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Business relationships can be hard. One of the things that makes them challenging is the balancing act of interdependency, trust and stress.

If this post helps just one person make a better partnership decision. If it helps justone person choose the right investor or attorney. If it helps just one person then something’s gone horribly wrong because I have like 8,000 followers. I want a ton of people to see this.

This post is about avoiding relationships that are doomed to fail, not fixing relationships. The quicker you spot a doomed business partnership the less time you’ll waste.

Avoiding impaired monkeys

One of the most important factors to consider in a new business relationships is how a person acts under stress. Fortunately there’s a huge body of research on this topic.

The seminal work was done in the 1950’s by developmental psychologist Harry Harlow. Harlow paired baby Rhesus monkeys with either a soft, plush mother robot or a hard wire mother robot. Both mothers delivered milk to the babies.

What Harlow found is that monkeys with “hard mothers” failed to learn how to “self soothe” — meaning they couldn’t regulate their emotions when stressed. When these monkeys got stressed they acted hostilely, withdrew and behaved irrationally. Essentially they overheated and couldn’t calm themselves in order to work through the stress.

On the other hand the monkeys with “soft mothers” didn’t flee when stressed. They learned to regulate their emotional response to stress and calmly worked through difficult situations.

The results were consistent and reproduced by others.

It’s all about the safe harbor and comfort the baby monkey received from the parent at a critical age.

Humans are the same. If we experience warm, consistent, and supportive parenting during ages 1-5 we are more likely to engage in stressful situations. If not, we’re prone to be anxious, withdraw, or act hostilely in stressful situations.

Of course there are many other reasons why people struggle in relationships but this one is hard-wired, nearly impossible to fix, and highly predictive of future behavior.

Great partners fight for their relationships. They don’t flee.

How to avoid impaired monkeys

It’s pretty easy to observe people that panic, withdraw or act hostilely in stressful situations.

Think about the coach that lashes out at players when her team is losing. Or the guy at work that’s easily overwhelmed and stops communicating. Or the collaborator that withdraws whenever her ideas are challenged.

But how do you spot these things when people aren’t stressed? A new attorney or investor probably won’t overheat during your first lunch meeting (unless the server drops water in their lap or gets their order wrong). 

One way to spot an impaired monkey is just to get to know them better. Work with them on a trial basis. Catch them at their worst. How do they act when the chips are down?

Another way to spot an impaired monkey is to do your homework. Ask others how the person acts under stress. Do they have a track record of busted relationships and if so, why did the relationships fail?

A third way to spot an impaired monkey is to ask them whether they think good relationships should “just work” or “require lots of work”. Hint: all good relationships require work.

Bottom line: Spotting impaired monkeys and avoiding them can save you lots of time and heartache.

And don’t try to fix an impaired monkey. It just wastes your time and usually annoys the monkey.

Paul M. Allen is a Leader with Bizdom, founder of Tribe of Angels, and an entrepreneur and early stage business advisor and investor. Bizdom is a startup accelerator that trains, mentors and funds entrepreneurs to launch innovative startups in Detroit and Cleveland. During his career Paul has helped companies including Intel, Adobe and Motorola to develop and launch new products has helped startups raise in excess of $100M in angel and venture capital. Prior roles have included senior positions within the gaming, edtech, payments, design, sports, and healthcare sectors. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from UCLA. Follow Paul on Twitter @iampaulallen