimist bounces back.

Verschaffelt is now taking private lessons with the institute to improve a fault he never knew he had.

He thinks it is already having an effect. With about 40 staff, he's trying to develop a positive company culture.

The course has helped him understand his staff's reactions to circumstances but they are something he won't necessarily tolerate. "If the staff are being negative, I will be tough on them, it's a real cop-out," he says.

Verschaffelt has been trying some different approaches in motivating his team.

"Rather than before I would have had an incentive programme in place, now I'm looking at team-based motivation," he says.

He will allow staff to knock off early as an incentive, for instance.

"You need to find out what pushes people's buttons. We have team barbecues and there are trips out of the office." He recently took the whole team fishing.

His boss, also an MBA, is supportive of his techniques.

Optimistic outlook

* The Seligman test measures how people explain events in their life.
* Optimists tend to believe they are the masters of their own fate and shrug off failure.
* Pessimists tend to blame themselves when things go wrong.
* Backers of the test say people who rate as optimistic tend to to be better performers at work, more persistent - and healthier.

* Gill South is a freelance business writer based in Auckland.